What Does Dead Dad Think Now?

Fred Wertz, my dad, picked up every penny he saw during his daily walks. At a nimble eighty-six he’d swoop down mid-sentence and scoop up a penny, barely breaking the cadence of his step. If he walked without me my father would call to chat and report his found treasure totals. On days when he found two or more pennies he always said, “Annie, I found two. That’s when you know you’re living right.”

The practice was charming, and thrifty to the very end, just like my dad.

I’ve written about some of the tough times growing up with my sometimes dismissive, always opinionated father who, when he was wrong, was wrong with conviction and unrepentance. I’ve written about the grief of him dying suddenly and in my arms, after having spent the last 20 years of his life caring for my mother with Alzheimer’s.

But haven’t written about how I think my dad’s opinions have changed since he died.

My Dad was born in 1932 and was a solid representative of the Silent Generation. He believed in safe decisions, productivity, frugality, and loyalty. Maybe it was part of his generation or maybe just his personality, but he also thought he was right about everything, and if you didn’t think so you were dumb.

My father majored in business, received an MBA and was a businessman until he retired to care for my mom. One career, forty years. I went from nurse to grad school to more grad school to professor of health, to novelist, to business owner, to writing professor, and all the while my dad watched and shook his head. His favorite words to me? “Settle down.”

I drove my dad to distraction with my pivots.

When I suggested that I might leave my tenured professor position after twenty years to write full time he shook his head disapprovingly and said, “Never leave a cash cow. Never. No. Don’t. Are you nuts? Case closed. I picked up five pennies this week.”

Not long after this conversation, my father had a heart attack due to complications from a minor procedure, and after four nights in the hospital, all signs indicating he was recovering, he died in my arms. He left behind my sick mom, five grandkids, a drawer full of blueprints for a house he never built, half-done photography, and travel brochures for trips he didn’t take. He put his nose to the grindstone of work and then to caring for my mom. Then he died.

Four months later I quit my university job. Six months later my mom died, also in my arms. After that I did everything you’re not supposed to do following a significant loss and life change:  I ended relationships, sold my home, bought a house, quit a business, threw everything away, put two books I’d been working on in a drawer, and started a new one.

There are many days I feel guilty about leaving my job; spending my weeks making up stories, traveling so I can write in the sun. I hear my dad all the time: “Annie, never leave a cash cow.” I wonder if this would still be his advice.

I keep thinking that death is an eye-opener. Surely Dead-Dad would give different advice now that he knows what’s what. He’s been in the hereafter, has pushed those hindsight-is-twenty-twenty glasses up the bridge of his nose, and looked around. How would he feel about my cashing in the cow approach to life now? Would he consider it wise or I worried, wasteful?

I was considering this very thing on my walk recently when I came across a penny on the street. I picked it up and of course, thought of my dad. I wondered if he would disapprove of my rented Airbnb in California while I was paying the mortgage on a perfectly good home in Wisconsin. My mood dumped, imagining his disapproval, and guilt slithered through my thoughts. I should have saved the money like my dad would have advised, stayed home, hedged my bets, acknowledged the scarcity of life’s resources.

Then my dog Peanut barked, startling me out of the oft-visited whirlpool I’ve named the am-I-living-right quagmire. He tugged at his leash and when I looked down I saw that my shoelace was untied and there, right next to my toe, was another penny, the second one of the day materializing amid my misery. That’s when I knew Dead-Dad had changed his mind about things.

As if calling me on the universe’s cell phone to talk about found riches, I heard his voice, as clear and sure as it ever was, “Two pennies, Annie. That’s when you know you’re living right.”

xo Ann

PS: My dad says hi.

Big thank you to Samantha Hoffman for editing this piece. She edits all my essays. Click for her services.