The Land of Magical Thinking
I recently spent several weeks in the Land of Magical Thinking. I liked it there. It was a place where whatever I wanted to believe was true. It was a place where the word hypocrite didn’t exist. It was a place where I could get what I wanted. Or at least it felt that way.
I think we’ve all been tempted to go there or are lost there without even realizing it, especially during these challenging times. Here’s how I ended up in that dangerous place.
Our son lives 2,500 miles away in Las Vegas. We went to visit him in February, before most people in this country knew that a pandemic was about to upend our lives. We had a great visit (okay, after I got over how messy his apartment was). We talked, we hiked, we hung around and watched TV, we went out to eat.
We also went to see La Reve, the show at the Wynn where Nolan had run lights for the past couple of years. We had seen this amazing water spectacle before, but it was a performance you could see again and again. We noticed that the audience was smaller than usual. When we mentioned that to Nolan, he sighed, saying that tourism from Asia was down due to the virus there. He said he hoped people wouldn’t get laid off.
A month later Nolan called to say he had been furloughed. He was disappointed, but not devastated. The company was going to continue to pay the workers, and everyone hoped to be back to work soon.
I began my descent into the Mom worry zone. Nolan lives alone. He has two dogs and, though I don’t think the value of a dog’s company can be overstated, I worried about Nolan not having human contact. Most of Nolan’s socializing was done at work and with work people. Now we were in a pandemic. He would be alone with the dogs all the time. I mostly kept my worrying to myself but occasionally I let it show.
Nolan’s response was always the same: “I’m fine, Mom.” This is a refrain that every mother has hears but few believe.
Months passed. Nolan would tell me about Zoom meetings he had for work. He said everyone still seemed optimistic. He continued to say he was fine.
Then late one August afternoon I saw that I had a missed call from Nolan. Our daughter was recovering from knee surgery at our house, so I figured Nolan was calling to check on her. I quickly called him back.
He answered the phone, but all I could hear was sobbing. I gripped the phone as tightly as fear gripped my heart.
“What’s wrong, Nolan? Are you okay?” He was trying to catch his breath.
“Nolan? Are you hurt?”
“They closed my show,” he finally managed to say. “They closed La Reve. Permanently.”
I felt a horrible mixture of relief and pain: relief that my son wasn’t injured in some irreparable way and pain to know that he was hurting in a way that I couldn’t fix.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “That’s awful.” Then I stood in the front yard on that late summer evening and listened to my son cry.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said. “I know it doesn’t feel that way right now, but it will be. You’re so talented. There will be lots of great jobs for you.” All those words are true, but that night they fell on ears that were filled with tears.
“I’m tired,” he said. “I’m going to go get some sleep.”
Over the next several days I texted and called but rarely got a response. I was deep in the worry zone. Nolan finally texted to say he was okay and that he would call soon.
It wasn’t soon, but he did call. He called to talk about all the stuff that makes getting laid off even worse. Nolan had put more than one thousand dollars in his flexible health care account so that he could get Lasix surgery at the end of the year. He was told he had to spend that money within the month or lose it. Nevada was deep in the depths of COVID; even if he could have gotten an appointment for an evaluation, it was too risky. We talked about filing for unemployment. We talked about health insurance.
Summer turned to fall. Nolan said that he had talked to friends from work and they all agreed that it was unlikely that shows there would open up again until the end of 2021, which was more than a year away. I worried some more. Nolan couldn’t live alone that long.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
October turned to November. The holidays were approaching. If it was painful to think of Nolan being alone, it was impossible to think of him being alone for the holidays.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” he told me. “I’m going to J.’s for Thanksgiving. She and her husband are really careful.”
“Maybe you can ask her to watch the dogs so that you can come home for Christmas,” I said, mindlessly slipping across the border to the Land of Magical Thinking.
Nolan told me that J. would watch the dogs. “Hooray!” I said. And, just like that, I had left Reality behind.
I knew that COVID cases were skyrocketing around the country. I knew that the CDC was recommending that people not travel over the holidays. I knew that airports had been unsafely crowded over Thanksgiving. But what I knew and what I told myself were two separate things.
I told myself that Nolan was so careful in Las Vegas that it was safe for him to visit. I told myself that Nolan needed to be with family. I told myself that we were careful, that we were different.
I sent Nolan photos titled Previews of Coming Attractions. The Christmas tree we cut down. Our old Lab sleeping on his bed. Matching Christmas pajamas I had ordered for the whole family.
I felt a tiny pang of something with each photo sent, with each thought of Nolan traveling, but I ignored these pangs. They had no place in the Land of Magical Thinking.
Then Nolan called. I asked him what dates he planned to travel. He responded right away, but he didn’t say what I’d expected to hear.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to come home right now, Mom,” he said. “The numbers are too high.”
My eyes filled with tears, both because I wouldn’t get to see Nolan at Christmas, and because I knew he was right.
I took a deep breath. “You’re right, Nolan,” I said. “I think I just wanted to see you so badly that I was willing to ignore reality.”
“I know,” he said.
As soon as I hung up I texted him. I told him that I loved him, that I missed him, that I was proud of his decision, and that I was sad that I wouldn’t get to see him.
“I’m sad as well,” he said. “But I’d be more sad if I got any of you sick.”
COVID sucks. But going to the Land of Magical Thinking won’t make it go away. In fact, it only makes it worse. I’m glad I have a son who cares enough about all of us to keep me grounded in reality.