Have You Ever Surprised Yourself?

By: Jen Shoop
Funny, how challenges -- trivial and not -- can be that way. How they can bend us into seeing ourselves anew, as though forged by fire?

While writing about the challenge and virtue of letting our children fail, I had a flashback to a memory that continually presents itself. I was maybe thirteen and my parents had left my older brother (then fifteen or so) and I at home to look after our three little siblings while they went out. A little before bedtime, my nine-year-old sister slipped and fell in the shower. She appeared in my door, like an apparition, cradling her arm. Her face was contorted in pain. Something settled over me. A nearly medicinal calm. I quietly inspected her arm. There was something not right about the wound, to my novitiate eyes — it was thin but deep. It was not smeared with blood in the way I’d anticipated, but rather slowly trickling in a way that made me think the cut was different — deeper — than your run of the mill abrasion.

“It’s fine,” I lied, “It’s going to be OK.” It was a lie because I had no idea whether it was true, but I also sensed it was the appropriate reassurance to offer given my sister’s blanched countenance. I retrieved a towel from the linen closet and wrapped it around her arm and told her not to look at it again. I said this with a kind of performed mother hen briskness that I still trot out with my own children. Then I sprinted upstairs to fetch my brother. He’d recently received his learner’s permit, and as I skipped up the steps two by two, I was already wondering whether it would be feasible for him to drive her to the E.R. for stitches, or whether it was still illegal? Maybe it would be OK given the state of emergency?

“I think Christina needs stitches,” I spluttered. My brother came down, took a look at her arm, and determined she would be fine. He insisted we wait until my parents came home. Because he was older and seemed confident in this prognosis, we did. I spent the next two hours pulling out every joke and distraction I had. I was her jester, hamming it up garishly despite my mounting concern over the bloody towel wrapped around her arm. When the headlights of my parents’ car first dotted the foot of the drive, I walked quietly out of the room, down the hall to the steps, and then sprinted down the stairs and out the door to greet them before they’d even entered the house. I breathlessly explained the situation. I felt profound relief, passing the baton of my sister’s responsibility. Adults were there and could figure out the rest. My sister did, in fact, need stitches. I remember my mother pressing me to her in a hug later that night, after they returned from the hospital. “You did all the right things,” she said. Also, possibly, a lie, but she, too, probably sensed it was the appropriate reassurance given my own blanched countenance.

This somewhat trivial anecdote reflects so much. I am struck by how conscientious and worried I was as a young girl. What might it have been like to possess my brother’s sangfroid in that circumstance? I recently read somewhere that “older sisters are the backbone of the family.” This sounds suspiciously as though it were written by an older sister. (Ha! I kid!) I do think there is an element of truth in that statement though, and I write that not to self-aggrandize, but to observe that older sisters play a powerful role in mothering younger sisters. I think back on that moment and marvel at the immediate way in which I toggled out of homework and into “mother hen mode.” I am still shocked at how calm, how non-squeamish I was. I’d stared at her wound without registering disgust or fear. “Oh, we need a towel,” I’d said, as if this was the most natural and unremarkable thing in the world.

In short, I surprised myself that night. I had not known that I possessed the strength to suppress my own worries and queasiness in service of someone I loved until that evening. Afterward, I saw myself anew.

I wish my sister hadn’t been injured in the first place, but I feel in some ways that God was introducing me to myself — or to the brave, determined, nurturing version of myself that I can sometimes be — that night. I have leaned on that glimpsed version of myself for years now, as though a perennial insurance policy. If I could it then, I can do it now, I think, when my own whimpering children materialize in my door.

Funny, how challenges — trivial and not — can be that way. How they can bend us into seeing ourselves anew, as though forged by fire?

Have you ever surprised yourself?


+Similar sentiments on transformation in motherhood here.

+I am one of five children and have learned a lot through siblinghood.

+There’s always a light on for my siblings.

+On letting feelings dry on paper.

Shopping Break.

+Currently on my lust list: one of these curvy letter necklaces to add to my fall necklace stack.

+OMG. Do I need these sequin trousers?!

+Want to try this mascara next after seeing it on a friend at a party recently — her lashes looked UNREAL!

+Pretty fall dress.

+Cute sherpa belt bag for layering over everything this fall/winter. Love a belt bag for serious mom moments, e.g., travel, playground, solo chasing children anywhere! Hands free life!

+Another great marigold find.

+Been feeling uninspired when it comes to my children’s lunchboxes — I pack the same four or five lunches over and over again — and am looking to Jenny Mollen for help.

+Obsessed with this long vest for layering over knit dresses (as styled on the site) and jeans.

+These Grinch pajamas caught my eye — my children LOVE the classic Grinch movie and watch it over and over again during the holiday season.

+Grateful for a reader for introducing me to these inexpensive velvet shoes in great fall colors at a fantastic price!

+This dove grey cardi is so beautiful.

+These classic white pima turtlenecks for littles are on sale for $11/pop! Just added a bunch to cart for both of my children. Great for layering beneath jumpers, jon jons, overalls!

+These cashmere mocknecks come in the dreamiest colors.

+Also love this under-$100 mockneck, especially in the bright pink or camel and white stripe.

+Treated myself to this headband organizer after I realized my collection was growing a bit too unwieldy.

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4 thoughts on “Have You Ever Surprised Yourself?

  1. I also appreciate this, as the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter, who is also the mother of an eldest daughter 😉

    I had a similar feeling of surprising myself the first time I followed a baking recipe all by myself, and it…turned out how it was supposed to! Not sure why that was so surprising, I was probably a young teenager, and I’m pretty sure the recipe was a pie made with pre-made crust, jello pudding and dream whip, so nothing too demanding! But however humble, it kicked off a love of baking that I’m attempting to cultivate in my daughters as well. We made rice crispy treats after school today 🙂

    1. Oh I love this memory, Stephanie! The first time you enterprised to do something on your own and…it worked! Love. Thanks for sharing that!


  2. I love this story, because it shows the warm, caring side of what you often hear (and see meme’d) of eldest sisters (Type A’s who are forever scarred by the responsibility thrust upon them). Thank you for sharing <3

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