Saturday morning I received an email informing me that one of my favorite clients had died during the night. While not completely unexpected, as he had been seriously ill with cancer, the news was jarring. I was suddenly glad that recently he had not wanted to see any visitors. I wanted to remember him as he was. I used to enjoy our regular discussions, which ranged over everything from his investments to history and world affairs. He was urbane and smart.
By 4 pm that day my wife and I are at the 51st wedding anniversary celebration of Peter and Svetlana* on the Russian River. The celebration was initially planned for a year ago, but a few days before the event, Peter’s body started rejecting the new heart he had received earlier that year from a transplant operation. It was touch and go for some time, but finally the new twenty eight year old heart was accepted, and the celebration was postponed until the following year.
The guests are prosperous but I think to myself that everyone looks old. Then I remember how old I am and my perception instantly changes. Peter and Svetlana had moved here from the former Soviet Union so their friends are mainly from Russia and Eastern Europe. Russians know how to celebrate so I hold back, knowing that the feast before my eyes is probably just the first of many courses. I pour some water into a vodka glass and take a little plate of ‘zakuski’. Now I will not have to keep saying ‘no’ to the vodka being poured from the largest liquor bottles I have ever seen in my life.
I am sitting next to a software engineer from Bulgaria. Yikes! I know nothing about the country or its history. He gives me his card. He has a Ph.D. and is the Chief Technology Officer of a software company that he partially owns. He makes some negative remarks about the way math is taught in America so we have something in common, and we start talking about American high schools. When I tell him I’m a financial planner he asks my opinion about the stock market crash that he thinks will take place in 2013.
My wife introduces me to the little old lady she is sitting next to from somewhere unprounceable in Russia. Her father was German, so when the Second World War broke out, Stalin sent him to the camps and she never saw him again. I have been to events like this before. Russians or East Europeans, particularly those who left before the Berlin Wall fell, all have a story to tell, and their life often contains enough drama to satisfy Hollywood many times over.
I see someone I recognize. I had heard that his wife had died of cancer earlier in the year, so I greet him and tell him how sorry I am. He tells me that while he was looking after his wife he was also diagnosed with both non-Hodgkins lymphoma and bladder cancer. The doctor had told him that the two unrelated cancers were probably caused by the radiation he had received many years ago when he served in the navy on nuclear submarines. I tell him in turn, that my own brush with a rare salivary gland cancer, some years ago, had probably been caused by an excess of dental radiation in the U.K., back in the days when X-ray machines spewed more radiation than a supernova. I tell him with genuine surprise that he looks remarkably well. He tells me that he was cured by a miracle drug called Retuxan. Despite being over seventy he is a national championship swimmer (he says the competition in his age group is rapidly dying off) and trains for almost two hours every day. He asks what I think about the stock market which he hears is going to crash soon.
The speeches are blessedly short but there is so much love and warmth in this group it is hard not to feel high (the wine does help in this regard). Witnesses testify that Svetlana, through her love and Herculean efforts, had single-handedly worked to keep Peter’s heart beating, even when all hope appeared lost. The two of them are clearly still madly in love with each other, even after all these years.
A former commercial pilot, turned artist, tells me some funny airport TSA stories. I have some of my own. He wants to know how I’m investing my clients’ money to protect them from another stock market crash.
The sound of tinkling glasses mixes with the music, laughter and conversation. Nothing can take away this moment – we are the survivors.
*All names changed to ensure confidentiality
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old Age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.