Today, just now, my mom was admitted into hospice.
In Pennsylvania, at least when facilitated by and paid through Medicare, you're admitted into hospice when a physician has determined you have six months to live. In my mom's case, this is connected to an advancing case of COPD that now makes it difficult for her to go up and down the stairs without losing her breath. She has other health issues, including an aortic aneurysm that is slowly enlarging and can't be ameliorated through surgery due to her fragile condition. She's had two recent mini-strokes and she's in the early stages of dementia. So, I suppose this new categorization shouldn't have shocked me and my dad. But it did, of course.
The nurse who arrived to talk to us about all this asked us a lot of questions about extraordinary measures to save my mom's life and if we've picked a funeral director and whether we want chaplain services. My dad and I numbly mumbled answers (no, we don't want any; no, but we're thinking cremation - it's starting to be a family tradition, after all, since my brother's death - no, we're not at all religious, but boy, it's times like these I wish we were). I found myself hating the nurse, who's name was Becky. Becky should be a cheerleader. Becky should be a capable mom, arranging car pools and swim lessons. Becky shouldn't be the woman who comes to tell you your mom is dying.
I've been told that I need to face up now to this fast-approaching loss. It'll make it easier in the end, my friends say. But the truth is I'm already at the very edge of my ability to cope. These last couple of months I've felt so relentlessly hopeless that I'm not certain I can take one more blow right now, one more goddamn tragedy in the endless stream that the past few years have brought. And so I've been willfully, with a streak of pure, perfect stubbornness I inherited from my mom, disregarding this looming eventuality. Breakdown now or breakdown later? Later seems the better answer.
I've been afraid for as long as I can remember of being alone. It's the fear at my center, the one that has motivated so much of what I've done in my life. And now here I am at 51, on the precipice of it. Unable to even date, if the truth be known, because my last relationship was so damaging I'm terrified I'll end up with the same type of man. My brother dead, my mom dying. My dad, 85 and walking around with kidney issues and an unhealed broken neck, getting a little bit more frail every day. No family here. No close friends, they've all scattered to the winds like starlings lifting off from a telephone line. No kids. I might as well be adrift in deep space. The future feels as cold and merciless as I imagine it to be.
I'm so fucking scared. I'm so scared.
And I don't know what to do. I'm less than six weeks away from climbing the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, the thing I've spent the past 18 months directing so much of my energy, except what I've spent trying to care for my mom and dad, toward achieving. Getting to and up that mountain is the goal that's guided me through the the pain. The heartbreak and the loss. It's kept me sane and promised me a future less ordinary. If I give up now I don't know what will happen to me. But going up Aconcagua is a three-week trip. How can I leave my mom and dad for three weeks now?
I'm trying so hard to be strong. I'm squirreled away in my room, writing, because it's the safest place I have. But I've got to stop crying and go hug my dad. After that, I don't know.
,About a month or so ago, I lost a big job. It would have been, at the time I lost it, the biggest writing gig I'd ever gotten. Not precisely the most prestigious, or the most fun, but it certainly would have paid the most. (Unless you consider hours spent, and then it most assuredly would not have paid the most.) It was a job as the new Pennsylvania guidebook writer for Moon Travel Guides. They do a nice job, Moon does, as I discovered in my research when I first applied for the gig, back in September. They're not Lonely Planet, but their publications have a bit of zip along with a ton of good information.
Some friends sent me the ad they ran - I think in Philly's Craiglist - detailing their search for a new guidebook writer. I saw it late; they were closing their call for applicants in about a day. So even though I was at a travel conference I pulled an all-nighter updating my resume and writing a beautiful cover letter that was basically an epic poem to my home state, which if you know me at all you know I love pretty much like nowhere else.
I crushed it. I got to the next level, a phone interview with the acquisitions editor, which I did on the run, as I was getting ready to leave on an epic trip that started with a visit to the Log Cabin Republican's annual D.C. soiree, continued on with a long weekend's jaunt to Puerto Rico, and ended with a three-day, thirty-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park with my good friend, Hope. I crushed the phone interview, too. I found out I was one of maybe two writers in contention for the guidebook gig while I was hiking the AT.
The acquisitions editor wanted me to have my proposal - my 60-page proposal - finished in two weeks. A 14-day period that included not only what I believe could accurately be called a shit-ton of deadlines but also more trips thither and yonder. I told her I couldn't do it and make my other deadlines - and there was no way I was letting my editors down. She gave me a two-week extension. I proceeded to kill myself getting that monster done. I mean, instead of going to the beach in Puerto Rico I worked on that proposal. Instead of hitting the town in Memphis, I worked on that proposal. I worked pretty much 36 hours STRAIGHT, no stopping, to make that deadline. I worked as hard on that proposal as I've ever worked on anything in my life. 60 pages.
It was GOOD. I had plenty of suggestions how the next Moon Travel Guides PA guidebook could be improved - amending what I consider pretty glaring deficiencies - and it was well-written, funny and intelligent and informative and full of love for the Keystone State and all the weirdos and misfits who call it home. I was sure I had it in the bag. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be the next Moon Travel Guides Pennsylvania guidebook writer. Although I did have plenty of doubt about how I was going to research and write the damn thing and still climb Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua. But I'd figure that out as I went along, I told myself. The important thing was the money, which would pay off my credit card and allow me to get Botox.
Yes, this is what I was going to do with the guidebook money. Credit card debt and Botox. Which should tell you just how puny that check was going to be, because I'm not that deeply in debt.
And then I didn't hear back from the acquisitions editor and I didn't hear back and I didn't hear back and it started to occur to me that maybe, just maybe, I didn't get it. One morning I woke up, checked my email, and discovered, in fact, that I would most assuredly not be writing the next Moon Travel Guides PA guidebook.
"Huh," I remember thinking. "THAT'S weird."
And that was about the level of my non-response. I was surprised, in a sort of "How did that happen??" kind of way. But that was pretty much it. Despite all that work I put into that proposal - work I was not getting a cent for, work that I figured there was a good chance was somehow going to mysteriously end up in the new guidebook from whatever writer got the gig over me - I didn't really care. Equanimity, thy name is Jill.
Thing is, it's not. I don't handle rejection or failure or any combination thereof well. I can even get what you'd call a little high-strung about it. By all rights, considering I was also going through everything else I've been detailing in this blog, I should have taken to my bed for at least a week. But I didn't. I sort of shrugged it off in a way I can't explain.
Two days later, I was under contract to write a web column for Woman's Day, based on this blog. Two days later, I was fulfilling a dream I'd held for decades inside myself, carefully, with great tenderness, a little fear and almost unbearable love, the way a first-time mother holds an infant. Two days later.
I found out I lost the guidebook gig Tuesday. Wednesday, I had a call with the features editor of the Woman's Day's website, a doll of a girl I met on one of my press trips to Puerto Rico that I pretty much flat-out adore. While we were bouncing around in the back of a van on a madcap tour of San Juan, Maria told me about the Hope After Heroin series Woman's Day was publishing online. I thanked her for having the guts to tackle a subject as ugly and tragic as heroin addiction and then informed her my brother had been lost to an overdose. If she was interested, I said, I'd send her a blog post I'd written about Gunnar's death. She was interested and pretty much just like that, within two weeks I'd written my first essay for Woman's Day, which may just be the most important thing I write, ever.
Maria liked that essay, and the subsequent article I wrote about Carmel, California for Country Living's site, which she also edits. So I decided to pitch her a column for Woman's Day based on this blog. Because, you see, when I first started this blog, back in July, I said - I mean I actually said this aloud, to various family members and friends - "I'm going to start a blog about what I'm going through since Gunnar's death and my breakup with T and my parents' health issues and also about getting ready to climb Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua. And I'm going to write as honestly and beautifully as I can. And then, in about December, I'm going to sell it to the website of a women's magazine like Woman's Day."
I actually said that. More than once.
In early December, a DAY, one damn day, after I got turned down for that guidebook, I pitched the column to Maria. She liked it. She liked it so much she asked me to send her six column ideas so she could present them to the editor-in-chief at their meeting the NEXT DAY.
She emailed me less than an hour after the start of her meeting with good news. I was now a columnist for Woman's Day. As a matter of fact, my very first column for them went live a couple days ago.
That's not to say my future is assured. Woman's Day expects big things of me - 25,000 visitors per column, which seems a dauntingly ginormous number. They are giving me a shot for the first quarter of 2017. After that, who knows? But I will tell you exactly what I'm working on making manifest: getting that contract extended, getting a book deal, climbing those two damn mountains to the tippy-tops, writing a memoir - and grinding Cheryl Strayed under my boot heels in the process - after which I'll write a screenplay and win an Oscar. And then get that TV show on-air I've been been chewing on for a half-decade. And maybe, just maybe, climb Everest.
Why the fuck not, right? Who does it serve to dream small? Not me. Not anyone. And if I fail? Hell, if I die up on that nasty beast Aconcagua? Well, at least I gave it a shot.
By the way, the reason I didn't get that guidebook deal? The other writer has a "really succinct voice that meshes well" with the guidebook's style.
I can live with that.
As long as I can remember I've avoided achievement. I left Penn State - more precisely, I simply stopped going to classes much - midway through my last semester. I was a University Scholar. I think I ended up about nine credits short of my theater degree. About six years later I left my husband, Sean, whose last name I still carry with me (I suppose some might say like penitence), though he loved me more than I'm afraid any man ever will love me again. I loved him just about as much.
I actually left Sean twice. The second time it was for a drug addict.
I walked away from radio, too, just as I was on the cusp of breaking big, after I'd come close to snaring a gig as big-deal shock jock Mancow's sidekick.
I'm not sure what short circuit in my brain accounted for this kind of behavior. Fear of success, fear of failure, a fascination with self-destruction, simply an inability to focus on the long view, or to maybe handle routine, it could be all of these things. Or none of them. But at the very least it's made for an interesting life - sometime I'll have to write the story of the time a crack dealer put a gun to my head - and until recently there wasn't much I regretted about it. Certainly not the degree and not even radio. Sean. I regret Sean. Still, two decades later.
Sometimes I wonder if T is some kind of cosmic payback for the way I treated my husband. He was the best man I ever knew. Brilliant. T was so proud of his intellect but Sean, he was scary smart. Got a perfect score on his SATs. Johns Hopkins tried to recruit him at 14 for med school and throughout our marriage he'd periodically get literature from MENSA. They were trying to recruit him, too. Brilliant and funny and creative and handsome and kind and he loved me exactly as I was.
So, of course I left him.
I don't want to live this way anymore. I'm ready to see exactly what I can do when I put my mind to it and keep it there. I don't want to be that woman, the smart and talented one - oh, no genius, to be sure - who just never really seems to get it together. Which is why I'm so afraid. Terrified that I've fucked up so badly this time there's no putting it right.
I had this amazing thing started, didn't I? I'd announced to the world that to heal my broken heart and take back my life after a lot of terrifically horrible events I was going to climb two of the Seven Summits of the world next year. I was going to detail my training and my emotional as well as physical transformation right here, on this blog, with brutal honesty and hopefully even a bit of poetry. I started training, remaking my body with the help of my supremely talented trainer Steve Jury, at Victory Sports and Fitness. Other people stepped forward to help, like Tamar London, who took such incredible "before" photographs of me.
And in the first month 11,000 people read this blog. 11,000 people. I still can't quite believe it.
And then I started traveling and the assignments, big ones, from national magazines, started coming, so fast I could barely keep up with them, and I even got invited to submit a book proposal. I couldn't do it all, I couldn't. I tried. I worked very hard, but something had to give and that something was this blog. This blog, and training. It's been weeks and weeks since I've been to the gym. I've gained at least five pounds, probably more, even though a lot of that traveling involved arduous physical activity, like when I hiked 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. God, I loved that. Those three days on the AT to me proved that I wasn't crazy, that Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua were calling to me because I belong there. I belong to those mountains.
I loved training, loved how my body was becoming so much stronger than its ever been. And I loved this blog. In a very real way it saved my life, along with the people who followed it, the readers who reached out to tell me that my writing actually meant something to them. That it helped them. What a fine thing. The finest thing, I think, any writer could ask. I loved it all and I left it and I'm ashamed because I'm afriad that this is more of the same kind of behavior I've been doing forever.
But all I can do now is try to do better. I'm going back to Victory this weekend. Training begins afresh. I guess I'll have to ask Tamar to take pictures of my new body - instead of leaner and more muscular, even rounder than it was. Honesty, right? Even when that honesty includes failure.
At least I've got a lot of new stories to tell. I've not only hiked the AT, I've been skydiving and doing something called body rafting in the wilds of primal Puerto Rico. I've actually been to Puerto Rico twice, and to Memphis, and Richmond, also, where I was nearly abducted from a lesbian bar by a former lineman for Penn State. That was a strange night. Along the way I've healed a little bit and had a few epiphanies and continued to cry and, upon occasion, to smile.
I hope you forgive my absence. I hope you'll return to gleesonreboots, the way I have, invigorated and damn curious to see what's next.
Whatever it is, I can promise you it won't be boring.
I didn't want to train today. I'm exhausted. I'm moonlighting at Penn State, full time for this month, in the Office of Admissions. Working at 8 a.m. - that ain't me, babe. I'm also semi-crushed with assignments and trying to keep this blog going and I had a couple of disappointments happen last night with work. Nothing huge, but when you're this lowdown, it doesn't take much to sink you completely, at least temporarily. Especially when you're averaging five hours of sleep a night.
So, I didn't want to go to Victory. Hell, all I really wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed and cry. I'm crying all the time. In my car, at the grocery store, on the phone with my über-patient friends, at the office, too - I try to sniffle quietly there. (I really don't want to be the weird temp girl crying at the corner desk.) It started two years ago, this crying, when my brother died. It's increased in frequency and violence, the way summer begets thunderstorms, since T left. Since my birthday it's gotten worse.
When I feel it coming on I just go with it. Sometimes I don't have a choice. Today I wept almost continuously in my therapist's office. Big, scalding tears. Tears of pain and fear and regret and shame. A salty cocktail made of emotions I'm beginning to worry have taken up permanent residence within me. My therapist tells me to be patient, that I've been through much in these past few years. I know she's right. I have to honor this pain, lean into it, let it have its way with me. I've never done this before. I've always pushed pain away, numbed it, neglected it. Let it starve, a chained dog whose teeth no longer menace. But I can't, don't want to live my life like this anymore. I want to heal, not hide.
So anyway, I didn't want to go to Victory. But I did. I started my program and as I sweated and worked I noticed something fantastic. I noticed that I actually began to feel better. I still started crying right as I was doing my hip hikes when Green Day's "Missing You" began blaring out of the speakers - I mean that's how far gone I am, I'm actually crying over Green Day songs. But I kept on going and I kept on feeling better. It wasn't easy, of course. But maybe that's part of the pleasure. Why not try to hurt as much physically as you do emotionally?
Steve's got me doing enough different exercises now that I'm rotating two routines. For my core, I lay flat on the floor, inhaling deeply and then pulling my stomach muscles tight as I exhale. It must be working, because my abdomen always aches afterward. I also use a six-pound medicine ball a lot, swinging that thing in circles and figures eights, doing diagonal chops and "wood" chops with it. I think I look like a complete idiot, but I keep swinging it because I'll be damned if my arms aren't clearly developing muscle.
But I need special training to climb mountains and Steve, since he's ascended Kilimanjaro himself, understands precisely what will be required of my body as I trudge up and up and up first Kili and then later in the year Aconcagua's nearly 23,000 feet. I'm spending a lot of time balancing on one leg, and making "eagle" claws of my toes as I stand, flexing and unflexing them over and over. I'm doing assisted pull ups and something called cervical retractions. Which is not at all, not even close, what you might suspect it to be. Basically, I'm simply drawing my chin in toward my neck, and then jutting it back out. This strengthens my spine. I'm going to be asking a lot of my spine next year.
I feel myself getting stronger - I actually see myself getting stronger - but tackling Mount Nittany on Sunday still got my blood throbbing and my breath coming hot and quick. Tamar and I hiked the White Trail, which ascends sharply for a half-mile. Only a half-mile, but it's a steep-ish half-mile. There's also a whole five-mile loop trail over and down the mountain I'm going to start trekking, hopefully this weekend. I know I've got a long, long way to go. In many ways. But I'm not stopping, not now, not ever. Because this is the way I save myself. There's a new life ahead, there has to be, filled with passion and joy, love and maybe even some peace, too. I just have to keep walking toward it.
Want the details on my training regimen? Just have something you'd like to communicate or ask? Do you have any suggestions for me? I'd love to hear from you. For real. Comment below or email me if you'd like some privacy by hitting the link up above.
I have a tendency toward impulsivity. Something bright and shiny and thrilling and BIG pops into my head and I think "Ooooh! Good idea! Let's GO, baby!" Leave my family and friends and everything I know to move down to Tennessee and in with a guy who has TWICE before cracked my heart open like an uncooked egg by breaking up with me the moment real commitment or true intimacy became involved? "Ooooh! Good idea! Let's GO, baby!"
We all know how that turned out. Though I can say now, six weeks out from when T walked - no, ran is a much more accurate word - six weeks out from when T ran out of my life I don't regret that move to Tennessee. I regret plenty of other things about our relationship, but not that. Because if you're going to be impulsive about anything, it might as well be love that at its best was so true blue if it had a color it would be the shade of the sky over the desert after a storm. No matter how big the hurt it eventually brings.
Of course, you're catching me at a good moment. Ask me how I feel about it when I'm sobbing at the dining room table before my stricken parents in the middle of supper and I might not be quite so perky about the whole thing. I still cry. A lot. Not every day, but close. I still, if you want to know the truth, cannot quite believe he's gone. At best, I miss him right down to my bones. At worst, I find it ridiculous that I'm expected to continue on without him. At very, very worst, like last night, I'm seized fully with a terror of the future looming in front of me, sinister and ugly, like a dark shadow in a desolate alley. Of the alien aloneness of it. T left. My brother is dead. When my parents are gone, I'm it. The last woman standing.
Anyway, as you might have guessed, I did not agonize over the decision to climb two of the Seven Summits in '17. I began with the idea to tackle Kilimanjaro next summer. I remember thinking something along the lines of "The last time T broke my heart I moved to Ireland for five months. This is the last, last time he will break my heart. So what in the hell do I do now?" And there came the image of Kilimanjaro, unbidden, blasting its way into my brainpan. Almost immediately I decided to blog about the experiences I would have as I trained to climb the mountain, thinking maybe it might not only do me some good, but also a few other people. People like me, who had lost so much they were in danger of losing themselves, too.
Then a few days later I heard that a lot of people climb Killi, about 25,000 annually, so shortly after that I decided to up the ante and add Aconcagua to my list. Only about 3,000 a year try it, maybe because it's known in South America as "The Mountain of Death." And then I got a web designer and a trainer and a photographer and went public with the plan and...here we are. The whole process, from "Ooooh, good idea! Let's GO, baby!" to now took three weeks. I want to think there is something magical in that - the speed, the ease, with which it all came together.
But now it's finally hit me, exactly what I've done. And I'm so scared. Not precisely because of the climbs...it's more the failure that could come with attempting them. Suppose no one reads my blog? Suppose I can't find any sponsors? Suppose I just can't do it? Because who do I think I'm kidding? I'm just a frightened, desperate mess. I'm not brave or a warrior. I'm not even a jogger. How in the hell am I going to get this nearly 50-year-old, out-of-shape body up two of the tallest mountains in the world? I really have no idea, other than to work harder than I ever have before and listen to the guys at Victory Sports and Fitness.
I had my fitness assessment at Victory last week. I was nervous, really nervous, because I pictured getting asked to do a pull-up, failing miserably, and everybody in the gym laughing at me, which is pretty much what happened in 5th grade. But instead Rob, Victory's energetic and charming owner, simply evaluated my posture, flexibility and range of motion. He discovered that my left calf is slightly less developed than my right - and assured me we'll get that squared away. He found that both my big toes only bend about half as far as they should. We'll deal with that, too, because I need my feet in good working order for Summit Day on Aconcagua, a 12-hour trek to the top. My scapulas, however, are in great shape - strong enough, Rob assured me, to bear the pressure without a shoulder dislocation if I take a tumble during the ascent and catch myself with my hands. That's as long as I don't fall 65 feet into a crevasse, like two Americans did on Aconcagua a few years ago on New Year's Eve. I'm not telling my parents about that.
A couple days after the evaluation I had my first session with my trainer, Steve Jury. Steve is about my age, with a big mustache and kind eyes. I like him very much. I also trust him to know what I need to do to get up those mountains because a couple months ago Steve did just that on Kili. The day I met him he showed me pictures of Africa he'd taken from the top of the world. In a few he's perched in front that epic, endless landscape, the place where man began, smiling so wide you'd think it was the best day of his life. Maybe it was.
Our first session surprised me. I don't know what I expected - Steve hurling medicine balls at my stomach while screaming at me to "Feel the burn," maybe. Instead, mostly what I did, along with a little cardio and some serious ankle and big toe stretching, was breathe. Flat on my back at first, later with arms held over head, then legs extended out and finally while on all fours, I breathed. From my diaphragm, with lips pursed, pulling my belly in with every exhale. It seemed easy enough. Too easy. Breathing?
"Baby steps to big steps," Steve said.
I liked that. Steve also said "Suffer now and summit later," which I liked even more. It sounded tough, like something I can chant to myself when I want to quit during a workout or practice climb. I understood the concept more clearly by that evening. My core, from my pelvis up to my breasts, had begun to ache with a dull, consistent pain that I hadn't felt the likes of in a long time. It's the pain, I suppose, of beginning. The pain of hope, too, perhaps. Because hope hurts just as much as it soothes, doesn't it? That's the hell of the thing.
Baby steps to big steps.
This is the beginning. This is how it starts, with a whimper, not a bang. My name is Jill Gleeson and in 11 days I will turn 50 years old. It's something I may find difficult to discuss with any semblance of wit or intelligence - though I will do my best as we go forward - because basically I have no clue how in the hell I got to be so old. I was 24, like, the day before yesterday. And it was fun.
is a journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Her new column about travel, adventure, love, loss, heartbreak and healing can be found on the Woman's Day website. She has contributed to Country Living, Gothamist, Washingtonian, EDGE Media Network, Canadian Traveller, Country, Country Woman, and a host of other festive publications and websites. She is the travel editor for the nation's most beautiful publication, Faerie Magazine. Her column, Rebooted, is published across Pennsylvania. She does not have a death wish.