Tommy Brimley, son of DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale, kneels by his father's grave
Missing Shawn

My Body Still Knows

It was my racing heart that woke me up around 4 am every morning last week. It was confusing, usually. Why was I feeling so nervous? Sometimes, I’d get up and get a drink of water or just walk around a bit, trying to shake away the anxiety inside my body. But it persisted.

Maybe I was nervous about the return to school, I figured. Covid is really bad in DC, so maybe I was worried about getting sick at school, or maybe I was just feeling the general angst in the air every time I go to the grocery store. Maybe it was the snow that kept falling last week, throwing us out of a routine.

But it wasn’t any of those things, of course. Or at least they weren’t the primary reason I felt so anxious. And even if I wanted to try and think of some other excuse for my anxiety, my body knew.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post called “My Body Knew” about finding out Shawn had cancer:

He was going to be fine, I kept telling myself. He was strong and he was the rock of our family and we had three young kids, one of whom wasn’t yet potty-trained. We were just starting our lives. He was going to walk our daughter down the aisle and he was going to negotiate with world leaders and he was going to make love to me during our retirement trip across Europe. He was going to do all of this because he was going to be fine.

But as I sat by the fire that night, calming myself with the twinkling tree lights and the warmth from the flames, I saw my hand start to twitch again.

Shawn was going to be fine, I kept telling myself.

But my body knew what was true.

My body knew.

It was different, the anxiety last week, but it was similar all the same. I kept trying to tell myself that things were fine, trying to remind myself how happy I was, trying to feel that happiness – and I often succeeded in feeling joy, especially in moments with my family. So much is good in my life right now.

But also, my racing heart kept waking me up at 4 am.

My body still knows. Even four years later.

I wanted the anxiety to be the result of something I could fix, something in my current life that would eventually change (like Covid) or something that was much more normal, like first day of school jitters. But it wasn’t that.

The anniversary of Shawn’s death was approaching. And my body was reminding me of it, even as my mind screamed at me, “but you’re safe! You’re happy!”

I talked about it a lot with Chris, and I also talked about it with my widow friends including with Abena in her back yard in the snow at dusk. It was normal to feel this way. In fact, I had another widow friend point me toward an article about the way that the body knows our traumas even more than our minds do. I even found a podcast about the same thing. I wasn’t going crazy. I know it’s normal. And it’s still so hard.

Still, I tried everything – working out, cooking, watching shows about dystopian worlds on Netflix. All of these things helped somewhat. At night, I’d go kiss my kids and that always made me feel calm, too. Even though I was exhausted Tommy would still insist on his “seven kisses!” and the nightly ritual of “Sana, sana.”

“Sana, sana” is a saying Chris introduced to our family when he first moved in. It’s something he heard while living in Colombia, a refrain that parents might use when a kid skins a knee or gets a splinter and needed to be soothed. He first used it one night to calm Tommy who was dealing with a cough and some congestion. Tommy fell in love with the words. And so, every night, we have to say this refrain to him, while we softly rub his chest.

“Sana, sana, colita de rana. Si no sana hoy, se sanará mañana.” (Heal, heal, frog tail. If you don’t heal today, you’ll heal tomorrow.)

Somehow, this routine would calm me enough to get myself into bed each day last week. As the date of Shawn’s death grew closer, the anxiety got worse, but I just tried to remember that it was normal to feel like this. My body wasn’t going to forget, no matter what my head was saying.

On January 9th, we got up early. It was going to rain for much of the day, but the early morning was clear. We headed to the cemetery, everyone pretty quiet in the car except Tommy who wanted us to play various Lil Nas X songs on repeat. The bigger kids knew that it was a more solemn ride, but Tommy didn’t care. Somehow, it fit. Shawn would have found it amusing, that I’m sure of.

When we got to the cemetery it took a little time to find Shawn’s grave under the snow. We all stood there for a minute. It seemed we had the entire cemetery – hundreds of acres – to ourselves. Quickly, Tommy and Austin ran over to the praying hands statue, jumping through the snow. Claire stayed back with me and Chris.

She looked at the grave and furrowed her brow. “You’re not going to be buried here, right mom? You’ll be buried with Dad. Our dad here, I mean.” She pointed at Chris. We knew what she meant. I told her I thought I’d be cremated, and maybe a small bit of my ashes could go on her dad Shawn’s grave, while the rest would go with her dad Chris. That seemed to satisfy her, and she ran off with her brothers who were playing “grave tag” which was basically just tag, but without stepping on any graves. Eventually, they ended up on the top of the hill, and called out to us. Chris and I walked over, and they pelted us with snowballs.

And then we all had a snowball fight, and I was laughing and they were laughing and Chris was smiling at me. Tommy even got me with a snowball.

When we finally stopped, I told the kids that it was time to say one last goodbye to their dad Shawn. They surrounded the grave for a moment.

Just as I thought they were done, Tommy bent down and put his hands on Shawn’s grave. “Sana, sana….” he began, and said the entire refrain. Chris snapped a photo of him as I stood there, mesmerized.

I lingered, even after they all left. I didn’t feel the same anxiety I’d felt all week. Instead, my body felt soothed by it all – the frozen cemetery and the snowball fight and Tommy’s words that still rang in my ears.

10 Comments

  • Dolores

    Oh, my heart…this one elicited a bark of tears from deep inside me. So many years later, such an outpouring of tears, picturing your little man, trying to soothe us all. Thank you, Tommy. Thank you, little frog is tail.

  • Linda

    I loved this one as well. I think Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Knows the Score (or something like that) talks about how our bodies know about the challenges we’ve experienced. My husband of 44 years died in October of 2020 at his 65th birthday party and we’d been together in our teens and married at 18 & 20. What I’m trying to feel emotionally again is that he would want me to be happy and enjoy life. It’s like I intellectually know it, but my brain and emotions are so empty of his presence and I am wondering if I will ever FEEL that he would want me to feel happiness and joy again. It’s as if I’m in some intellectual, empty zone. I have so enjoyed your writing and I appreciate it everything you are doing!

    • M Brimley

      Oh, I know that feeling. It’s so hard. Hang in there – it does get easier. I found that 18 months was a real turning point for me.

      • Linda Morse

        OK, thank you – I’ve read it takes about 3 years to return to normal eating, sleeping, functioning – I did find at 6 months the deep exhaustion passed. Glad to hear there could be another turning point ahead at 18 months. Thank you again. You’re so kind to respond!!

  • Colin

    Very nice post. The picture caught my attention right away. I too put my name on my partner’s headstone, very much thinking about my 4 yo daughter at the time. In 40-50 years I wanted her to be able to visit and remember her parents together. Now I’m in a new relationship and the headstone continues to be a challenge for us to navigate. Curious about your thoughts and feelings about adding your name and how it all feels for Chris.

    • M Brimley

      I’m always trying to get Chris to write more posts from his point of view, but he really feels like this should be primarily my space. That said, these sorts of things – like deciding where you want to be buried – can seem really intractable in early relationship discussions, but then there is often a natural resolution to them as time goes on. I think the best gift Chris has given me is time. Time to process my own emotions, time to talk through them with him, and time to (sometimes) come to new conclusions about how I want to live my life.

  • Hitshome

    Fantastic job! I’m thinking about marrying a widow of three years. She indicated she’d like to be buried next to her late husband instead of me. This really hits home and I may go through with the marriage because of this and a few other reasons pertaining to widowhood (family intervention, mood changes when drinking alcohol, certain days of the year that are never easy, etc..) I never anticipated. Still questioning the whole thing. This is a slippery slope and you handled Clarie’s question well. I read your blog to obtain insight and it is extremely helpful. Thank you.

    • M Brimley

      I don’t know what to say to you about your situation, except that I think every relationship has hard things in it, and part of marrying anyone (widow or not) is trying to figure out what you can live with, and what cannot be overcome. As for every situation, I think talking honestly with your partner is the most important part.

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