One Year Later

Shawn and Marjorie Brimley at their wedding before moving to DC

There was a nurse who sat with me, that I remember. I can’t really recall what she looked like, but I remember what it felt to have her arms wrapped around me as I sat on the floor of the emergency room, unable to stand.

“I know what this means,” I kept saying over and over. “My husband has spots on his liver. I know what this means.”

She didn’t try and tell me my fears were misplaced. She knew what it meant too. But she sat with me on that disgusting floor. Eventually, she took me somewhere to pull myself together. I called one of my friends. I can’t remember who it was. Maybe Becky because she was watching my kids?

Shawn had finally fallen asleep – a welcome relief after watching him endure the worst pain possible. The initial dose of morphine hadn’t worked, and the doctors had eventually given him something stronger. It felt impossible to me that he was so incapacitated by the pain. He was a man who was so tough that he once performed surgery on himself in order to continue with his military training. “How did you do that?” I asked him when he told me about cutting a massive boil off of his skin. “Well,” he said, “I knew that if I went back for medical care, I couldn’t complete the training. So I sterilized my knife in the fire and then I cut it off. I got in trouble for it later, but it was worth it.”

Shawn was a man who could take pain. And even he had finally succumbed to it.

I didn’t find out that he had cancer in the ER that day. Technically, as he laid in his hospital bed and I was crumpled on the floor outside, we only knew that he had scans showing spots on his colon and liver. All I really knew that day was that his scans weren’t good and that there was a very real possibility that he had stage 4 cancer. But the doctors wouldn’t say for sure without a colonoscopy, so they admitted him and prepped him for that procedure the next day.

I didn’t eat for the next 24 hours. I bathed my kids that night and I prepped their backpacks for the next day. But I didn’t eat. They had cereal for lunch in the morning and I think we even played Christmas music. But I didn’t eat.

So when the doctor looked at me the next day and told me “it’s cancer” I could only dry heave in the trash can.

They told me first, before Shawn woke up. Once I managed to pull myself together, I told the doctor that I wanted to tell Shawn. I wanted to be brave and be the one who told him the worst news of his life. I wanted it to be from me. But when the time came and he opened his eyes, the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. The doctor told him instead.

I cried, a lot. Shawn could barely move but he stroked my hand with his fingers. After a few minutes he took a breath, and looked right at me.

And then, in true Shawn Brimley fashion, he laid out for me exactly what I needed to do:

1. Call the financial planner and make a plan to keep the house
2. Make sure his funeral was at St. Columba’s and his wake was at Guapo’s
3. Get remarried, eventually

I just cried and cried. “It will be okay,” he kept saying, first lovingly and then increasingly as a demand. “You will be okay.”

I pointed out that I wasn’t the one with metastatic colon cancer, so maybe we should be more worried about him.

But he wasn’t. Through it all – every horrific day of the six weeks that followed – he was constantly worried about me. Because that’s the kind of husband that he was.

The night we found out the news, I collapsed on the floor of my shower at home. I sat there, unable to move, and put my head on the wall while I let the water run down my back. I begged God and anyone else who might be listening to please help Shawn get better.

Please. Please. Please.

The choking sobs that came out of me that night were like nothing I’d ever heard come from my own body. They were the sounds of grief. I would hear them again, many times, in the next six weeks. And then for many months after that. But that night was the first time I truly realized what lay ahead.

Shawn would leave me.

32 Replies to “One Year Later”

  1. Katharine Ryan says: Reply

    I could physically feel every sob you took through your words. Being a writer myself you really have a way of pulling us in to feel everything.
    I remember listening to Shawn around our grandparents campfire at the cottage talk about all of his adventures, he never seemed afraid of anything.
    Thoughts & hugs

    1. He wasn’t scared, that’s for sure. His bravery was something that I found compelling in every single moment as we endured this last year.

  2. I keep reading your entries because they are so vivid and I don’t mean to use your journal as a sort of support group, but what you wrote today carries me back 5 years to when my husband was first having symptoms around this same time. The bravery astounds me to this day. The pain…our daughter was getting married on January 19th and he was in excruciating pain yet he still walked her proudly, danced and smiled, and toasted her at the reception. To this day I don’t know how he did it. Yes, I do…it was out of pure love. He was diagnosed 10 days after her wedding. We were supposed to fly to England after their honeymoon in Europe to meet them for a second reception with our British son-in-law’s extended family who had been unable to attend in Boston but we couldn’t go because the doctors said he needed to start treatment immediately. Imagine having to call your daughter overseas with news like this after the happiest day of her life. Throughout his treatment he too was always brave, supporting me as I panicked and sobbed. All that I witnessed was surreal and although the effects of the trauma remain to an extent, they are nothing compared to what he went through. I felt and relived it all reading your words today. And the poignancy of your last sentence…” Shawn was leaving me”.. there are no words; yours say it all.

    1. I actually love that people use my blog as a way to form a support group. I love that people I’ve never met “talk” to each other in the comments and share their stories with me and with each other. And this story of your husband touched me to the core because it was exactly like Shawn. We both had moments of weakness when Shawn was hospitalized, but his bravery is something that stands apart and that I’ll always remember. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Oh, Marjorie. This breaks my heart all over again for you and Shawn. Love you.

    1. Thanks my friend. xo

  4. This post has got to be one of the hardest things you have ever written; your love shines through♥

    1. It was. This weekend has been…not easy. I’m glad the love shows, because it was – and is – definitely there.

  5. Love and grief are a package deal.
    The greater the love; the greater the grief.

  6. Anniversaries. I feared they would be hard for you.

    I know you only as a writer, but an unusually descriptive writer, able to define in a few paragraphs states of mind it would take most other people months to articulate. This is a great power, though at times it must not feel that way. It gives you, as much as your readers, a clear window onto the worst moments of your life, moments only a short time in the past. Marking the passage of time is something we humans are hard-wired to do; anniversaries may bring those moments back, perhaps more for you than they would for most people.

    But we are more, always, than the worst things that have happened to us, the worst things we feel. Your power of description can define that, too. I’ve seen you use it; it’s pretty amazing, honestly. I hope it can be for you one tool to help you get through this anniversary, and those to come.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I loved what you said here: “But we are more, always, than the worst things that have happened to us, the worst things we feel.” I am going to keep that in my thoughts this weekend, and going forward.

  7. When Shawn kept saying you would be okay, it reminded me of what my husband told me in the days just before his death. He said “I want you to have a happy life. I want you to have a companion.” I was holding our little dog at the time and was trying to keep the conversation light so I wouldn’t cry, so I said “I have a companion, right here.” My husband smiled and said, “No, I mean a human companion.” Right now that is hard to even imagine. He always, always put the needs of others before his. Recently, while going through his desk, I found the card I gave him for our “2nd week anniversary” of when we started seeing each other. He’d kept it for 42 years. It said “You’re one in a million.” And that’s the truth.

    1. I love this story so much. After I told mine, about Shawn telling me to move on after he died, I received so many emails like this. It’s the ultimate act of love to tell another person to keep going even if that means it’s without you.

  8. I just found out about this post, and I send you my best. I became a widower twenty years ago, after helping my wife navigate the final years of a life dealing with cystic fibrosis. I knew our fate going into the marriage, and we decided to live as normal a life as we possibly could. I thought I might get five years with her, but we had sixteen, and three daughters!
    It does get better, but it’s never the same. You find yourself living among people who honestly try but can never understand; who grow impatient waiting for you to ‘get over’ something you don’t really want to get over; who thoughtlessly drone on and on about every symptom of ill health they may have, forgetting how healthy they really are. I now think that the best gift my wife gave me was the ability to distinguish between a real crisis and a minor inconvenience.
    Now, the girls have grown up and moved out, I’ve remarried, and I find myself with all these memories that were once shared, but are now mine alone. As an English teacher myself, I always thought I’d do something like you’re doing with this blog, but I was never able to keep the maudlin me off the page, so I stopped trying. Keep the faith, girl; the things he loved about you are still there, waiting to be cherished.

    1. Thank you so much for this. I love this line: I now think that the best gift my wife gave me was the ability to distinguish between a real crisis and a minor inconvenience. YES! So true. I also love that you’ve remarried and found a new life. That gives me some hope.

  9. Your feelings are so spot on.I lost my beautiful heart 5years ago.You put words to my feelings..I didn’t know how to express but it all sucks.
    I have tried the dating like your other post described and I’m dissatisfied.
    I’m so much older than you and it is dismal.Thanks for the real,s straight no chaser view.

    1. Well, I find it pretty dismal too. It’s rough. I mean, I didn’t like dating in my early 20s so why would I like it now? Thanks so much for reading.

  10. I thought a year was plenty to heal. Four was almost right, but you don’t know until later, looking back at where you’ve been from where you now are. The writing is great, creating a record of your own journey. Also, dating sites suck. I’m pretty sure every ‘normal’ person would agree with that. But they say that’s just the new norm. It’s a kind of exposure of your soul, and good, decent people shouldn’t have to subject themselves to that. My advice: try to appreciate the life you have, even though it’s not the one you expected or deserved. . So sorry for your loss.

    1. Oh, I know – that’s the best advice I can get at this point. And I am, sometimes, able to appreciate my life….lots of this is because I have kids. I think it will be a lot more time before I feel more fully healed.

  11. Catherine Rogers says: Reply

    Hi Marjorie. I read this and felt it all over again. My husband left me Jan 5 2015. He spent all his time caring for and loving me. He had his first cancer at 34, lived intensely for 15 more years. I used to think there would be a time that I wouldn’t be able to feel the anguish, the gut wrenching pain. Yet, I’m reminded more often than I thought. And then I also feel his strong long arms wrapped around me, his words, and advising me on life and love.

    1. I do too. I wake up lots of mornings and feel my husband’s arms wrapped around me, just for a second before it doesn’t feel real. It’s one of those things I still feel, even almost a year later.

  12. Thank you for writing these posts. I became a young widow on July 4 of this year, after my 35 year old husband lost his fight to cancer. I am now a single mom to a six and three year old. I never thought this would be my life. I have so much guilt, anger, and questions, but finding your blog gives me a little comfort, in knowing that there are others out there like me.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am so glad that we can connect on my blog – it has been really important for me too to know that there are others out there who really get it, though I wish there wasn’t so much tragedy in this world. Thanks for reading.

  13. My husband left this world 18 months ago at 52 years old. We were high school sweethearts and together for 35 years. He had colon cancer at 44 and did really well for so long. The end was fast and he was in such pain. My kids are both away at college so it’s very lonely. I find your blog comforting – if anything just knowing I’m not alone in my thoughts. ❤️

    1. First off – I’m so sorry. But I’m glad that somehow my blog can be comforting. I actually find great comfort in knowing there are others like me, even if I wish there wasn’t pain like this in the world. Sending hugs.

  14. My husband passed away two months ago, sudden heart attack early in the morning on a day I was travelling for work. He was a month short of his 49th birthday and I wanted to have the joy of growing old with him. I said bye to him on my way to the airport and he mumbled back at me sleepily and that evening we cremated him. Our 13 year old daughter had to cope with this on her own. Reading your words it helps to know that others have walked this pain and found some way to cope. I am permanently scared that I will lose bits and pieces of memories as he was the only other repository of so many shared moments of joy, love, laughter and absurdity. There are moments I feel that a heart can genuinely have cracks and break, and then I get up because I know that is what my husband would want me to do.

    1. Yes – that’s exactly why I get out of bed every morning – because I know that is what my husband would want to do. But it is hard, that’s for sure. Take care – and thanks so much for reading. Two months is really recent, so be kind to yourself. It does get easier.

  15. Im kursheed from mauritius..i just found your blog…i find myself in all ur words…ive been through all these…lost my hubby in 2015..he went for a surgery to remove his wisdom teeth..they did general anesthesia n he just could not get up from it..they said he had a heart attack..he was such a wonderful hubby…gave me two sons… Now 12 and 10..iwas 37 when i lost him ..he was 39…me too i wanted us to get old together n looked after our children together…but its just fate..im trying to think positive but sometimes its so difficult…my mum n my mum in law..both became widows early just like me…

    1. It is so hard, for everyone. It doesn’t matter where we live or what life is like – having our dearest person leave us is the worst thing that can happen. Sending hugs.

  16. […] started to think about strength the other day as I was texting with my friend Beth. She had read my blog post about Shawn’s diagnosis and wrote me this: “Reading your post today made me think your blog is giving people […]

    1. Hi Majorie,

      Our family is going through the same. My husband has metastatic liver cancer at 33, discovered three months ago. We have four young kids and reality has hit me that I will be a widow one day.

      Thank you for sharing your stories.

      Jenny

      1. Oh, I’m so sorry. There’s no words to really help. I remember hearing about “anticipatory grief” and a number of people in my grief group talked about this. Shawn’s illness was so fast we didn’t have time to grieve, but this time period can be so difficult as well. Thinking of you.

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