A Tribe Comes Together

Local writers mobilize to help a dying friend's dream become reality

Lynne Weinberg slept peacefully in her den, surrounded by her books and two filing cabinets filled with notes and critiques.

She lay on a hospital bed that had been moved in days before. A living-room chair had been placed close by so her caregiver and friends could take turns sitting with her.

The minute hand on the clock above the room's door struck 12:10 p.m. on June 17, 2009, when Weinberg took her final breath. At that same moment, a few miles across town, her life's dream was struggling to become a reality.

In May 2007, three days before she won the Martindale Literary Prize, Pima Community College's literary prize for short stories, Weinberg found out about her cancer. Above all else, she was disappointed. She thought she would have a longer life. Both of her parents lived into their 90s.

"I still have work to do," she told her writing group; she had a book to finish.

Weinberg was a juried writer on the Arizona Commission on the Arts roster for more than a decade. She taught writing at Pima Community College and the UA's extended university, among other places.

She was an accomplished freelance writer, but never produced her own book. It was her career goal to have a book published, and she had reached for it during the 25 years she wrote. When she found out about her cancer, she had been busy editing her short stories with her writing group to get them ready for publication.

Two years after her diagnosis, the last round of chemo didn't work. The cancer was winning.

Weinberg's decline was swift. She was unable to go to writing classes. She was unable to walk her dog. She was unable to work in her garden and yard, where she had grown tomatoes and hosted parties.

Her writing friends knew Weinberg was losing her battle, but they didn't want her words and stories to leave with her. They wanted to help her finish her dream.

Meg Files, the English and journalism department chair at Pima Community College West, took the reins and brought in Leila Joiner from Pennywyse Press. Friends recommended Dwight Metzger, a local printer who could turn around the project in record time.

"We knew we had to finish her book for her. We all knew it was something that mattered to her," said Rita Magdaleno, a local poet and long-time writing friend of Weinberg.

Three weeks before her death, a few of those friends met with Weinberg at her home, a common gathering place. Weinberg was ready to relinquish control of her project. It wasn't the way she imagined her book being published, but she knew if it was going to happen, she needed to let them help. They knew Weinberg's vision for her book.

Two of the short stories had already been published in magazines, and one had won awards. Some were close to being finished. A few others were still rough, and one was in its infancy.

The race was on.

Weinberg suggested various area writers who could help, and handed out critiques and notes for each story. Barbara Kingsolver read the almost-finished work and turned around a poignant introduction in less than 24 hours. (Full disclosure: One of the writers who helped was Marge Pellegrino, my mother.)

Kit McIlroy, who had met Weinberg when he taught a short-story writing class in the '80s through the Tucson-Pima Public Library, completed a story.

"I tried to write it being true to the elements in the story, taking her suggestions and writing it true to spirit," McIlroy said.

Other colleagues delivered, coordinated and proofed.

"When Lynne told me she was getting help from her writing friends, I got in line," Magdaleno said. She took an early draft of a story Weinberg wrote and turned it into a poem called "Epi at the Window," Weinberg's title of the story.

"I scooped off the extra language in the words. All I did was extract the poem. It was already there," Magdaleno said.

The group made Weinberg's stories their top priority, racing to finish the book before her death.

"She was the generator. She gave us energy," Magdaleno said.

The day the book went to press was the day Weinberg, 64, passed away. However, Weinberg began to live through her book. Weinberg had known there would be a dog on the cover. She had dictated the order of the stories. She knew that people would read the stories she'd crafted. She knew the proceeds would go to the Humane Society, and for the writers involved in the project, that was enough.

Three days later, hundreds of friends and family gathered at the Tucson Jewish Community Center to celebrate Weinberg's life. On a table next to a bouquet of fresh flowers sat a stack of new books, Walkers and Other Tribes, by Lynne Weinberg.

"Lynne's biggest dream was to have her book published," said her adopted daughter Emmy as she held back tears. "This shows her amazing network of friends, and that's really Lynne's spirit. She would do the same for any of those people."

Magdaleno said she admired Weinberg's writing.

"In her stories, I feel her love of community, family and friends. I was very moved to hold Lynne's book in my hands and to realize that through her stories, Lynne's voice will continue," she said.

McIlroy said he was honored to help.

"It was an absolute unique experience, and I was grateful for it. I was able to hold my pain for loss at bay. When I was finished writing, I missed it. All I was left with was knowing that she was leaving," he said.

The Walkers and Other Tribes launch party and celebration of Lynne Weinberg's life will be held at 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 22, at the Historic YWCA, 300 E. University Blvd., in the courtyard. The event is free and open to the public. Walkers and Other Tribes will be available for purchase, and writers who helped Weinberg complete her book will speak.

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