“The trick in life is not in getting what you wantfrom the movie “Love Affair”
but in wanting what you get after you get it.”
She was referred by a neighbor. She had some minor issues with diabetes and high blood pressure, and she did not like her internist. She lived in a lower middle-class neighborhood with her husband of many years. The children were gone. As a couple they did not do much for enjoyment. She did not say much or complain much. One of the millions of women who welcomed their husbands and boyfriends back from the Second World War and were only too happy to settle in their suburban neighborhoods to make a peaceful life for themselves.
She was no taller than five feet. White hair; moderately obese; a reddish tinge to her cheeks. I would not say unkempt. It was obvious that she had lost interest in her appearance, as if it no longer mattered to her. She was polite, but not overly friendly, or funny. I was dealing with a cautious person who had not been exposed much to what happened six blocks from her house.
She came to see me for several years. Always no complaints; always mildly embarrassed because she did not follow her diet or take her medicine on schedule. After a while she developed cool feet, and the beginning of the painful and annoying neuropathy that would later haunt her. She was frustrated at the way her health was dealing with her, and even more so at her inability to control her behavior.
One day she asked to be seen as an urgent appointment. Her husband had died suddenly, and she felt anxious. She was not sleeping well, and she had developed a sore in her foot.
She had an early ulcer, probably a result of uncontrolled diabetes and the vascular issues that kill and cripple so many of the people who suffer from it. After her foot was cleaned and dressed, I asked her about her husband. Where he had worked, what kind of relationship they had, did she have any plans…
“I don’t know. Right now, I’m so angry with him!”
Tell me about it.
The conversation was well worth the half hour that it took me to listen. She knew where her husband worked, but she had no idea of what he did or how much money he made. He kept custody of the checkbook. She received grocery money every week. If there was ever a special occasion, he decided on the budget for whatever celebration was held. There was never any money for nicer clothes, or vacations, or even a small dinner out. This had gone on for the forty years that they were married.
The surprising thing: while this went on, she was OK with her life. She figured that there was no money, that her job was to keep the house in good shape and cook, and that she should not harass her hard-working man. He was doing all that he could.
Once he died, she had to look for the checkbook, and for all the legal papers that she would need. She opened one of his drawers, then the next, then in a panic she began to search in every nook and cranny that she could find in her tiny home.
The checking account held $20,000. There was twice that amount in a savings book that she found in the third drawer that she searched. There were stock certificates, and savings bonds, and several stashes of plain cash. A few gold coins were found inside an old and dusty bag. All in all, the house held over $100,000 in one liquid form or another. That she could find. A lot of money in those days, particularly in the neighborhood that she lived in.
“You know the worst part?” she said as she banged on my desk. “Not that we never went anywhere. Not that I always felt that we were one step away from ruin. The ridiculous thing is that now I’m worried that there may be a lot more that I don’t know about.”
A good possibility indeed. She began to cry. I waited and listened.
“A dining room set. I always wanted a dining room set. More than anything; I was so in love with one that I saw at the furniture store!”
Now there was uncontrolled sobbing.
“He knew I wanted this so bad! Why did he say no? Why did he not listen?”
I kept quiet for a while.
This is almost never about the money. Some people just want that kind of control, for whatever reason. Maybe a childhood of hunger; maybe they had trouble finding a job at some point; maybe that’s the way his father was…”
“I don’t know what to do now. I am too old to enjoy the money; now my kids will get to spend it. Look at my sore foot! My feet hurt all the time. I cannot possibly travel. I don’t even want the dining room set anymore!”
She dried her eyes and stood up. I could not think of anything to say to reassure her.
Her predictions were right. A furious sequence of serious vascular events followed in short order. She had both feet amputated, then a heart attack, then her kidneys shut down. She died within a year. Without buying the dining room set. Some of the money went to pay for hospital bills. Her children, as she predicted, got to spend the rest. She did not find any additional funds hidden in the house. I knew that there was a good chance that he had stashed funds elsewhere. I did not have the heart to speculate about this possibility in her presence.
Enjoy it now. A difficult subject to discuss with any wisdom. Certainly, there are people who deprive themselves, and never seem to enjoy the fruits of their labor. I have always felt that counting their money is their joy, and I am not about to deny them this happiness.
Others take the enjoy it now philosophy too far. They live as if they expect to die soon after their latest trip or large purchase. They max out credit cards, cheat on their partners (both business and spouses) and avoid payment any way that they can. They end up living on social security, and often complain of how unfair old age has been to them. How rotten a life they had.
These two different sets of humans have one thing in common: they have not found peace in their soul. They experience no joy in giving or helping out. There is little love in their existence.
It was not the dining room set that she missed out on. She lacked a solid relationship based on trust and caring. When she found the hidden money, she was able to confirm what she may have suspected for all her years of marriage: that they were not close. She did not mourn him. Had she died first he would have kept hoarding cash, which is easier to love than people, and places less demands on our soul.
Enjoy it now. Your spouse; your friends; your job. Your life. The fact that you can take a painless deep breath. The sunshine; the winning baseball team… Whatever does not need to be purchased.
Tomorrow may never come. Start now.