In a capitalist society, we mark life by our purchases. The first big purchase is an engagement ring that De Beers has convinced young men to massively overspend on, as it is a “store of value,” and generally fits a strange notion that we are marking our property with an item that reflects our level of manhood…how economically successful we are.
The second big purchase: the home. The National Association of Realtors has deftly engendered the notion that the American Dream is home ownership. Ask somebody who purchased a home in 2007 if their “dreams” came true. Yale economist and Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller argues that, when maintenance is accounted for, a house isn’t a much better investment than any other asset class. Still, we see our first home purchase as a sign of our progress and trajectory as adults, and it is a form of forced savings. The government has bought into this (see above: National Association of Realtors), and the interest on your mortgage is tax deductible. The mortgage tax deduction is one of the costliest tax breaks in America. Another? Lower taxation on capital gains, versus ordinary income. These are both positioned as “American”: home ownership and investing. They are simply transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich. Who owns homes and stocks? Wealthy old people. Who rents and doesn’t have assets that qualify for capital gains treatment? The young and the poor. A better proxy for your life isn’t your first home, but your last.
Where you draw your last breath is more meaningful, as it’s a reflection of your success and, more important, the number of people who care about your well-being. Toward the end, you aren’t adding much value, and people who look out for you are either exceptionally generous or reciprocating your love and support. My mom’s last home was in a seniors community in Las Vegas. When she moved, I told her to throw out her old furniture, and we decorated the whole place in Pottery Barn—I advised Williams-Sonoma on their internet strategy in the nineties, and their CMO, Pat Connolly, gave me a discount. It wasn’t having club chairs and chenille pillows that gave my mom joy, but that her son had bought them for her. When my mom got very sick and had several surgeries, the hospital moved her to long-term care. When I walked into the facility, it reeked of urine, and there were people asleep in wheelchairs in the hall. I walked into my mom’s room, which she shared with another woman. Her roommate was bedridden and had a TV attached to a metal arm six inches from her face. The TV was blinking on and off. She looked at me and asked if it was too loud. My mom was sitting upright on the edge of her bed waiting for me. She looked at me and said, “I don’t want to be here.”
All the fucking fake relevance, semi-internet fame, money, and living large . . . and my ninety-pound mom was trapped in a place that reeked of urine. I had failed. I told my mom to pack her stuff and told the nurses I wanted to take her home. They said that would be “against doctor’s orders,” and that they would call security if necessary. I went outside and told the driver who’d brought me there that I would be bringing my mom out in a wheelchair, and that we needed to get her in the car and leave promptly. I went back into the facility, got a wheelchair, put my mom in it, placed her bag on her lap, and headed out. As we passed the nurses’ desk, they looked calmly at us, and a large security guard positioned himself between my mom and me and the sliding exit doors. He didn’t say anything, just stood there. This is where it would make for a better story if I had told him to get out of my way, or, in a Morgan Freeman voice, announced, “I’m taking my mother home.” But that’s not what happened. I froze and stood there, with my hands on the handles of my mom’s wheelchair, her in a hospital gown holding a duffel bag with her stuff. We all stood there for what was likely ten seconds, but felt like ten minutes. I think he felt sorry for us. He turned his gaze to the floor and walked away, and we left. My mom passed seven weeks later, at home.
My dad and his wife recently moved into what will likely be their last home, as they are both eighty-eight. My sister, my dad’s wife’s children, and I pulled together to make the move easier and ensure it’s a nice place. My dad told me this will be the first time he can truly relax, as he won’t need to garden or take care of the house. It’s a great place in a university town, with movie nights, on-call medical professionals, and a pool he can swim in, and we’re arranging for a trainer so he can maintain his lifelong fitness routine. Your first house signals the meaningful—your future and possibility. Your last signals the profound—the people who love you.