Two men who make their livings offering advice on how to provide a comfortable financial cushion for one's survivors have written a book that celebrates a legacy far removed from material wealth. Using the novel form, Cam Thornton and Rod Zeeb have written What Matters, an affecting and persuasive argument that there is inestimable worth in bequeathing to your loved ones the simple but graceful act of sharing the story of your life.
Thornton is owner of Cameron Thornton Associates, a Los Angeles-area firm that manages accounts of high-net-worth individuals. Zeeb is co-founder of The Heritage Institute, Lake Oswego, Ore., which provides traditional financial planning in wills and trusts, and trains and mentors professionals and non-profits on "Mastering Your Market."
The novel's protagonist is Martin Forrestal, who at 82 is diagnosed with prostate cancer. Having been admitted to the hospital, he's told he has just weeks to live. Alone in his hospital room, Martin determines that his cash, stocks and bonds, a prosperous lumberyard business, and several properties should not define his life's ultimate value.
As he nears death, Martin ponders how best to be remembered in a way that will benefit those he cares about: He feels this urgency out of respect for family and friends he has survived, and for those whom he will leave behind: Martin's wife of 50 years-plus, Connie, and their son, Eric, a workaholic at the story's start. Eric and his wife, Rachel, have a young daughter and son, Gwen and Jimmy. From what he can conclude, Martin has been a fine husband and father and grandfather. He has been a source of strength and kindness.
Still, nearing death, he's anxious his life lacks definition. Martin creates a list of 15 values that he hopes have been the framework of his life. The authors are not sappy; they allow that Martin has occasionally fallen short of these values. He understands that whatever good he accomplished was either inspired by or done for the important people in his life.
He recalls incidents that best describe the 15 values, and dictates his stories into a digital tape recorder for uploading to a computer.
A child of the Great Depression (born in 1925, in Oregon), Martin is the son and grandson of pioneers and trailblazers; their lives give Martin's stories the kind of adventure and dare that most of us have only read about in books.
He learned leadership from Scout masters on camping trips that turned treacherous; the meaning of honor comes when a cruel local banker is saved from ruin by the very families he has gouged with excessive interest rates; responsibility is taught subtly by his mother who toils on sewing projects to earn extra money during tight times; sacrifice is learned when his best friend puts himself in the line of fire for his buddies and dies in a gory battle with the Japanese on the Gilbert Islands in World War II, and love is relearned when he finds the plaque his mother in law gave him and Connie at their wedding. At their 50th anniversary party, they each read passages from the plaque, with Biblical quotes.
The story of Martin could be described as a tearjerker; implicit is the possibility that Martin might have ignored signs of illness and forgone tests that could have found his cancer early. At this late point, he will not repeat the mistake of procrastination. His last weeks are busy with the project of recording his unique stories. As his family gathers around him in the final days of his life, Martin senses that they appreciate his legacy.
Can we say that Martin dies a happy man?
Maybe we can say that he dies knowing that he left behind something of special value.
What Matters, by Cam Thornton and Rod Zeeb, Heritage Institute Press, 305 pages, $25.