What follows is a personal post, but I believe it’s relevant to investing. I won’t be discussing underpriced stocks or earning more money. Instead I’ll share something that for me puts the business of personal finance into perspective. Call it an end of year message.
I’m visiting my parents. In the next room, my gentle and intelligent father is asking my mother when he’ll have to leave the house again. It’s the third time he has asked in the past half hour. I can’t make out all the words, because he is slurring them.
He’s confused and agitated. Soon he’ll ask my mum – his wife – to take him to the bathroom. He goes every 45 minutes, sometimes messily. I wonder if they’d ever thought of such things when they met 40 years ago.
Dad wooed my mother one summer by the beach. He took his pasty, portly frame to the seaside every weekend, talked about surfing, and hid that he couldn’t swim. Mum was a church-goer who’d never had a drink. And now here they are, old and still together even as they fall apart.
I could not be more proud of him and her, nor more grateful that he’s still around to frustrate us and make us smile. In two days he’ll go back into the hospital for further treatment, but if he keeps getting better then he could eventually come home for good. Or at least for as long he gets.
Well, how did we get here?
Three months ago I left London in a hurry on a weekday afternoon. I’d bought the Financial Times to take my mind off what I’d heard an hour before: my father had suffered a massive cardiac arrest. He was in an ambulance. My mother was in shock, having initially mistaken dad’s heart attack for one of his practical jokes.
(She laughed with him even as he spluttered in the chair and pulled faces. Being his son, despite everything I can’t help but smile at that. I think it speaks of a life well-lived.)
Dad was given CPR by a neighbour whose arthritis meant he had to fall in agony to his knees to pound my dad’s chest. My mother wasn’t sure if dad was still alive, or even where the ambulance had taken him.
On the train I barely glanced at the newspaper, and I still can’t really believe what it said. Lehman Brothers was gone and stock markets were in free fall. These were historic times. This could be a new 1929, geared up for the globalised generation.
My mother initially mistook dad’s heart attack for a practical joke
I’d expected the economy to blow up for years; not the death of investment banks – like the bankers themselves I’d assumed they were smarter than that – but an end to the boom times, especially in property. Now it was unwinding in spectacular fashion, and my mind and heart was elsewhere.
I spent the train journey gathering the family together, making mobile phone calls to the people my mother couldn’t reach (which was nearly everyone, since she had probably used her mobile phone twice in her life. Dad’s phone was found to be broken, and we realized later it had been blasted to uselessness by the emergency defibrillator). Like a true Brit, I’d flushed with embarrassment when I turned in the space between the carriages where I was making the calls to discover a dozen disembarking commuters looking at their toes and avoiding my eyes as a mark of mute respect at what they’d heard.
That shocking Financial Times lay unread on my seat – an appropriate addition to a suddenly crazy time that overnight changed how I saw my world.
In the long run, we’re all dead
I’d expected my dad to decline for even longer than I’d been skeptical of the global property boom.
Seven or eight years ago dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer, at less than 60 years old. When I heard I was disbelieving at first, like most adult children of thoroughly loving parents when they’re reminded they’ll one day live in a world without them. But one of the best investments I ever made was to then bury an unspoken competitiveness that had marred my relationship with my father in my self-obsessed twenties, and to get to know him anew.
I traveled down from London much more often. We built a birdhouse together. He taught me to hammer and saw again; this time I listened, watched and learned, and for his part he let me make mistakes and even offered the odd word of undeserved praise. We both agreed it was a shame we hadn’t managed to reach this understanding when I was a child, no longer caring why we hadn’t.
Dad responded to the cancer battle both positively (the thing receded) and badly (the various side-effects of the cancer treatment can challenge a man). Meanwhile we mended fences, poured foundations for garden furniture, and memorably salvaged a greenhouse at midnight in a cold, wet British winter in a gale. Hands frozen and completely ineffectual, we were eventually laughing like mad seamen as the wind tugged at the skeleton of plastic and aluminum. I held a torch in my teeth, dad stuffed one in his shirt. It pointed up so his face glowed like some jolly demon. We could have been eight-years old.
Dad tried to retire early and had to wait. I was quietly furious at his lack of options, and started Monevator with a post about a nameless relative’s pension plight. I didn’t say then that it was my father because I didn’t think he’d like to read about himself as requiring sympathy, pity or even anger. Now I don’t believe he’ll ever read my site.
The sensation of cliché doesn’t last once you arrive at an intensive care bed. It’s suddenly very real.
He has made huge strides, though. When I arrived from London that first night, I went from my anxious relatives in the waiting room to dad’s bed in the intensive care ward like a finger running down a checklist of clichés from soap operas. It all seemed too familiar, like how the first time you visit New York you feel like you’ve lived there before.
The sensation doesn’t last once you arrive at the intensive care bed, however. It’s suddenly very real. All the tubes going into every bodily opening. The machine breathing for your father. Bleeps punctuating the hush. Every variable of being alive monitored and noted down by blue-robed medical staff – like priests in a cathedral dedicated to keeping sparks of life alight.
I can’t tell you that as I sat there holding my father’s hand for the first time in 30 years that I decided investing and the pursuit of some modest wealth was wrong. I didn’t think that then and I don’t now.
But I did finally realize – suddenly and in a powerful way – that it was all ultimately for nothing.
We can save, we can invest, we can calculate what replacement income we need to escape the rat race. But for all of us – whether we’re poor or we run a business empire that spans continents – our world will one day fold in, and everything that matters will recede to a few rooms and faces. And after that, honestly, to a bed and a few breaths. Any comforts then are between an individual and their faith or philosophy.
Particularly in those first days, when I could sneak away to be angry without being seen, I thought even more that my father had been dealt a rotten hand. I knew he hadn’t, really – born into the developed world healthy, smart, and to loving parents, he missed the Second World War and the skirmishes that followed and enjoyed those decades of opportunities for those who could take them.
Yet selfishly I still thought about how he’d done the right thing, only to be struck off a decade before the actuaries ought to be claiming him. Why hadn’t he drunk, womanized, gambled and brawled? Why not?
Perhaps this is what everyone thinks at times like these: life assessment. As he had done so many times when I was a child, my father was making me think again about what my life was really all about.
Healthy is wealthy
Ten weeks ago – two weeks after he was admitted – I sat in a room with doctors who explained that though they didn’t really understand the brain at all (and thus they couldn’t be definitive) things looked extremely bad.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the small room inside which my dad was on a padded bed, clawing at his face, chewing off his own lips and oblivious to the world except for a few reflex actions.
The doctor implied (not unkindly) that we’d best hope for another heart attack.
Tonight my father got a question right in The Weakest Link that I got wrong. (“What did Admiral Horatio Nelson say England expects every man to do?”). Dad getting the answer right (“His duty”) was a tiny moment in a day in which I’d had to explain to him once more what socks were, walk him 20 yards around his garden in as many minutes, and scold him as if he was a schoolboy for nagging my mum. But life with him now is all about these tiny moments.
We are lucky in the UK to have the National Health Service, where dad has got pretty good treatment. Sure, there’s been a slip here and there, and fault to find if you wanted to find it (family keeping an eye out definitely helps a patient). But most of the medical staff have been great, and the freedom never to worry about the cost of it all is something it’s hard to appreciate enough.
I dread to think what the uninsured cost of dad’s nursing treatment and latterly occupational, speech and other therapy would be in some countries. So dad is ‘lucky’ again – and don’t take my word for it, he told a visitor just this morning, curled in his chair, reaching for the words, that many are worse off then him. I could have cried. Perhaps I should have.
Do I wish I’d made millions, to make dad’s pain easier for everyone? Yes… and no. No if it had meant that in pursuing those riches I’d been unable to spend leisurely weekends getting to know my dad again. And not if it meant I was too mission-critical to my company to spend half of the past three months with him and my mother when every day felt like an ending.
I dread to think what the uninsured cost of dad’s nursing treatment and therapy would be in some countries.
I don’t want to finish this article on a rousing conclusion. I don’t think there is one. It’s one thing to argue the merits of index funds versus active management, quite another to dare to suggest how anyone should live their lives – especially when I’m clearly still finding my way for myself.
Perhaps all I’m trying to say this: As we save money and invest for the future, whether for retirement or for some rainy day when the roof falls in, it’s too easy to forget why we bother. Whether it’s fear of being trapped in a job you hate, worries about your children, dreams of doing something exciting, or any of a hundred other good reasons – life is why we need the money. We don’t live for it.
It’s often said that nobody on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more time in the office, but I bet a few wish they’d spent more money before the end. Even a penny to your name isn’t worth much where we’re going.
This site is about making, saving and investing money, and that’s not going to change. I’ve dozens of articles I’m really looking forward to writing, about everything from corporate bonds and property to entrepreneurship and philanthropy. And I’m surer than ever that spending less than you earn and investing the difference is vital to a happy life, however else you choose to live it.
But I bet every reader has – or will one day have – a story like mine and my dad’s. None of us are sitting in some garret counting our pennies. At least not without an occasional glance at the sun rising and setting, and at the people milling around below.