Tossing in My Chip
I've met someone. It happened, the way it always seems to, when I was looking the other way. Innocently minding my own business, getting ready (or so I thought), to summit the highest mountain outside of Asia. I was planning to start dating again when I returned, to maybe try some dating websites, a prospect that I find only slightly more thrilling than getting my teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist hopped on speed and mescal. But this man, who I met briefly a few years ago - I'm not sure we were even properly introduced - and know from Facebook, where we've followed each other's doings since that time, started messaging me a week or two before I left for Argentina.
,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.
I've been writing a long time about facing fear, about how it cracks open wide your life, and - to paraphrase Leonard Cohen - lets the light in. But I've just discovered it's one thing to face a fear of drowning by whitewater rafting, or of heights by paragliding off a mountain. It's another thing entirely to face a fear that you will not be strong enough to take care of your family when they need you most.
Almost a year ago exactly my father fractured his C1 and C2 vertebrae in a fall. He could have - should have, really - died. But he survived and after hours in our local hospital was transferred by ambulance 90 miles to a medical center with specialists more capable of handling his injury. While I was with him in the ER, T stayed with my mother. She's not really able anymore to spend much time alone. She's got emphysema, is on oxygen 24/7, is in almost constant pain from a distintegrating spine and is beginning to show signs of what I'm afraid is dementia.
Once, not long after my brother's death, she was so confused that my father and I had to show her a photo of Gunnar and gently explain to her that her son was never coming home.
"He died, Mom," I told her. "He's gone." I held her as she sobbed, thinking there was really not any way that I was going to survive the moment. It hurt too much. You always hear tell about how life is cruel, but until then I didn't understand just gleefully cruel it could be.
The night my dad broke his neck my uncle and cousin came to stay with my mother, so T could be with me. We followed behind the ambulance bearing my father, the stars shining down on us with a brillance that only seems possible on the very coldest rural Pennsylvania nights. After Dad was tucked in to the ICU we checked into a motel. I remember I was afraid to go to sleep, terrified the phone would ring and a voice on the other end would tell me my father was dead.
We were there three nights, the whole while my aunt and uncle watching over my mom at their house. Finally my father was stable enough to be transferred to a rehab facility in our town, where he stayed for two weeks. But I'd spent a lot of the time he was recovering in ICU numb with fear that I was going to lose him. The rest I'd pondered what I would have done without T. How could I have coped if I'd been without his quiet, steadfast support? What if, after spending all day at Dad's bedside in ICU, I would have had to go back to that motel and crawl into that cold bed, alone?
I used to believe I would have broken apart. Maybe I would have. But I'm no longer the woman I once was. The pain of losing T - and my ability to negotiate that pain, as unlovely as the process has been - has honed me. I think it has sharpened my abilities to bear trauma and stress. If it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger. Eventually, that is, after it's first torn you apart, left you bloodied in a ditch by the side of the road. But if you rise up out of that place, the seams where you've stitched yourself together are more solid than you would have believed possible.
Three days ago my father went to see his doctor. He wasn't feeling well. Before he could make it in he nearly collapsed in the parking lot. A creatinine blood test revealed he was in kidney failure. I took Dad to the ER, the same ER I'd taken him almost a year ago, after his fall, and waited four or five hours while they ran more tests. Although the ER physician believed his issues were only caused by dehydration, they admitted him. I was forced to leave mom alone. T, of course, is long gone, a memory I'm willing to become more faded, dull, like a Poloroid picture that never quite developed. My mother did fine. I did, too, on my own, taking care of my father.
They discovered the next day that both of my Dad's kidneys were blocked by stones, which he's suffered from his whole life. I get them, too. They scheduled him for surgery, to implant stents to drain his kidneys and restore their function. Sometime that day, while Mom and I were visiting Dad in the hospital, our pug dog, Lola, injured herself. When we came home she was having trouble standing on her back legs.
I spent yesterday getting Lola to the vet and Mom and me to the hospital, picking up Lola and taking her and my mother back home, making dinner and finally going back alone to the hospital tonight to spend time with my dad. It was stressful. It was exhausting. Mom and I got into a couple of arguments. I need to have so much more patience. Because she's scared, too, just like me.
But it looks like Dad is going to be fine, though I just heard they're keeping him another night. We're hopeful Lola will mend, too. My Dad and I have had our issues, our blowups. But last night I was able to sit with him for a spell, reading aloud to him as the hospital quieted around us. I'll never forget it, that time. I'm grateful for it.
I'm grateful, too, that I was able to handle everything, all of it, on my own. Not perfectly, or gracefully, or with as much good humor or equanimity as I would like. I want to do better. Unfortunately, I know I'll have the chance to try. But there is comfort in knowing that I didn't fail my parents. In knowing that I'm stronger than I once was - and less strong than I will someday be.
I'm grateful for my mom and dad. They're old and difficult and broken in a way that can't ever heal by my brother's death. We fight. I'm not nearly as patient as I should be with them. I want to do better, but I haven't. And it kills me to see their health degrade, to see them sick and in pain. But they love me unquestionably in their imperfect way, the way I love them unquestionably in my imperfect way. We do the best we can, the three of us. And for that I'm grateful.
I'm grateful for my brother. I'm grateful that he lived, if I regret every day the way he died. I still sense him here, can nearly hear his great, booming voice and feel the way he he would wrap me in a hug, putting his whole big body and sprawling soul into it. Every once in while I still miss him so much it doubles me over. But how very, very lucky I am that I was Gunnar Shroyer's sister. I'm so grateful for that.
I'm grateful for my friends. The ones who've come into my life after the end of my relationship with T, the ones I'd lost touch with have who re-entered it since and the ones who have been here forever, it seems, helping me navigate the crests and troughs of healing. This is one of the most difficult stretches of my life and it's because of you that I'm making it through. I hope you know how much I love you. For each of you I'm so very grateful.
I'm grateful for the wild. For the mountains and forests and streams. For the paths that cross them, where I've felt a peace I've found nowhere else. Those three days last month I spent hiking the Appalachian Trail were some of the best of my life. How is possible that at 50 I've discovered this lust for the wild, this strong, steady need to wander it, to explore it, to pull it close it around me, like a lover or a gown of silk? I think this love, like all great loves, will take me somewhere I couldn't imagine when I first started to fall.
I'm grateful for writing. It's hard. It hurts. But every once in a while, when I know that I've written something of beauty that might make someone feel not quite as alone as they did before they read it, I think there's a chance my life might just have meaning.
I'm grateful for every single fucked up man I ever lowered myself to let inside my heart and head, because you've shown me what I don't want ever again. I'm grateful to every single man I've hurt, because you deserved better, and you've shown me who I don't want to be. I'm grateful for the sound of a train coming slow on the tracks, for good vodka and fast cars with stick shifts, for the candles I've lit in the cathedrals around the world for my brother, for hot sunshine and cool sheets, for the scents of lemongrass and lavender, and patchouli, too.
I'm grateful for high heels, even though I shouldn't be, and great jazz, for the taste of dark chocolate speckled with sea salt, and the feel of champagne tickling my tongue. I'm grateful for sex, hot and fast or long and slow, and how my appreciation and need for it has only deepened with age. I'm grateful for the pleasure I'm discovering in working my body, in feeling it sweat and stretch, and that it's still healthy enough to do everything I ask of it.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe I've still got a little bit of shine left in me.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe I still got a great love ahead of me.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe life still holds the magic of sweet surprise.
Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included