The Obituarist (originally published January 14, 2009)

I’ve been a faithful reader of obituaries my entire life. I’m not obsessed or anything. It’s not the first section of the paper I turn to but I don’t skip them either.

The funny thing is how frequently I actually do learn through reading an obituary in the Press-Enterprise or The Californian that someone familiar to me has died.

I have always been this way. The summer before college I worked temp at Pacific Bank and Trust on the Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz. Our trust clients were all ancient and someone was always dying. It seemed like every other day I’d read that so-and-so died, services to be held at Star of the Sea or no services or Neptune Society cremation with services at sea, or services to be announced.

The middle aged women who were my coworkers put in stop-orders for the AARP and Reader’s Digest and Field & Stream magazines and updates to the pension statements (we received all the mail including magazines and catalogues for many of our clients and I found it fascinating) and they would laugh at how odd I was but I thought: Really aren’t you the one who is odd to not read the obits?

I’ve had former criminal defendant clients die. Let’s face it; they live close to the edge. The worst was our colleague, David*, whose client later committed suicide and before he did it, filmed a video assigning blame to various people** and mailed it timed to arrive one day after his death.

I had a very young client die. He was 19. At the time I represented him, he was 18. I don’t remember what he did, which is unusual, since normally I remember all the random details like who drank Modelo beer or who shoplifted a Martin Lawrence video. I do remember his crime wasn’t that bad and we were dickering over fines and charges. The boy was hellbent on going into the army right after graduation and having even a misdemeanor on his record was causing problems.

Upon investigation it turned out the boy lived with his overbearing, possibly mentally ill father. The guy really was a tyrant. He had a local reputation around the small Corona courthouse as the guy who wouldn’t send his pit bulls, who had attacked someone, to pit bull rescue.

The boy didn’t get into the army. Then he tried to get into the national guard, and for awhile it looked like he might, since their standards are a lot lower than the army’s, but finally they said no too. Then he killed himself.

The DA was really, really upset. This DA had a heart. Once I had a heartrending case of an abused Vietnamese woman who spoke not a word of English whose abusive alcoholic husband attacked her, and the woman fought back with a rake she grabbed off the back of a gardening truck that was parked on the street outside their house. The deputies didn’t speak Vietnamese and since the man’s wounds looked a lot worse, since he had rake marks across his face, they arrested her. He then drove somewhere stone drunk on the freeway, passed out, hit the median, and died. They told her via televised arraignment and due to court scheduling snafus she missed his funeral. The Vietnamese interpreters, all women, loved this lady. She cried and cried.

I finally got the DA to drop all charges against her by doing something they tell you in public defender school to never (never!) do: allowing the defendant to talk directly to the DA. She told him: “I said to my husband, just go to sleep. You can get drunk some more when you wake up.” She said that, he said, “Yup, I believe he was an alcoholic wife beater and she is innocent,” and she was free.

So anyway, this particular DA was also on the case of the boy who wasn’t allowed to go into the national guard. He ran from the room out into the parking lot when he heard of the suicide. “Puking,” the deputy told me later.

I just read the other day of another client who died. No cause of death was listed and I’m not exaggerating when I say, it really could have been just about anything.

This guy was one of the most memorable addicts I’ve ever represented in drug court (“dope court.”) He was in on meth charges, which isn’t unusual in Riverside, but what was notable was his weight. He was the size of the guys you see on Biggest Loser. Meth addicts are always skeletally skinny so something serious was going on for this guy to be this big and this addicted.

He broke the heart of the diversion program administrator and the probation officer who manned drug court. There was no dispute over these very strange facts. The day of his arrest he had been caring for his wife, who was dying of breast cancer. She’d been a meth addict. He’d been clean for several years but then went back to it when she was dying. He was caring for her at home. She died at home in bed and afterward he dressed her in a clean nightgown and did her hair for her before the ambulance arrived so she wouldn’t be embarrassed. Then he did meth in his garage, while leaving the garage door partially ajar, and the police, executing a warrant for the wrong house, walked in right as he snorted it.

He sat in court each and every time and cried and cried. In jail, he ate and ate. All he did the first few times I met him was cry. He said this crying was uncharacteristic and he didn’t know why but he just couldn’t stop.

It’s been seven or eight years so who knows why but he’s dead. I read his obit while sitting in the sauna. I’d drink my water, look at the clock, read my paper, drink some more water, read some paper, look at the clock. I didn’t cry but I felt like it. Maybe the sauna dried up all my tears.

* David shall forever remain in my memory the guy who STOLE MY DESK based on one day of seniority. A bunch of public defenders quit, as frequently happens – it goes in ebbs and flows but never does just one person randomly quit – and several of us were choosing new offices. I fell in love with mine and Dave fell in love with his, but he liked my desk better. He went to our boss and actually received permission – based on our hire dates being identical but his actual work start date being one day before mine – to have one of the investigators, Carlos, dismantle the desk from my office and reassemble it in Dave’s office.

(He also is the guy who passed around pictures of his colonoscopy like snaps from a Hawaiian vacation, AND hid three extremely graphic head-emerging-from-vagina shots amid a bunch of otherwise bland family pics and showed them around the courthouse without warning people first. Or his wife.)

** Not David. We don’t know why David got a video.


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