I Turned Out Okay

Brimley children playing hockey

People post comments on my blog fairly regularly, though most of them come from family and friends I’ve known for quite some time. Sometimes, however, I get comments from strangers. They might be other widows who’ve found me through social media or people who knew about Shawn professionally. But there’s one comment that I re-read constantly. It’s from a woman named Maeve, who I don’t know at all. Here is what she wrote (with a few minor edits):

“I don’t know you or your family, but my father passed away from cancer when I was 9. My mother gave his eulogy too, and I still can’t believe what strength that must take. I’m 25 now – losing my father young was so hard, and it’s an understatement to say that my mother had some very hard years. But that loss made me strong, grounded, and appreciative. I turned out okay, and I want you to know that your kids will too. They will be strong.”

When I first saw this comment, I immediately read it to my family who was in town that day. I had tears streaming down my face as I tried to convey to them how important it was to read – from a total stranger no less – that my kids were going to be okay. I know intellectually that my kids are resilient, but then I see the daily struggle that we are going through right now and I doubt everything. I can’t so much as go upstairs and brush my teeth in the morning without Tommy crying. Austin refuses to sleep the entire night in his own bed. And Claire breaks down in tears sometimes and then tells me she doesn’t really know why she’s crying.  Every day it just seems like at least one of them is falling apart.

God knows I have my own grief that creates a specific lens through which I view their struggles. I worry every day about what the absence of a father will mean as they grow into teenagers and young adults. They are so young and such a huge portion of their lives are in front of them.  There are so many things I want for them, but there are also so many unknowns going forward.

Now, a few months from the death of their father, some of those things that I’ve always wanted for them are starting to seem less important than they once were. A year ago, I think I would have said that there were a number of goals I had for my children. By the end of preschool, Tommy should know how to spell his name and identify much of the alphabet. By the end of first grade, Austin should be reading much more difficult books and should definitely be involved in at least one sport. Maybe he’d even start taking music lessons. By the end of third grade, Claire should be doing much more advanced math and Spanish, and she should be really developing her guitar skills.

Of course, some of this has happened, and some of it has not. (Okay, most of it has not.) Take Spanish. Claire and Austin both take a class before school two mornings a week. They have always gone somewhat happily, and I never minded the early drop off. But now it just seems like a total slog. I am exhausted, and the morning is the worst. Tommy screams when I leave without him, and neither Claire nor Austin do their Spanish homework anymore. I always thought learning Spanish was essential.  I always wished that my parents had insisted that I take classes earlier. I always emphasized how important it is to know another language and how vital the Spanish language is to living in America and being a citizen of the world. I hired a Spanish-speaking nanny that cared for my children for four years to make sure they were exposed to the basics. I want them to know Spanish. I do.

But I really don’t care anymore. I actually want to care, and intellectually, I want them to know Spanish and develop language skills early in their lives. But Claire was crying this morning as she got ready for school. She is not a morning person and that’s only gotten worse since January. She didn’t want to go to Spanish. She just wanted to take her time eating her cereal and putting on her shoes.

I made her go anyway, but after I dropped her off, I thought, “really?” Do I really care about this? How important is it that I keep pushing her in this one specific way?

The death of a parent shouldn’t mean that a kid stops learning in school, and both Claire’s and Austin’s teachers have been great about continuing to treat them like normal kids academically. But Shawn’s death has refocused me. As I’ve written about before, I no longer worry about things that don’t matter, like lost objects. But it’s also made me question what my kids really need.

I don’t know if I should keep my kids in Spanish, or in baseball or guitar for that matter. I think they need to learn perseverance and new skills, even if this is a hard time in their lives. But I also am questioning my ideas about everything I’ve ever thought they should do. I’m starting to re-imagine what I really want for my kids.

I want them to speak Spanish and play the guitar and know how to throw a ball. But really, I want them to emerge as whole human beings from this time period. Shawn’s death has shattered our world, but I do not want them to be broken forever.

What do I really want for my kids as we all move through this year, and the years ahead?  I want them to remember Shawn fondly, and I want them to be able to say what Maeve said about the death of her father – that the loss was awful, but that it “made me strong, grounded, and appreciative.”

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.

24 Replies to “I Turned Out Okay”

  1. In 2011, I lost an old friend and teammate from my high school days on Christmas Day. He tucked his kids in, read them a story, and then – boom – cardiac arrest. Kyle was 33.

    All three of his kids were younger than six at the time and his wife struggled mightily through the kinds of things that you’ve just mentioned. The little guy, sadly, has never known his father save through stories as he was less than a year old at the time of his passing.

    Today, however, they are thriving and this is due to the overwhelming support of friends, family and neighbors. I last saw them at Christmas and loved seeing Maisie’s face light up when I told her what an animal her old man was on the soccer pitch. She just loved hearing this because it brought him ‘to life’ for a few moments.

    I suspect that down the road, your kids will reach the same point, Marjorie. It’s amazing to me how you keep taking hits on a moment-by-moment, day-to-day basis, but persist in moving forward. You must be made of flint and diamonds.

    That’s what’s going to make all the difference, my friend! Onward!

    1. Thank you so much for this. I love hearing stories about Shawn and so do my kids – and I hope people tell them those stories forever.

  2. Paula Donnelly says: Reply

    My college boyfriend lost his dad when he was 4 years old and there’s no doubt it left an indelible mark. He’s very much who he is today because of how he grew up — he’s a beloved school principal and a dad to 2 adorable little munchkins. When we talked about the future, he actually shrugged off the concern about dying young (he was a football player, so not exactly svelte or cardiovascularly fit), saying, “My mom raised us by herself and we’re all awesome.” At the time I thought it was so macabre, but your post reminded me of it for the first time in 15+ years and I see it through a different lens now.

    You certainly know more than anyone there are no guarantees in life, but your resilience, grit, grace, honesty, and courage will leave a mark on them that will carry them through. They have an amazing village (I mean, seriously, YOUR VILLAGE!) behind them, no matter where life takes them. And maybe they should be taking Russian (haha).

    1. I love this. So much. THANK YOU for sharing – I love what your college boyfriend said and the way he said it – like it was no big deal to turn out awesome after a terrible life event.

  3. God bless Ms. Maeve! The kindness and wisdom of strangers. And Ms. Marjorie, you are also spreading the same!
    PS….Maybe one day in the future we will see each other again in CR and we can send our kids out to play with the neighborhood kids, they’ll be speaking Spanish by the end of the week!

    1. Oh, thank you so much for this. And yes, one of the reasons I want my kids to learn Spanish is because of the amazing months we all spent there together. I’d love to do a trip like that someday!

  4. Two years ago, my son’s kindergarten classmate lost her mother very suddenly leaving the father with 3 very young children. They were an incredible couple, admired by all, as they were business partners in addition to being marriage partners. The father told me in the months that followed that he was giving himself and the kids an entire year to be free of obligations – to reevaluate what they wanted from this new version of their family. That he was being “good cop” for a year; not forcing the kids to do things that didn’t bring them explicit joy. I thought that made so much sense as I imagined what I might do in his shoes. I am inspired by, and in awe of, all who must navigate this incredibly challenging path. Thank you for sharing your experience so honestly. You and your little ones are constantly in my thoughts.

    1. Thanks so much for this comment – and yes, I think it’s absolutely what I should be doing – getting us free of as many obligations as possible. It’s hard to do, but that’s a great goal. Thanks so much for reading my blog.

  5. Sheryll Brimley says: Reply

    Love that reply from Christina! You should definately think about that Marjorie. The summer will be such a good time for all of you to relax & have some fun together. You might even want to reassess all the activities for the next school year as well. Interesting I was telling a friend a few weeks ago how everything I do these days is such an effort. How I have to force myself to do some basic things that I have always done ….( like spring cleaning) And she told me the same thing…give yourself a break this year. Only do what brings you peace & maybe even a little joy. Like …gardening! Love you & the kids! They are all so darn smart…they can learn to speak Spanish anytime!

    1. Thanks Sheryll. I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot, especially as the school year ends and everyone wants me to do things next year. I’m trying to say, “I just need a year to take on nothing, other than what’s already on my plate.” This is hard to do, but I know it’s super NEEDED!

  6. I remember when you read that quote to us. I am so thankful that through this outlet you have received advice and hope from strangers, because your outlet is helping strangers cope too.

    1. Thanks so much my dear cousin.

  7. Carrie Milne says: Reply

    Marjorie – I have been reading your blog religiously and I am blown away by your compassion and strengh. Shawn was my very dear friend at Queen’s and I have never stopped thinking about him. I loved watching the life the two of you created. My heart broke with his passing. I lost my dad at age 8 and like Maeve said, I also turned out okay. I now use my experience with grief to help children who have experienced the death of a primary caregiver.

    Your words mean so much to me and your children are so very lucky to have you as their mother. They will never stop missing their father but having a mother as strong and loving as you will get them through.

    1. Thanks so much – truly. I love hearing that people far away are still thinking of Shawn and of our family. And these comments about people who turned out okay after the loss of a parent at a young age are so important to me. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Nancy Clark says: Reply

    It is so much easier to encourage children to stick with a commitment when it is one they are really interested in doing. Then, when it becomes difficult or when it interrupts something else that would also be fun to do, it isn’t difficult to teach them the importance of sticking with their commitments.

    If Spanish isn’t something that Claire desires right now, there are many years ahead where she can pick up a language study. She won’t become a slug if she pares down her academic studies just a bit and just for a year or two.

    This first year is going to be devestating to each one of you. Year two will be the beginning of a long healing process. Letting the children relax their schedules for a year or so is as important to them as it must be for you. This year is one for just dealing with emotional rollercoasters.

    You are an amazing Mother, Marjorie. Cut yourself a break and, while you are doing that, cut the children a break, too.

    1. I know. I am scaling back big time this summer and probably even more next year. We’re doing what we absolutely must and what we absolutely love and that’s it. xo

  9. Marjorie, my Uncle Tom died at the same age as Shawn leaving a 3,4 & 8 year old behind. My Aunt Barbara has done an incredible job acting as Mom/Dad and I can report that all 3 of my cousins are awesome individuals and adults. I have no doubt you will do the same for Claire, Austin & Tommy. You are so incredibly strong! Joan Didion wrote a book called, “The Year of Magical Thinking” after her husband died. You too are entitled to such a year or more if needed. We love you, Julie & Mark (& kids)

    1. I read “The Year of Magical Thinking” years ago, and have been thinking maybe I’ll pick it up again. Thanks for your encouraging note – I loved it.

  10. I have read your blog and felt the amazing love you shared with your husband, as well and the anguish you have from his loss. It is heart wrenching and inspiring.
    My story is similar but different. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer October 17, 1980. He passed away on December 28 of that year. I was born in early February of 1981. The doctor who declared my father dead, declared the time I entered into this world a mere 6 weeks later. He turned to my mother and told her he had never experienced such a powerful moment about the circle of life. My father’s condition was similar to Shawn’s, by the time it showed up, it was bad. In fact his surgical report says “opened patient up, riddled with tumours, nothing can be done but suture up and commence chemo/radiation to shrink tumours and try again”. He didn’t live long enough to ever try again. I too turned out okay. Some days were harder than others. Father’s Day was hard, especially one year when someone thought they were being kind and said “well maybe it’s good that you never knew your dad, this way you don’t have anything to miss”. I remember the red hot rage as I thought to myself; no you jerk, that’s exactly it. I have no pictures of my dad holding me, no memory of his smile, his laugh, what a hug felt like or the feeling of knowing he loved me. Grief is huge, in fact, all these years later I still have moments when I grieve for what might have been. But again, I turned out okay. I grew up knowing that death was an unfortunate thing that some people experience earlier than others, it taught me to have a tough skin for stupid comments, and it taught me that life is precious. Laugh as much as you can, live in the moment, and be thankful for what you had, even if you are angry that it wasn’t as long as you wanted. And carry love in your heart always. Even when it feels shattered into a million pieces. Much love to you Marjorie. You are amazing.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing. It’s oddly comforting to know how many other people have been through similar circumstances and survived – and thrived.

  11. Marj, you don’t give yourself enough credit. You are an incredible person (always have been, always will be), friend and mother. Even through this devastating hardship, I am confident your kids will turn out great because they have you and an incredible army of love and kindness surrounding them, both near and far. They also are the wonderful mix of you and Shawn – that’s damn good blood! You and your kids are loved from every corner of this country and beyond. Hugs. xoxo

    1. Thank you! I really appreciate this comment – and I can’t wait to see you. xo

  12. Kathleen Krepps says: Reply

    This post really spoke to me as a mama of a special needs kiddo. My #1 question in life is “Is he going to be OK?” I have found great comfort in coming right out and asking it directly. On the phone with the neuropsychiatrist, literally saying, “But is he going to turn out OK?” She said, “Of course I can’t answer that for you, but I can tell you about my son, who sounds very similar to yours–and he’s about to graduate from college. It wasn’t always easy, but we made it.” Or saying the developmental pediatrician, “But he goes to a bilingual school and he can’t seem to pick up Spanish! What will become of him?” He said, “Who cares if he speaks Spanish? As long as he’s behaving appropriately and feels comfortable at school, maybe it doesn’t matter.” Or on the phone today with the dietitian, saying, “At this rate, he’s going to be morbidly obese by the time he grows up!” She said “Well, yes, he’s always going to be a big kid–I think it’s realistic for him to be 200-230 pounds by high school graduation. But we’re going to make sure he’s the healthiest big kid out there.” Or asking the family therapist, “Oh shit, what about my OTHER son? Is HE going to be OK? Half the time I don’t even notice him because I’m so consumed with his brother.” He said “Empathy is the most important thing you can teach your children, but it’s also one of the hardest things to teach in the abstract. You really have to live it, and his experience loving his brother will give him lessons in empathy like no other. Siblings of children with special needs grow up to be more resilient and more empathetic than other kids. And frankly kids don’t WANT you to pay attention to them all the time; they want independence. Stop beating yourself up and start seeing it as a gift to him.” It’s hard to give up some of my hopes and expectations and to manage my anxiety, but it really helps to come out and say it–just like you’re doing with this beautiful blog.

    1. Kathleen, this is beautiful – thank you so much for sharing. It’s so hard to balance anything that’s less than perfect with family (which, as I’ve come to find out, is often a lot!) but that’s true….they will turn out okay.

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