Here’s my grand-dad, on the beach in Ecuador. Next to him are two seals, lolling in the warm sand. He was in Ecuador for an investment seminar, which he quickly determined to be a scam intended to lure gullible old people. He ditched the seminar and made the trip a vacation instead. When this picture was taken, Paul was 93 years old, and had taken hang-gliding lessons earlier the same day.
In the last several years of his life, he concentrated alternately on investments and adventures. Quito, Galapagos, Copenhagen, Athens. He liked to tell us that he hadn’t started saving for retirement until he was 80, and that may have even been true. What we know is that when my grandmother died, at 89, they’d been married for almost 70 years, and had been living a quiet, comfortable middle-class retirement. He was briefly immobilized — what to do now? Where to go? How to start over at 90?
This is the very brief story of the end of his life. He made a couple of plans: what to do in case of severe ill health and pending institutionalization (something involving car exhaust and the garage), what to do to keep himself busy and productive, what to do to protect himself from age-related poverty. Fortunately, he gave the bulk of his energy to keeping himself busy and building a nice last minute nest egg.
He bought a shiny new computer, taught himself to use it, and got on-line. He started researching foreign investments, and places he’d always meant to visit. He took a look at on-line sex sites (beware of what you might find on your old grand-dad’s favorites!). He joined a spanish-language list-serve, brushed up on his Spanish, started dating a nice lady named Lu, and flirted on-line with a half-dozen others. He walked a mile every day, and had a vitamin regimen specially blended for him by a local health-food guy. He bought plane tickets and went places and did things.
He talked to people, a lot of people, and determined that there was more than one way to look at the world. He made up with me (you people) and conceded that my liberal outlook on life might not be utterly without merit. He argued and laughed and butted heads with my beautiful wife. His world expanded mightily in those last few years. As he started winding down, he made my brother co-owner (executor? co-investor? something like that) of his financial assets and kept on growing them. He gave directions to brother and me to look after my mom, who had financial struggles complicated by my dad’s long illness and bad financial judgment.
He was in Athens when the World Trade Center went down. He came home, sold his house, moved closer to my mom, and died shortly thereafter. His investments have sat quietly on the sidelines since then, where they are now ready to start another new adventure.
Now I am a big advocate of the social contract, and believe strongly that it is our responsibility as a culture to look after our more vulnerable citizens. My grand-dad was a Reagan republican (I forgive him, but not Reagan), who believed it was every man for himself. Up by your bootstraps. I got mine; you’re poor or sick or disabled, that’s your tough luck. This is a remarkably selfish economic perspective that is dismantling the middle class in the U.S. and is painful and frightening to many of us, as we watch our financial security disappearing in front of us, a receding mirage. We have no safety net in this country at this time, we who are not rich.
I find it interesting that his spirit of rugged financial independence did not extend to refusing any of the entitlements created for his generation in more compassionate times. He collected social security for 30 years, a pension from his 20 years at the U.S. post office for 55 years (yes, I said 55).
By comparison, my mom’s financial security was wiped out by long years of caring for my dad, and now that she is sick, there’s nothing there for her, except to lose the little she has left and move into a shared room in a substandard nursing home without her dogs or her dignity.
In the absence of Paul’s last-minute investments, we would just be standing by watching it happen. What started as a parachute that launched an old man out of his grief and back into the world, has become a safety net that will help us to catch her as she falls. I am grateful for it, but angry too, that without it she would have so few and such unkind options.
And on that cheerful note, I will say goodnight. This is an adventure too, of a sort.