“I Think He’s Dying”

Shawn Brimley, husband of DC widow blog writer Marjorie, walks across a field with son Tommy

It was New Year’s Day, 2018. I was with a couple of friends and their husbands. Our kids ran all over the house, happy to be with each other. Shawn was at home, finally, but we had decided that he’d spend the afternoon sleeping and I’d take the kids out of the house. It was freezing, and they were stir-crazy.

I didn’t want to leave him, but there was still some part of me that thought we had a really long road ahead of us. If that was the case, we needed to make sure to keep the kids’ routine steady, and that meant getting them out of the house to see their friends on New Year’s Day.

I tried to make normal conversation with my friends, but my memory of the day was how impossible it was. Shawn had just come home from the hospital the day before and our entire house was littered with medical supplies and devices. I had tried to make him something he could eat that morning, but he couldn’t stomach it. So when I was sitting around with my friends talking about the upcoming year (or whatever it was that we were talking about) I could only think about how Shawn had looked when I left him. It wasn’t good.

Everyone there had asked about Shawn when I arrived, and I said he was doing okay. “Glad to be home,” I told them. But it wasn’t the whole story. I had watched him inject himself with drugs that day, and struggle to take a shower. He wouldn’t let me help him, even though I kept asking him. “I can do it all by myself, really,” he told me. Even days before his death, he was protecting me.

I never gave him his daily shot. Not once. Not even the day before he died when he could barely walk. I never bathed him. I didn’t empty the drains he had after surgery, and I didn’t clean his wounds. He wouldn’t let me. He soldiered on through it all each day, dealing with his own medical issues with a level of mental fortitude I was impressed with even though I’d known him – and loved him – for 15 years at that point.

“You don’t need to watch,” he’d say when he was giving himself a shot each day. I wasn’t that thin-skinned, and I could have done it. But he wouldn’t let me. I admired his toughness. It was with him until the very end.

And yet, it was the morning of New Year’s Day when I saw a softness in his eyes. He wasn’t giving up, that was clear, but he was allowing sleep to come to him more easily and he was letting the exhaustion creep over his body in a way that I hadn’t seen yet. I’m not sure how to totally describe it, but it was as though his mind and his body were in a battle, and for the first time, I could see his body winning.

The image of him sitting in our living room recliner stuck with me as I chatted that day with my friends. At some point, there was a lull in the conversation and out of nowhere, I said, “I think he’s dying.”

Everyone looked at me. It was the first time I’d said it out loud. I had worried that he might die, and Shawn had made me do some planning in case he did die. But I hadn’t said those words out loud yet. I’m still not sure why I did it then.

I struggled to continue. I can’t even remember what my friends’ faces looked like, but I’m sure those looks were not good. “It just feels like he’s dying,” I said again. “I’m not sure why, it just feels like that.”

They were loving, and even encouraging. But in that moment, it was like I was realizing something I hadn’t let myself really know yet.

Shawn was dying. Really, truly dying.

17 Replies to ““I Think He’s Dying””

  1. As uncomfortable and devastating as it must have been, I applaud the mental fortitude it took for you to be able to acknowledge and say it.
    Right to the last minute I was never able to accept, acknowledge and definitely not speak that my wife was departing. ( I still can’t say it) which definitely causes it own set off issues with closure in addition to the grief from the actual loss.
    Stay Strong

  2. My heart ached for you, Marjorie, as I read this. I, too, thought my husband and I had a really long road ahead of us in terms of a possible recovery. Recently though, I went back through our appointment calendar and in retrospect it looks like a chronicle of an increasingly rapid decline: radiation appointments that were suspended by stints in the hospital; follow-up appointments that were canceled because he was too ill to go to them, etc. It was so hard to admit that the unthinkable was indeed a reality.

    1. It’s almost impossible to face the reality. I think Shawn helped me get there. He faced his own mortality in a way that was almost impossible to understand.

      1. So true. Like Shawn, my husband never voiced any fears about what was happening to him. It was always my well-being that concerned him. He was the most selfless person I’ve ever known.

  3. Marjorie and Melissa,
    What you both have shared so echoes what I went through with Mark. I can’t even imagine the thoughts my husband must have had when we found out his cancer was back. It was gut wrenching to watch him through those final 2 weeks of his life. He handled it without complaining. And I remember being heart broken that I would have only 2 more weeks with him. A couple of times he apologized to me…and that crushed me. I’m glad he’s no longer struggling or suffering….but I miss him every day!

  4. Besides everything else which is incredible about this post (and all of them) is your amazingly accurate description of that moment when the person who is dying no longer has the energy to “protect” their loved ones. It creeps up slowly but there is definitely a moment and you saw it and named it because you knew him so well

    1. Yes – and I think that moment can also come and go. It did for Shawn, but I saw the first sign of it on that New Year’s Day a year ago.

  5. Hello Marjorie, I understand somewhat what Shawn was doing. He was protecting you and loving you to very last second. I am doing the same with my darling husband. I spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in ICU, and tried to be me, and make him feel that nothing was wrong and that we could power through this together. I never lay my burdens on his shoulders. I am now to put him through more agony as I have a radical double mastectomy. I am trying to build positivity around this situation for my husband and sons. I keep laughing and telling them not to start mourning me right now, that I still have stuff to do and have just applied for a new job. I know in my heart that it is all complete and utter madness. But if can take a single gram off of the pain etched into my husband of 34 years face, then I will do whatever it takes, and for however long I need to. So I have some understanding of Shawn needing to protect you. But my goodness, I take my hat off to Shawn, he is one of the strongest people I have ever heard of in my life.

    1. This is a beautiful and heartbreaking comment. I love how you say, “I keep laughing and telling them not to start mourning me right now, that I still have stuff to do and have just applied for a new job.” Yes, yes, yes! Let’s be present with each other for however long we get each other. Sending hugs.

  6. Reliving all of these moments must be so hard, Marjorie. Thinking of you and your beautiful family, thank you for sharing pieces of your heart with all of us. I love you, my friend! I hope 2019 bring you peace.

    1. Thanks my dear friend. xo

  7. I’m having that conversation on repeat today. After 6 months of fighting metastatic breast cancer my wife is slowly losing a battle with pneumonia. Yesterday morning it hit me like a brick when the surgeon said nothing could be done for her collapsed lung that wouldn’t kill her. That conversation was the point it was clear that she wasn’t going to beat this. Now I am ushering friends, family, children and parents through that realization so they can say what they need to.

    Thank you for your writing – it has really helped.

    1. Adam, thanks so much for sharing. And I’m so, so sorry. It’s just awful and there’s nothing that anyone can do to ease your pain. Just know that there are many others holding you – and your family – in our hearts.

  8. Marjorie,
    Every time I think about Shawn I find myself here on your blog, hoping to learn more about his life. Being a coworker means you see someone regularly but you don’t know them as deeply as their friends and family. With Shawn it was different. He’s one of a small handful of coworkers that I’ve met in my various jobs who took the time to get to know me better and to share bits of his own life with me. Still, there’s so much I didn’t get to know and I’m so thankful to read more about his character and his love for you and his kids. I thought of him a lot this Christmas, as I did last Christmas. I’m glad that there’s a place for me to go to hear more stories about him. Thank you, for sharing more about him with those of us who miss him. <3 Melody

    1. I’m so touched, always, by the people who don’t really know me but who knew and loved Shawn and read about him through me. He was a wonderful man – and I love that he was close to those he worked with. He admired you, Melody – I can remember him often talking about you. Thanks for the love.

  9. Marjorie – as always, thank you for being open and loving in your grief. We’ve been praying for strength and peace for you and the kids daily, as you approach this first anniversary. Sending love.

    1. Thank you so much – I do feel the prayers and all the love from everyone in my community. xo

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