Where our heart is set, there our impediment liesEpictetus, Discourses, 4.4.1
A friend today informed me of his grand plan to sell one of his last remaining investment properties so that he and his Mrs can pare down his daughter’s home loan and “in no time, she will be debt free,” he said proudly.
“You know, we could comfortably live off her instalment payments,” he said, assuming she would return her parents’ love with filial piety and monthly repayments.
“What do you think about that?” I asked the old man when he popped over this afternoon.
“It is an assumption that most of us make,” he replied.
He looked unsure of whether to elaborate further. I could tell from the way he pulled at his hair absent-mindedly. His train of thought was interspersed with frantic scratching of his bum. How indecent. Just because we are old friends does not excuse the crudity of his body language.
“Your friend should remember Epictetus’ warning. Our greed, desires and ambitions make us vulnerable. Expectations of windfall gains set us up for disappointments,” the old man said.
“Not only that, it sets us up to disappoint others too!” he added.
“Surely you are not saying my friend’s daughter will disappoint him?” I scowled as I spoke.
“I’m not saying that!” he protested and fidgeted his bum on the cane chair to relieve the itch that won’t go away.
“I’m not that unkind. I don’t know her,” he said; his voice calm and soft again.
I gave him full marks for that. The best way to defeat anger and combat one’s temper is delay. He delayed his response sufficiently to expunge any toxic sentiments in his mood and calmed his wayward behaviour enough before explaining himself. There was simply no need to adopt the modus operandi that attack is the best form of defence with me. He knows me well enough to know that he can always say something without being shredded to bits by vitriolic reactions from me, so I was pleasantly surprised that he paused and gave a measured reply. It is true. He doesn’t know her. She could very well be a well brought-up girl who will care for her ageing parents without complaints.
“But, there are degrees of ageing,” he said.
I know what he meant by that. I have seen his mother aged over the years. At first, gracefully for a long period of time, and gradually her wrinkles became more discernible followed by a slow gait but then suddenly, the decline in her physical and mental faculties became so obvious that her carers grasp for sanity to help them cope. These days the matriarch can’t even be happy with her coffee.
“You see what I mean? If you can’t be happy with your coffee, what can you be happy with?” he asked.
When the old man was a lot younger, he assumed it would be a piece of cake to take care of his ageing parents when they needed home care assistance. But, in truth, he was as useless as an ashtray on a motorbike. His dad was still as strong as a Mallee bull but when he broke his hip from a fall, he was too heavy for anyone to help at home. They sent him to a nursing home instead. He was a silly duffer who didn’t consider that ageing robs us of everything, slowly. The early phase of retirement was sweet, even with the minor strokes that his dad suffered. The slurring of speech and paralysis on one side of his body was brief, but the warnings were not ignored. His dad went on a 180 degree turn and overnight, he spurned the things he loved, ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ (brandy) and ciggies (cigarettes). Aussie men have funny code names for the things they enjoy but don’t want their spouses to know. Having a Gunga Din and doing a King Lear with Casablanca isn’t attending a play or a musical. He would be at the pub drinking gin and beer with a wanker. They even sound quite cultured when they tell you they are pensioners enjoying their piano. Don’t fall for it, a pensioner’s piano is a poker machine.
Slowly but surely, his dad’s physical condition declined and in his late eighties, diabetes robbed him of his left leg when gangrene set in beneath fresh bandages that the nursing home staff changed daily. At 91, he had pneumonia and passed away but not without being bed-bound for two years – the most dreaded fear he had. “Find a way to kill me if that happened to me,” he said to his son a couple of years earlier. Not without the sense of worthlessness when he could not even unbutton his shirt. Not without the loss of dignity that the physical inability to wipe his own bum meant. Not without the discomfort of losing the ability to swallow water during his final days. Not without the frustration from the disbelief in what he was saying about the noise coming from upstairs during the wee hours of the night. “There’s no upstairs here, Pa,” the old man repeated many times but they found out on the night their father died that in fact, there was a dis-used upstairs in that old nursing home run by the Greek Orthodox Church.
As he got older, people believed him less.
The old man’s mother is getting close to her centenary year of her birth. It is of course a day by day proposition when one gets to that age. ”Tomorrow may never come’ is a lot truer for her than for me,” I said. ‘The present is a present’ rings louder and clearer the older we get. Her dementia, although no longer a secret, still bugs some of her children. Everyone has been equipped with Dr Google’s notes about the stages of dementia and therefore should be adequately prepared mentally and emotionally to tackle the effects of her ravaged brain. She doesn’t play politics and she doesn’t know how to inhibit her prejudices anymore. Spending a day with her can feel as slow as a wet week. There is absolutely not a lot of activity she can engage in. Walking in the garden, admiring the roses, cuddling the chooks, feeding the goldfish are now all beyond her. The old man was aghast when a sibling questioned him why he was supporting their mother as she walked up the garden path to her front door.
“Let her be independent,” she said.
“I still let her make her own breakfast.”
“You don’t want her to feel worthless,” she advised.
You’re as thick as two planks of wood!
The old man screamed in his mind.
“Somehow, she can’t register in her thick skull that Ma has had too many falls already,” he confided to me.
Landing badly will mean the end of her.
“This sister of mine – she is as silly as drinking tea with her fork,” the old man said.
Her IQ is the size of her shoe. He muttered under his breath.
“Pa didn’t have a succession plan, so Ma won’t have one either,” he answered, having read my mind.
His father had a robust business and a share of a company that owned rubber plantations in West Malaysia. None of his children were interested in taking over the reins of the family business. So, a succession plan was not required; parts of the business were given away, other parts simply ended quietly. The shares in the rubber plantations were sold off cheaply.
“I never thought to ask him how he felt,” the old man said.
Disappointment, I bet, to have forgone all that financial reward that he would have dreamt of enjoying during his retirement. The golden nest egg that the vast acreages of land from the rubber estates represented was not his to behold since they were sold many years later at premium prices to developers.
We learn more from our failures than from our successes. But when it comes to our succession plans, there is no room for error. There is no second chance should we get it wrong. The old man’s eldest son had asked him a few times to watch the miniseries ‘Succession’.
“It’s interesting, Pa,” the son said. “It will make you think.”
He proved to be prescient. The old man has not stopped thinking about it all week.
Anyone considering retirement should watch it, if they have not been observing the British royal family’s stories. Even with them, it can get awry despite the clear delineation of duties and well established rules of succession – the pecking order to the throne is determined by progeny, gender, legitimacy and religion.
“It is kind of numbing to think that kids could undermine their parents’ intentions about who to pass their wealth to or who should control their business when they retire,” he said.
The old man holds the reins to his business tightly, small it may be, for that is all he has left. Contrary to popular advice, he had already given away the majority of his life savings to his children many years ago.
“You’re foolish,” his mother had said. She had all her marbles intact then.
“But, I believed it was the right time to do so, when they still needed my help,” the old man said to me.
What’s the point of giving them later in life when they no longer need your help?
I remained quiet and encouraged him to talk.
“Here, have some water. Your lips are as dry as a dead dingo’s donger,” I said.
He winced as he took a sip. The ice water stung his parched lips. His dog barked softly at him, asking that he hurry up and kick the partly chewed tennis ball back to him.
“Your dog is so demanding,” I said.
“He’s not ordering me. He’s asking nicely.”
“Murray thinks he is human,” The Mrs said the previous night, as he slept side by side with her husband on the mattress by their bed.
“No, he is better,” the old man replied.
Murray is smart too. He knows how to please the old man. Last night, the old couple came home late after a night out with some friends. Any time after ten at night is considered late for them. That’s what ageing means, by the way. The welcome Murray gave the old man would have melted any heart made of iron. It was so enthusiastic that he lost control of his bladder.
“You know it’s true passion when a male loses control of his dong,” the old man said.
“All we have left is what you see,” the old man finally continued.
“So, I must have a succession plan for my business.”
“Unless history repeats, and none of your children want anything to do with running your business,” I advised.
“Then, I’ll just give it all to my dog,” he said.
The old man realises he doesn’t need a succession plan for his three sons. There isn’t a lot left for him to pass on to them – maybe their old house, some fake antiques, a nice painting or two he had collected along his journeys and his pet fish. The coins in his pocket won’t amount to much, he confided.
“But, what I can leave behind is this one final advice to them. Find your ikigai – the reason you want to get up in the morning. It will give you a purpose to not just live but thrive. Your outlook on life will change – you will know what is important to you and what is folly. You will be happier, more collected, wiser, and live healthier and longer.
“Now that I am about to retire, I will change my ikigai and find new reasons to wake up in the morning,” he said with a hint of a resigned breath.
“Did you just sigh?” I asked.
He looked blankly into the distance, petting his dog’s head absent-mindedly.
Sigh. Why is my retirement as slow as the Second Coming?