It is now that I have reached the age where the wiser generation, those who taught me and mentored me, are starting to take their leave of this world that I search both their lives and deaths for lessons.
It was well over a year ago that a friend called one day. In a tender voice she said, “I am so sorry to have to tell you this.” Gone was a courtly Southern gentleman who had befriended me while I was in college then became a permanent fixture in my life, schooling me on business and teaching me the power of observation. He was smart about human nature and succinct in sizing up a situation quickly. His retort to someone’s stupidity or lack of common sense was always instantaneous, low-keyed and dry witted. I wanted to be able to spit out witticisms without pausing to think it out as he did.
Now, because somehow I learned this art from my friend, I can sometimes do that while my most appreciative audience, Tink, will throw back his head, laugh and say, “That’s really insightful, funny and very smart.”
That ability did not come naturally. I had the good fortune of watching and learning it from someone well over a generation older who invested in me.
I was saddened by his death but not shocked. He had struggled with his health for years so I figured that his heart had finally puttered out as had it threatened for a while. Not the case.
She sighed heavily. “He took his life.”
A couple of hours later, another friend called to make sure that I knew and he said, “His health was bad but that main thing is that he was broke.”
I reared up at the kitchen island where I was sitting. “Broke?” I exclaimed. “That is not possible. He had plenty of money.”
In the many years that I had known him, he drove luxury cars, owned an enormous farm that fronted one of the South’s most important rivers, had a second city home and an office on a storied street. Of course, you can’t always know the numbers in a person’s bank account but I knew how many millions he had received for the farm a couple of years earlier and that he owned half rights to some significant intellectual properties that brought in impressive annual income. That was in addition to the money he made with his successful business.
“Well,” said my friend. “Several of us took up money for him a while back. Two weeks ago, he told one of the other fellas that he had used it up and didn’t know what he’d do.”
“That can’t be possible,” I kept repeating until my friend convinced me it was. Another friend told me that his finances had gotten in such bad shape that he had sold his intellectual properties for a song.
“It’s not what you earn that counts,” I said to Tink, still trying to reason through how such a thing could happen. “It’s how you manage what you earn that counts.”
About the same time, a woman I had long knew and admired, took her leave of this world. Hers had been a simple, non-frivolous existence filled with hard work and many good deeds. She was an hourly worker who never knew the kind of glamorous lifestyle that my other friend did and not once had she met anyone famous while his Rolodex was filled with the private numbers of rich, powerful and famous people. Yet, she left behind quite a substantial amount of money. It was stunning.
“How can that be?” I asked. But somehow it was.
“Most of us are broke sometimes in our lives,” I said to Tink. “But if you’re going to be broke, be broke at the beginning or the middle. Don’t be broke at the end.”
I learned that from a couple of good friends.