In the early ’80s, when my father was a young man living in Wisconsin with three young boys and not very much money to his name, he suddenly began to have incredibly vivid visions of winning millions of dollars in the lottery. The visions were so strong and so clear and he was so convinced that a win was imminent that he made himself, and, by extension and proximity, my mother, sick with worry about what would happen if he actually did hit the jackpot. Rather than focus on all of the wonderful things our newfound wealth would offer our family, all that he could concentrate on was one cold sweat-inducing question: Could we really handle the pressures of becoming nouveau riche or would all of that money ultimately end up ruining our lives? It was the worst of both worlds ― he had fallen victim to the curse of the lottery and he hadn’t even won.
My dad died 11 years ago and, needless to say, his lotto ship never pulled in. Instead of chalking that up to the fact that it’s so nearly impossible to win that he would have had a better chance of becoming a saint or being crushed by a meteor, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life telling myself that my father must have actually been seeing me ― not himself ― winning in his vision.
So whenever the Powerball or Mega Millions jackpot creeps past $150 million, I plunk a few bucks and hope that the universe will eventually do the right thing by finally manifesting my father’s vision and making me a multi-millionaire. With the Mega Millions jackpot currently at close to a billion dollars and the Powerball jackpot currently at over $400 million, lately I’ve found myself especially distracted by daydreams of diving into my own giant pool filled with gold coins a la Scrooge McDuck.
Because I still haven’t won ― and because I can be a jealous, petty creature ― the day after someone else scores an especially huge lotto payout is never a good day for me. Case in point: In August 2017 Mavis Wanczyk, 53, of Chicopee, Massachusetts, won $758.7 million in the second largest Powerball jackpot ever, and the day (OK, OK ― through the month) after she won I moped to work thinking, Why, oh, why not me?
Wanczyk told the reporters that she was going to celebrate her first night as a preposterously rich woman by “[hiding] in bed” ― a totally reasonable reaction to a totally unreasonable life-changing event. However, her response immediately reminded me of another lotto winner I read about years ago when I was still in college and ― with graduation looming in the not-so-distant future ― dreaming of my big win as a way of avoiding getting a job and joining the real world.
An elderly woman who lived somewhere in a rural part of the American South had just won some ludicrous sum of money and when she was asked what she and her husband planned to do with it, she gave an answer I have never forgotten. “We’re just going to buy a tractor and donate some of the money to our church,” she said. “But otherwise, our lives aren’t really going to change much at all.”
To this day, whenever I think about her response, I can feel myself starting to get worked up. After all, if you’ve just beaten the most stupefying of odds ― about 302 million to 1 ― and somehow actually won the lottery, the most unforgivable thing that you can do is ... nothing. In fact, I believe it is your duty as a lottery winner to not only change your own life in ways that most people can’t even begin to fathom, but to also change all of the lives of the people you love and, with charitable donations to nonprofits, the lives of people you don’t even know. I mean, why else even bother playing ― or winning?
Because I can be as obsessive as my father was, I have spent what must now total thousands of hours ― mostly in bed before I drift off to sleep ― considering what I would do if I win the lottery and I already have a detailed game plan ready to put into action. My first move would be to fly home to Wisconsin, rent a car and drive to my mother’s house to surprise her. After she stopped hysterically crying, I’d mount a cross-country road trip and show up on the doorsteps of all of my friends and family to deliver huge Publisher’s Clearing House-style checks. Then I would set up a foundation to help support all of the lefty causes I hold so dear. From there, I want to travel. I want to write books. I want to learn new languages. I want to teach kids poetry. I want to get so good at baking beautiful, difficult pastries that I could win “The Great British Bake Off.” I want a house on the water. I want to make other people’s lives better.
When I recently told a friend about my post-lotto plans, she laughed and shook her head and said, “You wouldn’t work? I think I’d get bored if I didn’t have a job.” I laughed right along with her. “No, I wouldn’t work,” I said. “If you win the lottery you can do anything ― everything! ― you want.” And I stand by that. Because, really, in the end, money ― especially lots and lots and lots of money ― equals freedom, which is why the dream of winning the lottery is really a dream about liberation and if you’re somehow able to achieve that dream, you shouldn’t take it lightly ― or squander it.
I don’t know what Mavis Wanczyk has done over the last 14 months with the hundreds of millions of dollars that she won. Maybe, even over a year later, she still doesn’t even know what she’s going to do with it all ― or any of it ― yet. And, really, she can do whatever the hell she wants. That’s her unimaginable gift. That’s her impossibly lucky burden. But, for what it’s worth (which, compared to her bank account, isn’t much), I hope that her life ― and the lives of those around her ― hasn’t stayed the same. I hope it’s changed in huge and outrageous and meaningful ways too numerous to count and too fantastic to comprehend. Because when I finally win ― and hopefully it’ll happen this weekend ― you can bet your bottom dollar my life certainly will change ― and maybe yours will, too.
This article was originally published in August 2017 and has been updated throughout.