This Is Us

This was my inner voice

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Photo: Andrew Neel/Unsplash

If I just tried harder, I’d be more successful.

If I could just figure out what’s wrong with me, maybe I could fix it.

Life seems so much easier for everyone else. I must be doing it wrong.

These harsh words were my inner voice, my unwelcome mantras, for decades. They were the fallout from hearing, over and over again throughout my adolescence, “You’re just not living up to your potential.” If only my teachers had known that I couldn’t claw my way to my “full potential” by sheer will alone. If only I’d had the words to tell them.

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Photo by Jonatan Pie, via Unsplash

In my darkest moments, I imagined an alternate life in which I’d never chosen motherhood.

“What was the hardest age for you to parent?” I asked my mom one afternoon when my son was a baby. We were strolling through the cemetery near our house, past cracked, moss-smothered headstones, past old, forgotten lives.

She thought for a moment. “Middle school was pretty hard,” she said. I nodded, peering down at my son in his baby carrier, kissed the small head that rested against my chest.

But inside, I wilted. I wanted her to say that infancy was hard. That right now — this minefield of exhaustion, this constant overwhelm, was the hardest part. …

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Image by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

How many hours of screen time does your child get per day?

From nearly the first time I took my infant son to his pediatrician — back when my worries spiraled around breastfeeding and diaper-monitoring and the holy grail of sleep — the questions, and the underlying negative messaging about screen time, began.

As my son grew, our doctor’s receptionist handed us questionnaires at every appointment asking how many hours of screen time our kids had per day. The screen-related questions sat alongside inquiries about how many fruits, vegetables and hours of exercise our child got each day, as well as whether any guns we might have owned were stored safely. As…

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash

The phone rings. There’s a rap at the door. The doctor urges, “Sit down.” A policeman or surgeon or mother hands you the news.

You don’t even have time to wave goodbye to your old life, to claw and scurry for it as you’re thrust into this new, unwished for world.

At first, the loss is everything — a hot, swirling sun that churns through the core of you. You see nothing but this glaring sun; try to close your eyes to it, and the scorched spots still blaze against your eyelids. You cannot forget; your brain is on fire…

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Image by Debby Hudson via Unsplash

I first laid eyes on Portland, Maine on Valentine’s Day.

I was 23, a near-child with burgundy-tinted hair and an alarming restlessness. I’d been road-tripping across America with a friend, and on a whim, I decided to visit the city I’d read about in Stephen King novels.

We arrived in the evening, coasted Congress Street to the ocean-overlooking East End, then looped back into downtown. The sidewalks were bucketed with snow, and the lights from restaurants and shops glowed like beacons. Just a month earlier, the famous ice storm had assaulted the town, leaving power lines and branches encased in…

This Is Us

With my brother gone, am I still a sister?

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Photo: Dan Smith/Moment/Getty Images

Do you have any siblings?

I don’t feel the warm rush of panic flood my chest when I’m asked this question anymore, though I’ve never quite gotten used to it. As a middle-aged mom, I don’t actually hear it as much anymore. When I’m getting to know someone new, our inquiries tend to center around kids or jobs or news.

So when someone asked me recently, I was caught off guard.

We were at my mom’s doctor appointment. My mind flitted around from the fire alarm that had delayed her appointment by a half hour to my mom’s health to…

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Image by Veit Hammer via Unsplash

In the beginning, full of shock and swarm, sip tea. Nibble on toast, crackers, cake.

Move your limbs gently — go for short walks, allow splashes of sunlight to slide across your cheeks.

Take warm showers or baths. Accept the invitation offered by the water. Cry. Release. Repeat.

Whisper to the sky, to the spaces between stars. To the air where they might now reside. Say it’s not fair. Say I wasn’t ready. Say come back.

Press your palms to the places it hurts. Breath warmth into these tender, knotted places.

String together moments. Fragments of moments. Fractals. Shards. Half-breaths.

Our faces shrouded in masks, have we set down some of the other types of masks we wear?

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Image by Kate Kalvach via Unsplash

“I just had head surgery,” the woman tells me, removing her winter hat, parting her blonde hair, and tipping her head down to show me the raw-looking scar that juts across her scalp.

“Oh, wow,” I say, putting my hand to my face. I’m not sure how else to respond. “I’m sorry,” I add, unsure whether it’s the right thing to say.

The woman is nearly a stranger to me; I’m meeting her because I’m handing off my dear friend’s elderly dog that’s been staying with us for the past two and a half weeks while my friend’s been unwell.

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

I wouldn’t change a thing

I hear you upstairs, yawning, then talking on the phone. You’re telling your favorite joke of the moment, the one where you finagle whoever you’re talking to into saying, “What’s up dog?” And then you say, “Not much, what’s up with you, Dawg?” You’re laughing at your own punchline.

We’ve been together nearly every day now since mid-March. These new, pandemic versions of ourselves, who follow less stringent hygiene patterns. Me with my purple-streaked hair. You with your fancy new athletic pants, your stubble.

And always, the kids. We’ve been together, and yet I’m sitting here writing this for you…

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Image by whoislimos from Unsplash

Get to know the places where you hurt

Tend to your pain.

Know it will rise up to meet you each morning. Everything is different, now, it wails.


Come to know the places where it hurts.

Your sternum. The pit of your belly. The tender fascia that nests your heart.

Place a palm there. Comfort your flesh. It hurts because something has been ripped from you, like an organ, a limb. An essential slice of you is missing.

Vow that more often than not, you will turn towards your pain. Even as the world tries to distract you. As it flashes quick fixes your way.

Know that…

Lynn Shattuck

Writer on sibling loss, grief, parenting, wellness and mental health. Voracious reader.

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