This dates back to 1994.
Days after my mother died in a car crash, and with my father nursing several broken bones in his body that included a shattered lower jaw, and still not able to sit, walk, talk, eat, shit or sleep without assistance, my sister and I decided to pick up the pieces and pull it all together. No one told us to. They didn’t have to.
With one parent dead, and the other one invalidated, one does not need to be reminded or advised into taking responsibility. You just do it. It’s a survival thing.
Our extended family, uncles, aunts, friends and well wishers did much more than they could. Everyone involved went well beyond the extra mile. They gave their best to us and I will be forever grateful to them. We just could not have made it without them. Finding your inner strength, and taking charge of your life is a different thing, however. No one else can do it for you, however hard they may try. Only you can do it. That’s what I mean by picking up the pieces and pulling it all together. We tend to call this ‘taking accountability’ for the most part, which I know, sounds very business-like for my preference.
I was 18 and my sister was 22. We decided it was best that she provide full time nursing support to my father, teetering as he was between insanity and numbness. Insanity driven by the anguish and desperation at having lost his wife and inability to help his children, and numbness driven by the morphine that took him into a limp vegetable like condition. We couldn’t decide which was worse. My sister took it on herself to deal with it. It was too hard for me, she thought perhaps, after seeing me choke once. I choked as I watched our father go in seconds from wild anger into drug induced limpness. His face contorted from lack of control, paralyzed by the drugs being injected into him. He looked like he was on borrowed time. It felt like staring down into a bottomless pit. We could be orphaned in days, I was thinking as I sighed.
Anyway, so my sister had the hard part. I in turn, had to look after running errands and making sure the tactical things were done, especially those that involved riding the scooter or jumping on the bicycle, mostly getting medical supplies or food, which was fine by me. Or so I thought, till I realized my pockets were running dry and I needed more money. At this point, I realized that my extended family must have been paying for all the hospital bills, my mother’s funeral services, and everything else that was going on, the economics of which I was, till that moment, blissfully unaware of. Plus, there was my father’s jaw surgery and treatment to be done, once he recovered enough from the trauma he was going through. We needed the money.
I spoke to my sister and we found some cash in one of the usual suspects – an aluminum box inside the steel almirah, and some bank passbooks belonging to our parents. There seemed to be some money there, but we had absolutely no idea how much we really needed. Our parents never discussed their bank balance or wealth with us, other than the occasional reminder that we were middle class and didn’t have much, how we needed to understand the value of whatever we had, and that lesser was better. Now with both of them absent from the scene, one permanently and the other temporarily, we had to figure it all out.
Subsequently, I spoke to my close friends and realized that there was bound to be some medical coverage that the state department offered. Both my parents’ years of service was worth something. Assuming the state would take care of my father’s medical expenses, I rested with a sigh and made a quick estimate of all the other things I needed money for, including our education and hostel expenses for the next 3 months. 3 months was my estimate for my father to get back on his feet and take the financial reins back from me. Plus I didn’t think I would last more than 3 months managing this stuff. Every time I looked at his drugged state however, I felt he was slipping more and more into the abyss. On one hand it engulfed me with the stark likelihood of immense personal loss and sorrow, and on the other made me realize the financial responsibilities I may need to take on. I shuddered thinking of the future.
On hindsight however, those moments were possibly the ones I subconsciously drew strength from. I remember calculating what 3 more years of engineering for me and a year of post graduation for my sister would cost, the utility bills for the house, annual cost of grocery etc. All these were part of my worst case scenario. I secretly counted on my sister starting work soon after her post graduation, or us finding some other secret stash of money in one of those steel almirahs that would render these estimates meaningless. But the sheer activity of estimating for my personal outcomes helped me understand what responsibility meant, what it means to stand on your own feet. I got an inkling of what not having a roof over one’s head could mean, literally, and I understood what losing the ground beneath you could mean. I learnt to take care of myself, and worry about someone else’s survival at the same time. Some call it ‘to be a man’.
Over the next few days and weeks, as I grappled with my newfound understanding about the value of money, I also received information regarding my mother’s funeral service expenses, questions after questions from her life insurance company, various proofs needed for various procedures, death certificates, bank account closure and release of money and all that made me extremely bitter. I found myself wondering at once about the value and futility of money. While one side of me felt that we needed everything we can get, the other shunned at the pointlessness of it all. My father’s situation demanded it, but no amount of it could bring my mother back. My first serious brush with money was taking shape, my relationship with money was being defined in those days and weeks.
Over the years, I have consciously thought about my relationship with money, many many times. Should I pursue its accumulation, should I renounce it altogether, or should I have a dispassionate tool-like approach to it? I have decided, at least for now, to treat it as hygiene. It’s the bottom layer of Maslow’s hierarchy, and that’s where I think we should leave it. If in your life, you want to self-actualize and try to ‘be the best you can be’, then you have to leave the pursuit of money behind. That is my opinion.
Now, irrespective of my attitude to money, I have the role of the provider, and I do have the responsibility to make sure my loved ones are safe and feel secure financially, while recognizing that my best efforts can fall short. And they certainly will, if my son for example, approaches this conversation 10 years later with a sense of entitlement and expectation. It does not really matter if that gets labeled as my failure or not, since everyone concerned ends up being unhappy in that situation. I think the right way to approach the ‘what’s enough’ question is to come together as a family with love and understanding and converge on a perspective. What’s our earning potential, and consequently, what limits does that pose? I hope my son grows up to understand that those limits are environmental and circumstantial, and not created by my complacence, lack of responsibility or love towards him. I hope he grows up to not be driven by entitlement and expectation.
Back to my 1994, my sister and I eventually learnt that we would be OK. That meant that our parents had just enough money to deal with the situation. We wouldn’t have to borrow. In our family, we always felt like we had enough, even though we didn’t have a lot of luxuries of life. I feel that to this day. I am eternally grateful to my parents that they taught me to not worry about money, and instead worry about other things, like being good and taking responsibility. I am sure they had their limitations, but those were certainly not complacence or lack of responsibility towards us. Like I do for my family, they worked their butt off to give us safety and security.
I think having enough is not at all about money. It’s all about gratitude.