My Eulogy of Shawn

Marjorie and Shawn Brimley house under construction love

This is the eulogy that I read at Shawn’s funeral on January 13, 2018:

I only had him for 15 years, but I wanted him for 50 more.

But Shawn would not want me to talk about how unfair it is that he was taken from me – and from all of us – far, far too soon. I know because that’s how he lived his life.

Shawn was grateful for every single day he had on this planet. I know because he told me. Not just in the final days of his life but in every day before that.

And so, today, I will tell you a piece of the story of our lives. It was what I did on the last morning he was alive – I laid in bed next to him and recounted our years together.  Here is a piece of what I told him.

Shawn and I met in the fall of 2001, in Japan, where we were both teaching English right after college. The first night we hung out, we sang Bon Jovi together in a karaoke bar and then rode home on one bike, singing in the streets. But he had a girlfriend back in Canada and I had a boyfriend in Japan, and so we were friends. But those others faded away and one night we found ourselves on a nearby beach. He built a fire, we drank beer from the beer vending machine at my apartment, and he played the guitar for me. We watched the sun rise. It was like something from a movie.

I knew I loved him almost immediately. He proposed a year later on the beach in Costa Rica with a ring made out of a coconut shell, and we were married 6 months after that. We were so young – just babies, really.

The day after we were married, Shawn got an email that he had gotten a job in Washington that would pay him $400 a month. We were elated. We drove across the country for our honeymoon, camping and stopping in dive bars where people felt so sorry for us they’d buy us dinner when they heard this is what we were doing for our honeymoon. But we thought we were the luckiest people in the world. I know because we talked about it every night.

And so began our first 5 years of marriage. Buying and fixing up a house. Traveling to remote places. Drinking beer on the patio of CNAS. Man breakfasts. Family holidays and trips with friends. Working on the farm with his dad. Bowling at the White House.

And then we found out we were going to have a baby. I can’t emphasize this enough – Shawn was elated. So elated, in fact, that most of Washington knew I was pregnant before we told our parents. I guess that was a trait of Shawn’s that many of you know as well – he was a ridiculous over-sharer. He just couldn’t keep good news like this to himself.

That was a big year – one day we would be canvassing for Obama and the next day, my husband – who refused to take himself too seriously – would be wearing a giant parrot costume for Halloween. He would put his face by my belly and talk to our baby and the day we found out she was a girl, we walked out of the doctor’s office and he said, “I think her name is Claire.” And so it was. He became a US citizen, and started working at the Pentagon. He put together a crib for our baby and agonized about the décor for her room.

Claire was born on a Tuesday morning, and my strongest memory of that day is looking up at Shawn who had tears streaming down his face. He didn’t have to tell me that day how grateful he was for our life.

Those first few weeks home when it was just the three of us were some of the happiest of my life. I know they were for Shawn too, because he told me. Also because he sent out photos of those weeks – including graphic ones of her birth – to virtually everyone here. But I wasn’t mad. How could I be? He just was so excited for our little family.

Throughout it all, he was building a career. He went from the Pentagon to the White House and would always say that he couldn’t quite believe that he was doing what he was doing. And yet, he retained a humility that I think is quite rare anywhere, but maybe especially in Washington. When I’d ask him for stories about his work, he’d sometimes recount them, but mostly he’d say, “Oh, it wasn’t that exciting. How was your day? How are the kids? What are we doing this weekend?” I know that he truly loved his work, but he also knew it was work and that the rest of his life was important as well. He believed in balance, and his life was a model of that for his kids and for all of us.

What was the most important thing to him? His kids. When we learned that Austin would be a boy, the first thing he said to me was “I want my boy to grow up knowing he can be anyone he wants to be. I don’t want him to feel like he needs to be macho or not cry or anything like that. I want to show him how to be a good man.” He was nervous about that. He didn’t need to be.

Those years when we had two tiny children, and Shawn was at the White House and then helping run CNAS, and we moved twice, well, that was a seriously busy time. I remember it as a blur. But I also remember that in moments where I would feel overwhelmed – and there were many – Shawn would always say something like, “we have a GREAT life! We have an awesome neighborhood and jobs we love and wonderful friends and two perfect kids. And we have each other. What else do we need?”

But Shawn being Shawn, he also spent that time trying to talk me into a third kid. I thought it was insane. He thought it was a great idea. When we finally went out to dinner to list the pros and cons of having a third kid, I came up with a huge list of negatives. He looked at it and said to me, “I think we’ll regret it if we don’t. Kids are awesome.” He truly believed that – and I know those of you who have kids that met Shawn know that too. Because he loved many of your children too.

And so, along came Tommy, and as probably everyone here knows, he was in a hurry to come into this world. By the time we had called the doctor and a friend to watch the kids, I knew we couldn’t leave the house. I looked at Shawn and said, “we have to call 911!” I still remember his face. He was not scared. He looked at me and said, “well, that’s what 911 is for.” As we called for the ambulance, I was terrified and he took my face in his hands and said, “Marjorie, you can do this. You’ve done this two other times and You Can Do This!” Just a few minutes later, before the paramedics could arrive, he delivered his third child. It was just the two of us and our baby in that moment. And as he said later to me, “Marjorie, that was the single best moment of my life. Who can say they delivered their own child?” He didn’t feel scared or grossed out. He just felt lucky.

And then we had 3 kids under 5, and life was insane. But insane in the best possible way. I agonized over whether to cut back at work, and as Shawn talked me through what the best options were, he never pushed me one way or the other. When I’d ask him his opinion, he’d say, “Marjorie, I just want you to be happy.” I think he realized that no matter what, things would be okay. We would figure it out. That’s how he thought about every aspect of his life, actually.

He found CrossFit and strengthened CNAS. He taught Claire to play the guitar and train in the CrossFit gym, took Austin to every basketball and baseball game he had, and built Lego sets with Tommy that I never had the patience for.

He was the life of the party without grabbing too much attention, and wow that man could host – or DJ – an amazing party. We barbequed and had friends over almost every weekend. Our lives were not perfect, and we’d fight over who needed to unload the dishwasher or which condiments to put out every once in a while. But almost once a week, Shawn would make me sit outside on the hammock and drink a beer and talk to him about all the great things we had in our lives – our family, our friends, our community. It was his favorite thing to do. And oh, that peace I felt curled up next to him thinking about how much in our lives was good. I’m a positive person. But he made me see all the good I always had right in front of me.

Maybe Shawn helped you find a job, or gave you one himself. Maybe he repaired something in your house or saved your basement from flooding. Maybe he played chase with your kids or made you a meal. Shawn helped a lot of people.

Right now, I want my kids to turn around and look out at everyone here.

If Shawn helped you in some way, please raise your hands.  Kids – look out at how many people your daddy helped. That’s what a good man he was.

When he knew he was dying, he had many conversations with old friends, and everyone would cry. Shawn said – many times and to many of you – “I’ve lived a great life! I married a wonderful woman, had 3 wonderful kids and had a wonderful career. What else would I want? More time, sure, but I wouldn’t change anything about my life. It’s been perfect.”

I miss him so deeply. But he would not want me – or you – to cry forever. He would want us to look around and think about how lucky we are to have the things we still have. He would want me to remember what he left on this earth, especially his three darling children, Claire, Austin and Tommy. Your dad loved you SO much – much more than you can understand.

To my children: You will know him. You will know him from the memories you have now and the stories that I will tell you. And you will know him from the stories that I ask everyone here to tell my children about their father. Not just today but in the years to come. Tell them stories that I don’t even know, and tell them those memories when they are 8, 18 and 28. That’s my ask of you. Tell them about the wild parties and the sober policy reviews, his favorite thing to drink and his favorite workout of the day. Tell them all the things that made Shawn say to me constantly, “Marjorie, we have the best life.”

The last movie Shawn and I watched together was “Arrival.” We watched it a few weeks before his diagnosis. In it, the main character decides to have a baby even though she knows the child will eventually die. She doesn’t choose to do anything differently, because having that love – even if briefly – was worth it. A few days before he died, I was crying as we talked about our life together, and he stopped me and reminded me about the movie. He said to me, “Marjorie, remember the movie Arrival? Would you choose any differently if you knew this would happen? I wouldn’t.” I told him of course I would choose exactly the same path.

I wish I had him for 50 more years. But today, I am going to do what Shawn would want, and be so grateful for the 15 years I did have.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.

16 Replies to “My Eulogy of Shawn”

  1. Laura MacInnis says: Reply

    I am so glad you shared this Marjorie. It was incredible to hear at the time and just as powerful in written form. I think I will be re-reading this my entire life for the lessons we all can draw from him and from you.

    1. Thanks so much Laura. I wish I could have captured even more – it was so hard to write at the time.

  2. Katharine Ryan says: Reply

    Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

  3. This is just beautiful, and with your permission, I’d like to share this with my class. What a legacy of memories for you and the kids, Marjorie. We can all learn something from Shawn and the time you shared together. I commend you for having written such a moving testament to him and my heart goes out to you.

    1. I’d love that Ian. I’m writing this blog to connect with others, especially those outside my immediate circle. Thanks for loving it, and loving Shawn.

  4. Perhaps the most incredible eulogy I have ever heard, and never have I heard such words form someone so close to the departed. I was humbled just to sit in the church and listen to you speak about Shawn.

    1. Oh Jerry, thanks so much. Shawn thought so highly of you.

  5. Just beautiful, Marjorie.
    That’s the Shawn I knew. He was always a bundle of curious, positive energy.

    1. Yes – exactly. Shawn was always curious and always positive. That’s why it was so awesome to be around him.

  6. I don’t know you or your family, but my father passed away of 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 so hard, and it’s an understatement to say that my mother had some very hard years. But that loss made me so so strong, grounded, and appreciative. I turned out OK, and I want you to know that your kids will too, they will be strong.

    1. Maeve – I want you to know that I read this comment to my father, and my cousins who are visiting me, and it made me cry. To have a total stranger post something like this is so moving for me…and so reassuring for me as a parent. Thank you so much – you’ve really touched my life tonight.

  7. I never met Shawn, but I’ve met…and worked with and for…people who have. His influence and impression has spread out through those connections. There are a lot more hands that are raised, mine included. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. And thank you so much for sharing that sweet note. I truly appreciate it.

  8. Marjorie — I didn’t know Shawn very well, and knew him only in the context of the foreign policy/national security worlds, but he was absolutely one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I ever interacted with in D.C. This is an incredible tribute, and it made me wish I’d known him better — and inspired me to be a better, kinder, more caring person. Thank you for sharing this.

    -Blake Hounshell

    1. Thank you so much, Blake, for this kind note. It means a lot to me to hear from people in Shawn’s wider community. And thank you for connecting many people in the national security community to me via this blog – it was so thoughtful.

  9. […] so I cover my bases – I truly appreciate all of you who came to Shawn’s funeral and heard my eulogy and sent flowers and contributed to my kids’ college accounts.  You may never get a […]

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