Thursday, August 25, 2011

Funeral for a Colleague

Earlier this week, I had the sad experience of attending a funeral for a professional colleague who finally succumbed at age 65 after a two-year bout with lung cancer. I worked with this guy, whom I’ll call John, for about a decade until his illness forced him to retire last fall. John’s passing is in and of itself pretty unremarkable, after all thousands of people die of cancer in this country each year. But it was the circumstances of his life in the waning days of his professional career that I found to be particularly depressing.

In many was John was an ideal colleague. Never the most outgoing or personable of individuals, he was nevertheless a proud man who was very dedicated to his job. John was as even keel as they come, perhaps because he was a veteran of that awful war in Vietnam who later served long enough to actually retire from the Army. Nothing over-excited him or could get him terribly upset. He typically met the occasional professional setback with stoic resignation rather than wasting his time getting angry.

Unfortunately for John, he made a serious financial error six or seven years ago when he and his wife purchased a large new home in one of DC’s outer suburbs, paying $800,000 for what could only be described as a typical McMansion. It was to be their dream home, but sure enough when the bottom fell out of the housing market they quickly found themselves upside down on their mortgage.

The problems then started to mount when John’s wife was transferred to another city right around the time he received his unfortunate diagnosis. They couldn’t afford to sell the house, which had plummeted in value to less than a half-million dollars, so she moved to the Gulf Coast while he remained behind and continued living in the house alone.

For nearly a year, John tried desperately to keep working so he could afford to keep making those mortgage payments. As I said, he was a proud man. Even if anyone had suggested that maybe he ought to just walk away from his burdensome financial obligation, there is no way he ever would have done so.

It was painful for those of us who worked with him to observe his physical decline during that last year. John was always a snappy dresser; favoring selections from a batch of colorful suits he bought years ago while stationed in Germany. Not many men can pull off such a look, but with his upright, dignified bearing John was able to do so. As his lungs deteriorated to the point were he needed an oxygen inhaler, however, his distress became obvious.

It got to the point where he could not even walk to the restroom without having to pause and lean against the wall to catch his breath. He also had to have been very much missing his wife, but he would never confide that to any of us. The thought of him going home alone each night to that big empty house but not wanting anyone to know about it or worry about him was heartbreaking.

Eventually, John ended up hospitalized for a week and shortly after that was forced to do what he had been trying to avoid doing—retire. At least he then was able to rejoin his wife, where he spent his last days before the cancer finally claimed him. I do not know what became of the big house—that’s not the sort of question you pose to the widow of a professional colleague at his funeral.

Sadly, it is the very pride of people like John, determined as they are not to default on their debts even when they have been saddled with unconscionable financial obligations by the predatory elites, which helps keep our thoroughly corrupt financial system afloat. There is no way that a middle class family should have had to shell out nearly a million dollars for a home, but that happened routinely during the housing bubble era when rampant fraud encouraged by Wall Street caused home prices to rise to levels far above what was remotely sustainable.

Some might blame John for his predicament, saying he never should have taken out that gigantic loan to buy such a large house. I would argue, however, that all he was doing is what Americans are conditioned to do by our corporate media—always buy the biggest and the best you think you can afford and tomorrow be damned. He probably also listened to that lie about how home prices only go up, which was repeatedly told by realtors and mortgage brokers all throughout the bubble era. President Bush himself spent much of his tenure in office blabbering on about the “ownership society,” and along with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and his Zero Interest Rate policy effectively made getting people to buy bigger and bigger houses official U.S. government policy.

John was the kind of guy who believed in his country, even after it sent him off as a young man to fight in a futile war. He would have had no reason not to have faith in what everyone from the President on down was saying. So you can wag your finger at his poor choice if you want. As for me, I’ll instead wag mine at the financial and political predators in our society who so richly deserve it.


  1. A moving tribute to one of the unknown men who helped make this country what it is.

    It is unfortunate that our elites seem to be no longer populated with the likes of such a great man.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. How sad that he didn't spend as much time as possible with his wife... and all to pay an overblown mortgage.

  3. @Morongobill - yep--as soon as military service was no longer an asset for those who wanted to go into politics, this was inevitable.

  4. RIP John. Sorry to see this happen. How sad he did not spend more time with his wife before passing away. I to, might have stayed behind and tried to pay off the debt. It is the way we are brought up and conditioned by our society.