The Letter

Hand writing a letter to DC widow blogger Marjorie Brimley and her daughter

The letter arrived in the mail a few weeks ago.  It was addressed to me.  Inside, I found two notes from an old friend of Shawn’s – someone he knew in university who we’d kept up with over the years.

“I wrote a note to Claire,” the first note said, “and I want you to look over it and see if it’s okay for her to read.”

I opened up the next piece of paper.  Inside was a 2-page typed letter addressed to my daughter.  “Dear Claire,” it began, “You might not remember me, but I have heard about you since you were born. Your father Shawn and I were close friends at university.”

The letter went on, describing their friendship and many years of connection.  “I met your dad because he wrote for the campus paper and I was a student politician,” our friend wrote. “We had a lot of discussions about politics and issues in the world.  I loved arguing with your dad because he made me think more clearly about everything.  He was also very goofy.  I remember once we had a two-hour conversation about aliens.  We had another about whether Fanta or orange crush was better.  We talked about everything and nothing at the same time.”

I had to stop reading at that point because I was choking back tears.  He was capturing Shawn.  Not maybe the exact Shawn that Claire had known as her dad, but the Shawn that I knew.  The one who could talk about the intricacies of defense policy in one breath and the future of teleportation in another.  He was a man who loved big ideas but never took himself too seriously. 

Like the letter-writer, I also talked about everything and nothing with Shawn.  That was the best part of him – no topic was off-limits.

After a short break, I read the rest of the letter.  It described our friend’s relationship with Shawn and the many things he admired about him.  At the end of the note, he wrote, “I really hope this letter does not made you sad, but if it does, I think that is okay.  I get sad too, and then I think of something zany I did with your dad.”

I smiled reading his accounts of their adventures together.  They were edited for a 9-year-old, but they still contained the essence of Shawn. 

I gave the letter to Claire.  “It’s from one of Daddy’s friends,” I said, “you don’t know him, but he was in our wedding.”  I showed her a photo.

She quietly read the note.  “What do you think?” I asked her when she finished. 

“It’s nice,” she said.  “And he says he’s going to write me again.”

“That would be cool, don’t you think?” I asked.  She nodded.

“I liked the part about how they talked about aliens!” she said with a smile.

“Me too,” I said.  “Daddy was funny like that.  He liked to picture all of the things that could be possible, even if they weren’t real!  He had a big imagination.”

Claire and I talked for a while about the funny things that her dad used to ponder – the future of space-time travel and what he would say if he could meet someone who lived in the past.  I was smiling when we finished.  So was she.

That night, I thought about what I had said during my eulogy at Shawn’s funeral.  Here’s an excerpt:

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.”

Many of you have done this, and for that, I am truly thankful.  When we read emails and letters about Shawn, it reminds us of who he was.  But maybe even more important, it is an opening.  More often than not, letters like these start conversations with my children.  We talk about their father and sometimes I remember details of our lives that had started to slip from my mind.

When we talk about him, he is still with us.  He lives on not just in the faces of my children, but in their memories as well. 

4 Replies to “The Letter”

  1. I had a friend from high school who died suddenly in his forties from a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving a wife and two pre-teen daughters. He had named one of them Melissa, partly because he’d always liked my name. (Out of a class of 600 kids, I was the only one. It was 1965 and the name was not a common one.) To show you what a great guy Steve was, sometime after our 20th reunion a package arrived from him out of the blue. He had made cassette tapes of all the top ten rock and roll hits from our high school days and was sending copies out to classmates. It was such a nice gesture and wholly in keeping with his character.

    After he died, I felt compelled to write to his daughters to tell them how well liked he’d been by all of us who knew him. I included a couple of notes he’d written to me. They weren’t anything of consequence, but they were in his handwriting and I thought they might like to read them. I told them I knew they would grow up to be fine young women and that their dad would always be proud of them. It’s been about thirty years now and I hope they went on to have happy lives.

    1. I love that you did this! What a gift. I loved getting letters from my mom’s friends after she died. They always meant so much to me.

  2. Although I did not know Shawn and only know you as the most amazing teacher and advisor to my daughter (Amalie), his death touched me so deeply. My father died suddenly at age 37. I was 3 1/2, and I have two older siblings, a brother who was almost 8 and a sister who was 11. I have very, very few actual memories of Daddy. Just strange snippets really: our family at our dinner table talking about a joke with a giraffe in it; Daddy standing on one leg in our clothing store with his right foot propped up on the inside of his left knee (a strange habit that I somehow inherited), the smell of his pipe smoke. It is as if he died just before my capacity for holding on to memories really kicked in — I have no idea about the science of this idea — as I do have vivid memories of the man who became my stepfather and his son, when he was dating my mother about a year and a half later (a wonderful love story in itself that is still going on as both are close to 90). My other trove of “memories “ of him are from my mom, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends. I absolutely crave the stories — any stories — about him.
    I had heard from a friend how you spoke so beautifully at Shawn’s funeral, and how you called upon everyone who could to share with your children their memories and stories of their dad. Thank you for including what you said in this post. It is perfect. You and all of those who loved Shawn and knew him from different parts of his life are giving your children something priceless.
    I was in a book group for over 10 years with an amazing group of women who welcomed me to DC when I moved here in the early 90s. The group was so special because we were all going through transition to adult life — careers, marriage, kids. We went through phases of gathering for home cooked meals, which we tried to make as gourmet as we could — to dining out or ordering pizza as we discussed the books and life. Sadly, one friend from our group died suddenly in her early 40s, leaving two daughters. One thing that I am proud of is a scrapbook that my friends and I put together a gift for her daughters when they moved out of town several years later. Our gift included a list of every book our group ever read and favorite recipes we had cooked for our gatherings. We also included letters from each of us with memories of our friend. My note included a silly memory that stuck with me about how I once took my wallet out to pay after a book group dinner. When my friends saw it, messy and bulging with receipts, notes and crumpled bills (as it still is today), she asked with complete sincerity if she could please take it home, re-organize it, and return it to me the next day. Did that memory capture her essence, her professional expertise and her varied passions? No, but it was a little something of the sort that would please me to hear about my Daddy, so I included it. We all hoped that her girls would find something to love and cherish in our stories as they grow up.
    Your writing is absolutely beautiful. I know that many people connect with what you are able to express in your blog. You have touched the child in me, but also given me so much to think about as I try to understand my mother’s loss and experiences. I am glad that I can still ask her about those times. For that, I am grateful to you. Sending you a full heart of love, Ellen (sorry this is so long!)

    1. Oh, Ellen, this is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing it, especially the part about the memories you have of your father. I always think – will Tommy remember anything? I really hope he has these same types of “feeling” memories, even if they are hazy. And I love the scrapbook that you made. That’s an incredible gift. Thanks so much for reading and for commenting. It means a lot to me!

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