You’re lucky if you still need a plan after you’ve lost your marbles

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday December 13, 2015

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Everyone who talks and writes about later life – from financial advisors to aging gurus – emphasizes the need for a later life plan.

Even Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List created a last-minute plan of things to see and do before they met their Maker.

Or, in the case of “grumpy old men,” portrayed by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the eponymous film, you see what happens when you don’t have a plan.

In my case, I started thinking about later life when I was 43 – but with a twist.

The catalyst for me was the untimely death of my father.  My father was a picture of good health – slim and trim, didn’t smoke and consumed a glass of wine only now and then.  Equally important, he was living a robust, purpose-driven life even as he and my mother retired together in Florida – where he planned to buy a small hardware store so he could help people fix their stuff when it broke down.  They had planned it all, down to every detail – including more than 15 years of “trying it out” with annual visits and vacations of increasing length.  In addition, they had saved and invested to make it all possible financially.

They were blessed with all the elements of happiness: Gratitude, generosity, a servant’s heart and optimism.  They were thankful for their many blessings, generous with their gifts, active in volunteer activities, and looking forward to a good and still-productive life with family and friends – many of whom had also retired to Southwest Florida.

Then, two months to the day after they moved into their home on the beach, my father suffered a sudden heart attack.  He didn’t recover.
It was a traumatic event.  Like many fathers, he was a giant in our family.  He loved and was beloved by others.  He was looking forward to the new life he and my mother had planned together.  But less than 18 hours after his heart attack, he was gone.

As the emotion of losing my father – and seeing my mother lose her husband of more than 40 years – diminished, I began to think more analytically about what had happened.

That’s when I recognized a startling, life-changing fact.  Not only had my father died at age 65, both of my grandfathers had died at age 65.  Is there a lesson there?

To my primitive way of thinking, one lesson was clear: My chances of living beyond age 65 were slim.

As a result, at age 43, I started planning and conducting my life in a more thoughtful and probing way.  Planning for retirement was the farthest from my mind.  Instead, I was planning to make the most of the time I had remaining – for learning, exploring, teaching, helping others and devoting time to working with leaders of public authorities and private enterprises, including non-profits in organized efforts to make the world a better place.

Moving from the abstract to the practical, I wanted to focus intensely on making the most of every hour, day and week I had left.  It was an uplifting experience.  It taught me the uniqueness of time and precious character of life. That’s when I began to understand that among of our gifts of time, treasure and talent, time alone cannot be replaced.

We can replace lost treasure – as many did following the Great Recession of 2008.  We can replace lost talent – by acquiring new skills ourselves or by outsourcing.  But time, once used, is gone forever.  It cannot be saved.  It cannot be passed on to others.  It is literally here today and gone tomorrow.

Given the longevity “lesson” I had taken from my own family experience, I figured family life expectancy at age 65 minus my age 43 gave me 22 years to go.  Multiplied by 12 months, that meant I probably had 264 months before I bought the farm.

Because I was determined to “finish well” – i.e., make the most of my gifts in the time remaining – I wanted a way to focus on projects and activities that would be satisfying, consequential and, to the extent needed, income producing, and to avoid drifting through a scripted life that might never reach “retirement.”

That’s when I decided to make the purchase of a large, gallon-sized glass jar to hold 264 marbles.  The marbles represented my (likely) remaining life in months. I kept the jar on my bedroom man chest for 22 years and saw it every day.

The next step in my plan was to remove a marble at the end of each month.  Removing a marble provided a monthly occasion to think about the events (blessings, achievements, shortcomings, wrong turns, etc.) of the previous weeks and to think in a focused, purpose-driven way about the next month.

Of course, I beat the odds – or bet on the wrong genes, given that my mother lived to age 97.  In any case I beat something because 11 years ago I was 65.  On May 1, 2004, I removed the last marble – and I was still hale and hearty!

That’s why every year since 2004 has been a “bonus year” for me.  That’s why I call my column Bonus Years.  Because life expectancy was 61 years when FDR made Social Security the law of the land, I now consider every year beyond age 61 a bonus year – and I am astonished by the wide variety of ways that Americans use their bonus years in purpose-driven work – including volunteer, enrichment and Samaritan work as well as paid work.

In the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson, “Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.”   That’s how my “marbled years” before age 65 taught me the value of focus, discipline, patience and resolve – and that our life here is but a temporary assignment that can end anytime.

Whatever the length of our days, it is our assignment to serve others and help repair the world – or, as my mother used to say, “If you want to make the world a better place, you can begin by making your bed.”

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