The Little Hand on My Back

Austin Brimley playing at the river in Rock Creek Park

My middle child, Austin, is not the extrovert like his older sister and younger brother.  Though he doesn’t hide from a crowd, he’s most happy at home, reading books, riding his bike in the alley, and cuddling in our big chair with me.

He’s always been this way.  Shawn and I spent a painful year watching Austin scream and cry every single day when we’d leave him at the preschool doors.  The next year was less dramatic, but he still shed many tears.  Finally in kindergarten he could walk into the classroom without crying, but he would still turn around the entire time and watch us, running into his classmates in order to catch one last glimpse of his parents.  It was sweet, and other parents often commented that they envied how connected he was to us.

Austin is also the most like his dad.  Shawn was known to be a character, full of life and a ton of fun, even in his professional role.  But though he loved his friends, he was most content at home with just the five of us.  Shawn was not quiet, but he was an introvert at heart, and would rather play the role of DJ than party host.

And so it should not be a surprise at all that Austin was hit really hard by the death of his father.  The morning I told him, huge tears fell immediately from his eyes and he quickly put his head under his pillow.  I didn’t know how to console him, so I just laid down next to him and said a thousand times over and over, “it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”

It wasn’t okay.  Obviously.

When he finally returned to school, his teacher reported that he seemed fine, though a bit distracted and lost in his own thoughts at times.  That was no surprise to me.  Austin wasn’t going to be running around yelling and whining like his younger brother.  He wasn’t going to ask to go to the counselor each day like his older sister.  He was just going to be inside his head, much like his dad could be.  But that’s what made it all the more difficult to figure out what he needed.

Grief in children is different than it is with adults.  Without the ability to really conceptualize the distant future, my children’s grief seems to be more compartmentalized.  They will be sad if they see a picture of their dad or talk about the fun they had with dad, but they don’t carry it with them on a moment-to-moment basis like I do.  Thus in the past few months I’ve often thought, “my kids are fine.”  But I know that’s really not the case.

One clear sign that things are different for Austin?  Each night around 4 am, I hear movement in my room.  Quietly, and sometimes without really waking me up, Austin crawls into Shawn’s side of the bed.  He brings his blanket and snuggles deep in the covers, finding his cozy spot.  Then he reaches over and puts his hand on my arm, or my cheek, or my back.  A minute later, he’s asleep.

Every night it’s the same routine – 4 am, quiet movement in my bed, and the hand touching me.  As many kids do, he’s always wanted to climb in our bed at night, and we usually wouldn’t let him.  Our bed was for mom and dad.  But now I’m not sure why that rule was so important.  I know it’s not important now.

The day we buried Shawn, my children surrounded me at the cemetery, holding my hands.  It wasn’t clear exactly who was supporting who.  I don’t really remember what happened there, but later my friend Kelly told me that as I stared at the casket being lowered into the ground, frozen by the horror of it all, they watched Austin.  Rather than look at the people around us, or the casket in the ground, he stared intently at my face.  “He had a laser-like focus on you” Kelly noted.

I don’t think I realized how much he continued to check in with me over the next few weeks, and then months.  How he was constantly looking at my reaction to any big event, trying to figure out my emotions even as he wasn’t so sure what his own were.  Case in point: about a week ago we pulled a book from our bookshelf that my friend Michelle had given me to read with the kids.  It was called “Ida, Always” and was a book about a polar bear who dies, leaving another polar bear behind.  Apparently it’s based on a true story.  Michelle had warned me to preview it first and make sure I was ready to read it with them.  But I didn’t.  Instead, I cuddled up with Austin and started reading.  About half way through, when Ida gets sick, I started weeping.  Of course, Austin spent the rest of the book watching me, rather than digesting the book.

At the end of the book, he said, “are you sad about dad?”

“Yes,” I said.  “It reminds me of dad.”

He didn’t say anything else, and so I said, “you know that it’s okay if adults cry.  I feel good when I can remember dad, even if it makes me a little bit sad.”

I wiped my eyes and he just kept watching me.  I assured him I was okay.  He finally put his head down and went to sleep.

The next night, Austin went to the bookshelf and picked out the same book.  He looked at me and asked, “are you going to get teary-eyed?”  I told him it was possible, but he said he still wanted to read it.  We did, and I cried again.

This has continued to happen each night since then.  My tears have faded a bit, but he just keeps looking at me throughout story time, trying to gauge my emotions.

And every night in the wee hours of the morning, he crawls in my bed.  I feel his little hand on my shoulder or my hand or my back.  Then I feel his body relax and fall back to sleep.

I think he just needs to know I’m there.  Right now, that’s what I can give him.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.

31 Replies to “The Little Hand on My Back”

  1. Sheryll Brimley says: Reply

    This is so beautiful Marjorie. Austin is so like a little “Shawn”. And have I ever shared with you how Shawn cried & would wrap his arms around my legs for the first few days of kindergarten?

    1. Oh yes, I remember those stories! Austin is Shawn’s mini-me.

  2. Beautiful ! ❤️

  3. You warned me that this one would be really tough for me to read. You were right. I’m a puddle of tears.

    1. Oh mama. He’s so lucky to have you in his life.

  4. Marjorie- you are an exquisite writer. My heart goes out to you, Claire, Austin and Tommy. Your blog is incredibly special in so many ways. I have so many feelings reading your posts. Your kids are lucky to have one amazing mother.

    1. I so appreciate this comment and the outreach. Thanks for your kind words.

  5. You know what I remember for the burial? Austin putting his hand on your back when you were sitting in that front row. It made me cry even harder as the guys carried his casket.

    1. Until I read this, I didn’t remember that. But now I do. So glad to have that memory. That may need to come in another blog post.

    2. Sarah-Jane Greenway says: Reply

      I remember that too. And how he looked up at your face. It was heartbreaking, but so incredibly touching and sweet,

  6. Hysterical. So beautiful.

  7. Oh Marj, I love you dearly. 😢❤️ I can just picture him crawling in next to you. I hope they bring you lots of love each day, just as you bring them comfort every second of every day.

    1. Thanks mama.

  8. Sweet Austin – such a kind and thoughtful little boy. This made me cry so hard – his sweet gentle heart. ❤️

    1. He is a sweet boy. I feel that way about all my kids, but most especially him.

  9. If I could have whispered in his ear at that moment, here’s what I would have said: Sweet boy, you are looking at your mom because you are seeking reassurance that everything will be okay. And here’s the thing: Marjorie Brimley is your mom. You couldn’t be in better hands. Every time you doubt, just keep reaching out and she will ALWAYS be there.

    1. This is amazing. I am going to treasure this comment forever.

  10. Oh Marjorie. Thank you for sharing this. You are right there are no rules to what you are navigating. You are being a super mom and parent. Your kids, especially Austin, are so blessed to have you guide them, cry with them, and hug them. Thinking of you all.

  11. Alecia Brinkerhoff says: Reply

    I cried and cried reading this. I think of and pray for you and your kids every day. It is heartbreaking to think of all of the grief they (and you) are experiencing. Yet at the same time, this post shows the incredible ways you are helping them through their pain. Simply by your constant presence and love, Austin will know that he is safe and loved and that while things will never be the same, they will be OK. Sending love to all of you.

    1. Thank you so much. Your support has been incredible, and I do feel so much love from you, and everyone at St. C’s.

  12. Beautiful. Poignant. So very raw. Thank you Marjorie. You have a gift and your kids are so lucky to have a mom who is doing what she can to keep their dad alive and also share that vulnerable space with others. You are weathering the storm with such grace! <3

    1. Thanks so much Renee. I truly appreciate how people have read about us and reached out to us from so far away. Shawn would be happy to know that his family is still so connected to those he knew in the past.

  13. Marjorie the blog is beautiful and your writing is so powerful; I’m writing this with tears streaming down my face. I am so glad you are willing to share your writing and your experiences with us. I think of you and the kids daily–they are indeed lucky to have you. Sending love!

    1. Thank you so much Elissa. I so appreciate the support and your words. Miss you.

  14. Austin is such a sweet, perceptive little guy. You’re an amazing mom to him. This one was impossible to read without crying–beautiful.

    1. Thanks mama. So glad to have so many people looking out for him.

  15. Keep going Mama. You are doing this. Grief has no rules except to feel it. You are doing Austin proud by being real with him.
    An admirer of your authenticity in grief (and old friend of your sister in law)
    Jess Power

    1. Wow – can’t believe my words have made it so far away. Thanks so much for the encouragement – I truly appreciate it.

  16. Marjorie, your writing is beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I ooften thing of you and your kids and wonder how you are coping, I don’t think I could be as strong. This story has tears streaming down my face, they won’t stop. Our children are so special, thank you u for the reminder.

    1. And thank you for reading and sharing such a sweet thought.

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