In the past, I rarely thought my actions through very well. If I wanted something, I bought it, ate it, did it. The consequences meant nothing because my life was about instant gratification. I would deal with the outcomes down the road when the time came. In most instances, I would run from, avoid, or lie about about where those consequences came from. Illustrating how little I cared about outcomes, at one point, I didn’t file taxes for 7 years. In my mind, I didn’t have to pay taxes. Don’t you know who I am? I don’t have to file taxes. (Just to be clear, I’ve been filing yearly for many, many years now.)
I would eventually put on my big girl panties, grow up, and start acting my age. I would stop using my misfortunes as excuses for my poor choices. At some point during the transition from an entitled existence to true adulthood, something happened – something that I didn’t even realize until tonight when I was chatting with a friend.
My mother’s father was an incredible man. He owned a dry-cleaning business with a partner when my mother was growing up in the Bronx, New York. His partner took off with all the money, leaving my grandfather with quite a bit of debt. Grandpa spent the rest of his life working for others to pay off that debt. When his wife died, he had no money and decided to move into the United Odd Fellows Home, an organization that he had been involved with for most of his adult life. My parents begged him to move in with them, but he was very wise despite his lack of a formal education. “The old and the young don’t mix,” he said. “When I want to be around you, you won’t want me around, and visa-versa.” He lived out the rest of his life in the home, taking care of the fish tanks and overseeing the synagogue.
My grandfather died when I was 14 in 1971. I was away at a youth convention and as soon as I walked in from the trip, I knew. The mirrors were covered, a part of the Jewish grieving process. Although we didn’t spend nearly as much time together as I would have liked, the times we did get to chat, just him and I, were some of the most special I’ve ever had in my life. In those talks, he tried to implant a grain of integrity into my character.
Fast forward to Monday, October 19, 1987. I lost every penny I had in the market. In all my wisdom at the tender age of 30, just two weeks prior to what was dubbed “Black Monday”, I had quit my job to spend some time deciding what I wanted to do with my life. I was broke. I began living off my credit cards, particularly my American Express. In those days, you had to pay off AMEX monthly. I was actively using drugs and didn’t have the time or inclination to think about the consequences of my choices. I lived my life as if the credit cards didn’t need to be paid off. Within a fairly short time, I racked up more debt than you would think someone without a job and no money could accumulate.
In my early years, I tended not to play the tape through to the end in the most important areas of my life. This situation was no exception. When the collection calls started coming, I simply stopped answering the phone. I was returning soda bottles to raise enough gas money to go on job interviews. Since I prioritized nail appointments (yes, really) and cash advances for drugs, I wouldn’t use the credit cards for actual essentials like gasoline.
At one point the debt rose so high that a confidant suggested I declare bankruptcy. I remember it as if it were yesterday, even though I was high during the conversation. If you asked me what I had for lunch two days ago, I couldn’t tell you, but this 30-year-old conversation is as clear as a bell. “How can I declare bankruptcy when it is my debt?” I asked without a moment’s hesitation, knowing this was not the right path forward for me. Once I found a job, I called American Express and all the other credit cards and set up monthly payment plans. In those days, AMEX didn’t offer payment plans, but it was the only way I could pay back the debt. I told them to take it or leave it. Of course, my credit was shot to hell. I remember having to pay 19% interest on a new car, when the average in 1987 was 7.6%. I was genuinely grateful they would sell to me at all.
To recap… I felt a strong sense of entitlement, at least when I wasn’t consumed with my lifelong presumption of my worthlessness. At the time I lost everything, I had been using some form of drugs on a regular basis for nine years. Credit cards were a means to an end. I gave no thought of how I would pay the debt when the bills started coming in. Despite all this insanity, I had an easy out. I could have declared bankruptcy and made all the notices and the phone calls go away.
And yet, I didn’t.
Tonight, I realized something. Somewhere deep down, somewhere I didn’t even know existed in me at that time, Grandpa had planted a seed of integrity in me. For that split second after my friend suggested I file for bankruptcy, the seed that my grandfather planted decades earlier, teaching me right from wrong, sprouted ever so small. I did the right thing and accepted the consequences, something that didn’t come naturally to me.
I wish I could say that the seed he planted grew from that day on – that I kept living my life with the same integrity Grandpa had- but that wasn’t the case. I went on to botch my life in more ways than I could imagine I was capable of. It would be a long time before the seed would flourish. It would take an angel that cared about me enough to suggest I might have a drug problem and give me a phone number to call. My life began changing the moment I made that call in March of 1995. Only then did that seed finally have the room to grow and thrive.
Today, I can be sure for the first time that Grandpa is smiling down, proud he played a positive role in my life. The way he chose to live his life, penniless but honorable, left an impression on me that influenced me when I needed it to most. Grandpa could have declared bankruptcy; it would have been understandable given that his partner ran away with their money. Instead, he chose to pay it off because he believed it was his debt as well. I pray I keep remembering my Grandpa’s example and, when faced with the next choice between right and easy, I choose to do right simply because it is right.