“I’m going on an adventure with Dave!” Austin shouted to me as he grabbed his swimsuit and ran out the door. We were staying with our friends Elissa and Dave for the long weekend, and Austin was overjoyed to be on a farm away from the city. Claire ran after him and the two of them came back hours later with sunburned and smiling faces. They were in kid heaven.
It took months to plan this trip. Our group of friends had scattered across the country, so figuring out how to get us all in one place was difficult. Two of them had moved abroad and another one had become the president of a university out west. Many of us had to figure out how to make the trip with young kids. And Elissa was in the middle of a political campaign.
But we somehow did it.
My kids spent the weekend in paradise. They swam in the pool and went on boats in the pond and drove around in repurposed golf carts. Elissa and Dave spent much of one afternoon teaching Claire and Austin how to ride kid-sized ATVs – an experience they will never forget. (“Why can’t we have ATVs like this in DC?”)
And we talked about Shawn. We talked about the funny things he said and the way he always made us laugh. More than once, I heard someone say to my kids, “you do that just like your dad!” It always made them smile.
Here’s the interesting thing – I was at their farm with a group of national security experts. We had all met in our 20s when everyone was starting out, and we remained friends for many years. I was vacationing with people who worked with Shawn at the Department of Defense and the White House, people who knew him professionally as a rational and serious analyst. But we didn’t talk about that part of him at all. Instead, we talked about the guy who was always the most fun at parties and the one who made sure that things were never dull. We talked about “weekend Shawn.”
The last night, we all gathered for a little ceremony. Dave had planted a tree right next to the house to remember Shawn and we all stood around it. Elissa started talking as we stood in a circle, and she addressed my kids. “Do you know why we decided to plant the tree here?” she asked them.
They shook their heads.
“Well, many years ago, when your dad was visiting me, we were all sitting around in the house telling stories. It was late at night and I came out to check on something outside and I found your dad peeing right here! He could have used the bathroom inside, but he thought, hey, I’m on a farm so I will pee outside!”
The kids started cracking up. Their eyes twinkled as the sun set and I could feel the tears prick my eyes. “Your dad was really funny like that,” Elissa said, “and I know we all have stories about him.”
“Oh yes,” our friend Derek said, “on that same trip, he pretended to fall off the golf cart I was driving, and he ended up in a pile of fertilizer!”
“Why would he do that?” Claire asked.
“Well, I think he knew that we would all find it funny, and your dad always wanted to make other people laugh,” Derek said. “That’s the kind of guy he was.”
The stories went on from there. Everyone talked about Shawn’s crazy antics and the things that he did so that none of us would take ourselves too seriously. My kids just laughed and laughed as I held back tears.
When we finished, we lit a lantern and some sparklers, and I walked through the field with our friends.
“That was perfect,” I said, choking up. “It was so much better than talking about Shawn’s work accomplishments or looking at smiling photos of him. Those stories captured him, who he really was, and my kids got to hear them. He was genuinely goofy and now they know even more stories to prove it.”
My friends hugged me.
That night as I watched the kids run through the field with sparklers, I had a deep ache in my chest that Shawn was not there to see it.
But he was absent only in body. In spirit, my friends had made Shawn come alive. They hadn’t done it by talking in reverent tones about his contributions to society. They had done it by remembering funny stories and the crazy places where he liked to pee. Because those stories – the little ones, the ones that capture a real person – those are the stories that keep him alive.