One hundred billion have walked the Earth in the last fifty thousand years and Oscar had it better than almost all of them. He knew it, but that didn’t change his ennui, his moping, his melancholy.
Like most successful Americans he felt he’d “picked himself up by his bootstraps.” He knew the truth; knew he was fortunate to be born in a country where opportunity was abundant at a time when armies did not maraud across her plains and doctors had some idea of what was and was not healthful. His biggest problem was that most of what he had had been handed to him on a platter. He didn’t want life to be hard but he was tired of seeing a world where it always looked like other folks got so much for so little effort; where they were getting his share of the pie.
Oscar liked numbers so he knew that his income was smack in the middle for men in their fifties with a bachelor’s degree and that his wife’s was more than commensurate for a woman who’d earned her master’s. Oscar and Aster worked hard by 21st Century, U.S. standards, but how hard was that? They expected to be young, strong, fit and healthy until the day they died- the T.V. and magazines said they could have it all and even though they laughed at the hype, down inside they believed it.
They’d started out as a team decades ago and had stuck together through hard times. Their two children were grown and had left their six bedroom, four bath home. Ruth had moved east to Indianapolis and Phil north to Chicago. The McMansion on Yellow Stone Drive had been excessive for a family of four and now that it was just the two of them their house was a testament to rampant American consumerism. When Oscar broached the topic of downsizing Aster asked, “Where will be put the grandchildren when they visit?” There weren’t any yet, but maybe someday.
Financial struggle was relegated to their past. They’d worked, saved, and now were reaping the rewards of their labor. That part was okay but somehow security brought discontent. When their parents passed away and they subsequently inherited their share of wealth Oscar and Aster’s financial net worth went from being “typical American” to “average American,” a number seven times as high. The top earners in the USA, the 1%, made the financial net-worth curve highly non-indicative of what most folks have and owe. Oscar and Aster had fought hard for prosperity and now he was discovering what happens when we’re handed everything, what happens when you don’t have to work anymore. He was learning that fat and lazy is more than just a phrase.
What’s the point of hard work, of sacrifice, if the end is just more glitter, more shiny, more stuff? Unearned wealth had brought not a feeling of contentment, but rather a feeling of obsolescence. Their nest empty, their struggles seemingly behind them, he had entered a phase of life where nobody really seemed to need him anymore, and to add insult to injury the statistical numbers told him that people with greater wealth were more likely to divorce than those who need each other for financial security, even if that’s all the glue holding a weak bond together. Would unearned, inherited money and affluence ruin him and his marriage? Where exactly was Oscar going?
And to cap off his melancholy it was Christmas eve and their nest was empty. They’d visited the little house on Barkley Drive their older child Ruth shared with her roommate Portia. Oscar had wanted to ask about why the two girls shared a room in a three bedroom house but Aster had just looked at him funny and shaken her head. Portia was a lovely girl and if his daughter was involved with her he wanted to know but Aster had said, “How is talking about this going to change anything? Just let it lie.” The girls were visiting Portia’s family in Cincinnati and wouldn’t make it home for Christmas this year but Phil was due to arrive sometime before midnight. Phil was managing the Red Lobster on Pulaski Road in Chicago and would make the two-hour drive down to Normal as soon as his shift was over.
Aster had dragged Oscar to church for Christmas eve services and they had left home at 8:20 for the 9:00 o’clock service. It only took five minutes to drive to church but Aster wanted to be sure and get a seat. It was the only Christmas service they had ever been to where the pews were only three-quarter filled and neither one of them had any idea why the church was so empty.
They were home by 10:30 and by 11:00 Aster was ready to head upstairs to bed. When she asked if he was coming up Oscar told his wife, “I’ll stay down here and wait for Phil to get home.” She said goodnight and they exchanged a passionless, arid kiss. He knew that Aster preferred that he sleep in a room other than the one they shared because of his snoring and that she would be secretly pleased if he fell asleep on the family room couch. She got her wish.
Oscar closed his eyes and began to reminisce about the times when his children were young and he and Aster had been passionate about life and each other, when they’d shared a vision and worked hard for a common goal. He soon fell asleep and exchanged his reminiscence for dreams and the dream that he surrendered to was simple and sweet.
In the dream he and Aster battled the world with arms around one another while holding the precious gift of their two, small children safely out of harm’s way. The couple contorted and fought all comers to protect the other, be it spouse or child. This dream of a shared life with a mutual goal of protecting one another while creating a world full of opportunity for the generation to follow was accompanied by a strong feeling of enjoying the moments that today had to offer. The struggle, the purpose, and the mission danced together in harmony and fate’s hardships were merely obstacles to negotiate and overcome.
Oscar’s sleeping face wore a smile when Phil arrived a little before 1:00 a.m. Phil flipped on the kitchen light in the room that adjoined where Oscar slept and he awakened. “Oh, hey, Dad. Didn’t mean to wake you. Uh, merry Christmas.”
Oscar sat up on the couch, looked at his son from across the room, checked his watch and smiled a crooked, half grin. “Merry Christmas, buddy. You’re late.”
“Yeah, I stopped off at the Collins’ to wish ’em Merry Christmas. Mom didn’t say you were gonna wait up.”
Oscar stiffly stood and walked over to his son, “I just decided to. How are Brad and Anne?”
“Good. Yeah, they’re good. How about you? How are you doing?”
Standing next to his son the essence of the dream, the truth of the moment, swept over him and he realized that his work was not nearly over and that the opportunity to feel, express and share love was nearly infinite. He and Aster had been given a gift of financial wealth and now needed to use the gift in a way that brought them satisfaction while helping others to experience how rewarding life can truly be.
Under his breath he muttered, “A miser sits and count his shekels but a wise man would look for ways to cast his loaves upon the waters.” He smiled as the realization that there was important work to be done both for his offspring and those unrelated to him brought him the beginning of a sense of direction.
Phil looked at him and asked, “Huh?”
Wrapping his arms around his taller and much leaner boy he lifted him off the ground in a bear-hug. “Great. I’m doing great, now that you’re home.”
“Cool. It’s good to be home. Nice to have two days off.”
“Yeah. Life can be hectic, but it is what we make of it, isn’t it?”
Oscar put him down and whispered, “I guess. I’m going upstairs. I just wanted to wish you Merry Christmas. I love you.”
“I love you, too. I’ll see you tomorrow, alright?”
“Perfect. See you tomorrow.”
“Hey, Dad? Are you okay?”
“Not yet, but I think I will be. Goodnight, buddy.”
Oscar climbed the stairs unsure of what his next step would be, but whatever it was it would involve doing more than counting shekels, either the physical or the emotional kind.