Author Archives

Megan Stielstra
Megan Stielstra is the author of three collections, most recently The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. Her work appears in the Best American Essays, New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, Catapult, and on National Public Radio.

We Are All We Have

Lisa Valder / Getty

Megan Stielstra | Longreads | December 2019 | 22 minutes (5,562 words)

I spent last December taking care of my 70-year-old mother after surgery. She doesn’t like being taken care of. She takes care of herself. She lives happily alone in an impeccably decorated condo near Ann Arbor full of art and books and a fireplace that turns on with a remote control. She does Pilates every morning. She visits my 93-year-old grandmother every afternoon. She wears vegan “leather” and doesn’t eat dairy and goes to her doctors’ appointments and canvasses for the Democratic party and Facetimes her grandson in Chicago on Sundays so I can have a merciful extra hour of sleep. We have the same last name; sometimes her former students read my stuff and email through my website to ask if I am related to the Ms. Stielstra who taught fourth grade and totally changed their lives. I’m her daughter, I say. She’s wonderful, they say, and I say, I know.

“I need surgery,” she told me in September. We were on speakerphone, me stuck in traffic trying to get from the university where I teach to my son’s elementary school. In my head was every movie ever made of a child sitting sad and alone because their mother is late to pick them up. The word surgery hit like a baseball bat: I thought of the inoperable tumor in my best friend’s daughter’s brain, my father’s heart attack on a mountain in Alaska, my friend Randy’s emergency quadruple bypass, the cancers that took both my grandfathers, the hip replacement my grandmother had never recovered from, and the tumor they peeled years ago off my ovary. Please don’t let it spread, I thought.

“Not that kind of surgery,” my mother said, responding audibly to my inner monologue. We talk three or four times a week and she knows how I think. Or maybe it’s a mother-daughter thing, our bodies tied together across miles and molecules. Maybe she’s really a witch. “It’s foot surgery,” she said. “Again.”

Five years before she’d had a cyst removed from the bone in her foot and something hadn’t healed right. The pain was constant. She used a cane. She couldn’t drive long distances. She’d been to countless podiatrists, orthopedists, physical therapists. “Looks okay,” they said after X-Rays. “Try this exercise, this ice pack, this orthotic.” She bought special shoes. She bought a stationary bike. Nothing got better and no one could say why. “These things happen as we get older,” they told her, another way of saying It’s all in your head. “I know my body,” she told them, another way of saying Fuck that noise. Of course my elegant mother doesn’t use the word fuck. “Ladies can say shit, damn, and hell,” she always told me, reciting the sentence like it was gospel, like she’d read it in Emily Post. “But they can never say — ” She didn’t finish the sentence.

“Foot surgery is good, right?” I said into the speakerphone. My relief was near-tangible, a thing I could hold to my heart. “Maybe they’ll find out what’s wrong.”

“That’s the plan,” she said. “But I won’t be able to walk for a month and — ” She hates asking me for help. I have a kid and a job and she doesn’t want to bother me even though I tell her repeatedly that it’s the furthest thing from. Of course I’ll be there. This is how we take care of each other.
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Maybe We’re the Circle


Megan Stielstra with Nicole Piasecki | Longreads | April 2018 | 18 minutes (4,936 words)


This is the third in a three-part series on gun violence.

In part one, long after the shooting at her old high school, Megan Stielstra worries about her father’s heart.

In part two, Nicole Piasecki writes a letter to the wife of the shooter who killed her father.

In part three, Megan and Nicole talk about the shooting that changed their lives, who owns the story, and what to do with fear. 

* * *

On December 16th, 1993 there was a shooting at my high school in Chelsea, Michigan. A sleepy little town west of Ann Arbor, the reporter called it. I was a freshman in college. I watched it unfold on the national news from a thousand miles away. This was years before Twitter, before we all had cell phones in our pockets. I couldn’t get through to anyone at home. I couldn’t find out what had happened. One fatality, said the reporter. A local school administrator.

My father was a local school administrator.

Hours later, I heard his voice on the phone. Anyone who has been through such waiting knows that planet of relief. But here’s the brutal truth: as I learned that my dad was alive, another girl learned that hers was not. Our superintendent and friend, Joe Piasecki, was killed that day. He had a daughter a year younger than me. Her name was Nicole.

I’ve thought about writing to her at least a hundred times.

“Here,” I would say. “Here is my heart.”

A few years ago I started working on an essay about my relationship with my dad. He lives on an island now in the Gulf of Alaska. He had heart problems while hunting in the mountains, and, after surgery, went right back up. I was angry at the risks I thought he was taking with his health. I was scared I would lose him and I didn’t know what to do with that fear, but I learned something in the writing about the choices we make to keep living. He’d quit his job and moved to Alaska not long after the shooting. He needed those miles. He needed that mountain. I get that now.

After I finished a draft, I looked Nicole up online. She’s a writer now, and a writing teacher, same as me. How do you start with someone you haven’t spoken with in 20 years? I wrote. I sent her the essay, asking if she wanted me to change anything, cut anything, leave it in a drawer. I’d never given anyone that kind of power over my work but in in this case it felt vital. It didn’t matter who I was as a writer. It mattered who I was as a person.
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Here is My Heart


Megan Stielstra | An essay from the collection The Wrong Way To Save Your Life | Harper Perennial | August 2017 | 27 minutes (7,366 words)


This is the first in a three-part series on gun violence.

In part one, long after the shooting at her old high school, Megan Stielstra worries about her father’s heart.

In part two, Nicole Piasecki writes a letter to the wife of the shooter who killed her father.

In part three, Megan and Nicole talk about the shooting that changed their lives, who owns the story, and what to do with fear. 


* * *

Write your name here. Address, here. Here — check every box on this long list of disorders and diseases and conditions that are a part of your medical history, your parents’ medical history, your grandparents’ medical history and down the DNA. So much terrifying possibility. So much what if in our blood, our bones.

I checked two. Melanoma and —

“Heart disease?” my new doctor asked. I liked her immediately; her silver hair, her enviable shoes. Is that an appropriate thing to say to your doctor? I know we’re talking about my vagina but those heels are incredible. Later, I’d love her intelligence and, later still, her respect for my intelligence even when — especially when — I acted bonkers. She removed the weird, spotty growths from my arm and told me they weren’t cancer. She diagnosed my thyroid disorder and fought it like a dragon. She helped me understand my own body and demanded that I treat it with kindness, even when — especially when — I was stressed or exhausted or scared. It’s so easy to forget ourselves, to prioritize our own hearts second or tenth or not at all. Do you see yourself in that sentence? Are you, right this very moment, treating yourself less than? Cut that shit out, my doctor would say, except she’d say it in professional, even elegant doctorspeak and to her, I listen. Her, I trust. Every woman should have such an advocate and the fact that our patient/doctor relationship is a privilege as opposed to a right makes me want to set the walls on fire. Look up — see the wall in front of you? Imagine it in flames.

“Megan?” she said, and I pulled myself away from her shoes. “There’s a history of heart disease in your family?”

“Yes,” I said. “My dad.”
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