Recently, I have been engaging in “magical thinking.” That’s when you actually believe that a) if you buy ten quick pick lottos, one will actually win the jackpot; b) that you will be standing in the center of Times Square, and someone will recognize you as the next big reality show star, or c) you enter half a dozen contests to win a house.
I chose c). Every day, as I check my multiple e-mails and Facebook responses, I take a side trip to a site where they are giving away homes. I have been varying the sites of the homes that I imagine myself living in. Most are in areas that would be good for retirement, so of course my “magic” includes the dream that someday I might retire. Perhaps that is the most magical thinking of all. Since I was laid off in 2003 (a year and a half short of my full pension), got clobbered in at least one stock bust, and have been underemployed ever since, I have come to the sad reality that I, like other Baby Boomers, will fall in my traces pulling the same wagon I’ve been dragging since about 1973. Yes, yes. I should be grateful. Many of you reading this didn’t even manage to get underemployed after your lay off, cut back, or downsizing. However, with Social Security and Medicare a constant bartering chip for politicians, I think it is a fair assumption that I will be working long past my “sell by” date.
So, back to the dream of the house. I’ve had houses. Several of them as a matter of fact. The one where we raised my daughter, out west, had a leaky back wall, brown recluse spiders in the basement, and squirrels in the chimney. By the time we left it, there was also a “crack house” up the street. (I don’t know if that is a totally fair description. There was a house up the street where people lived who were obviously moving some kind of illegal substance because cars came and went at all times of the night, and the police showed up occasionally). It definitely had the potential to adversely affect property values. It was time to go. We did what we laughingly called, "pre-retired." We moved to a community advertised as "the friendliest in the world," and bought a house that we could afford if we were working while others lay at the pool.
And the house we moved to was great. It really was a perfect house for us, although it didn’t have a basement. I missed a basement. You can cram an enormous amount of stuff in there and never have to pay for a storage unit.
But I digress. This was a one-story house in a southern-most state. The development, aimed at active over-fifties, was a lot like Disney World but with golf carts for transportation and lots of restaurants with bars. One of the sales pitches we got when we first visited was that this particular development consumed more alcohol that the state colleges. Everything was in golf cart driving range. You could market, shop, go to church, or visit friends in your golf cart. There was a hospital on campus but, surprisingly, no cardiac care unit. 40,000 young elderly people and no cardiac care unit? Seems like a really bad oversight. The weather was outstanding. Since we were inland, we were told that hurricanes wouldn’t reach us, except the year after we moved when four passed right over our house followed by a destructive tornado that wiped out one of those golf-cart accessible churches. The next day, the sun show bright and the news anchors from all over the country touted the beauty of the development while blue tarps covered absent roofs.
But back to the hospital and health care, in general. I have a theory that, in this particular part of this southern-most state, it takes only a signature to get a medical license and one of the actual “good” doctors prescribed medicine for my husband that crashed his kidneys. You know those ads that say “Don’t use this drug if you have kidney disease?” Believe them. With non-functioning kidneys, we were told by a doctor to leave the southern-most state as quickly as we could and find my husband medical care where he stood a chance of surviving a transplant.
So, we headed to a northern state, one near my daughter who happened to have a matching kidney for her father. But before we left, I put our beautiful house with the nice lawn– and the cute lizards, and adorable frogs that walked up our window screens – on the market. We sold just as the real estate bubble was bursting. We also lost all of our belongings to a consignment thief who took advantage of our need to leave quickly and stole all of our tchotchkes, furniture, and memories. What remained I packed and stored in a marathon of dawn to drop-into-bed packing. Only two friends, in this "friendliest" community, helped me. One showed up with her husband and another man to pack the boxes. The other fed me almost nightly and ministered to my state of shock. I comforted myself with words like, “They’re only things. Things can be replaced.” The truth is things you love are often not replaced. You simply seal the memory of those things into a part of your brain that allows you to deal with loss and pain and hurt and go on from there.
We moved into a small but beautiful apartment with the help of a generous relative. My husband’s health deteriorated further as his heart became broken, figuratively and literally, by the losses we were experiencing. We gave away a beloved pet because I couldn’t care for everyone. Months later, my courageous daughter gave a vital organ to her dad because she wasn’t ready to lose him. And I sank into the depression and anger that surrounds losing material wealth and caring for an ailing spouse while worrying that your child has made a sacrifice far too big for anyone you love to make.
I retreated into books and writing, as I always do. I became an on-line mentor to a child in a volunteer reading program. I hung around the local library and made friends with the staff who hocked the director to hire me as a coworker. I can never thank these women enough. They knew nothing about me, but they were (and remain) my salvation. The place we landed was where we stayed. But in this urban-burb of a great metropolis, we cannot afford a half million-dollar brownstone or even the overpriced condo we are now renting with the scenic views of a supermarket. And we don’t have a dog. That hurts about the most. We always had a dog. To not have a dog makes me feel – childless.
And so I resort to magical thinking. I will win a house in a distant city. I will retire because I will no longer have a house payment, my health will remain indefinitely and I will become one of those women in “More” magazine who, in the face of adversity despite the fact that they are 70 years old, reinvents themselves as a tycoon of industry. I will do this with a job so flexible that I will have time to jet up and down the coast to visit my kidney donor child who prefers to stay in the metropolis with her significant other and her "magical thinking" musical career. My house will be surrounded by a lawn for our new dog and perhaps have a basement, and I will take my good dishes and glassware out of storage and invite the neighbors to dinner. And they will tell me that I ought to write about my colorful experiences because no one will believe that all of this could happen to one person, one person who never did a damned thing wrong to anyone to deserve the past eight years of her life. And I will smile when they say that I’m blessed that my daughter’s kidney was a match and that my husband is still alive (though never quite the same). And I will agree that every cloud must have a silver lining, God always has a plan, and no one is ever given a burden bigger than they can carry.
And magically, the rest of my life will be one of ease because I believe in fairy tales and magic, don’t you?
Lois Rubin Gross is a librarian, storyteller and book reviewer.