Two photos of Marjorie Brimley's parents and husband before the death of her mom and Shawn
Things That Suck

20 Years

Two decades ago, a woman I barely knew shook me awake. I was staying with a friend on one of my days off as a camp counselor, and I had gone to bed early only to be awoken at dawn by my friend’s mother. “Your father is on the phone,” she said to me.

I was disoriented, but went to the kitchen to pick up the phone. “Hello?”

“Marjorie,” my dad said.  I knew something was wrong immediately by the tone of his voice.  And then he said the words that would change my life forever.

“Your mother killed herself last night.”

“No,” I said, “no, no, no!” I fell to the ground. “Tell me you are lying, dad. Tell me you are lying!”

I kept repeating those words. I don’t know what else we said to each other, but I remember that. My friends woke up and surrounded me in the kitchen as I sobbed.

I was 19.

Years later, when I replayed that scene in my head, I would think how odd it was that I fell to the ground as though I was in a movie. I did not fall in love or give birth like people did in the movies. But I reacted to death exactly like an actress would. I screamed and laid on the kitchen floor for a long time.

I knew my mom was clinically depressed and had been for years. But suicide? It just didn’t seem like something that would ever happen.

As of yesterday, I’ve lived twenty years without her.  I’ve had more time on this planet without her than with her.  I’ve had so many major experiences since she died – I graduated from college, lived abroad, met and married Shawn, bought a house, finished my doctorate, had three kids, and buried my husband – and I’ve done it all without her.

All in 20 years.  It doesn’t seem like that long ago that she died.  But I’ve lived an entire life in those 20 years.

Of course, thinking about this passage of time made me think about where I might be 20 years from now.

20 years when I will have lived without Shawn.

It’s impossible to imagine.  I can’t even really fathom how I’m going to live an entire year without Shawn, and yet, I know that it will come.  The reason I know that I’ll get to a year is because I did it after my mom died.  It’s immensely harder this time around, but the process is similar in a way.  You just put one foot in front of the other.

The part that I can’t imagine is what sort of life I’m going to have in those next 20 years.  I guess no one can really tell what the future holds, but last year at this time I would have said that Shawn and I would get the kids through college and then retire early and travel everywhere.

That’s just not in the cards anymore, obviously.  So when I think about the future, it feels so undefined.

I lived much of the first 20 years of my life with my mom.  My life was defined by her (and my father and sister) and then she was gone.  I lived the next 20 years with Shawn.  In many ways, my life was defined by him (and our children) and now he is gone.  I will live the next 20 years…..

……with whom?  How?  Doing what?

These questions are really hard to answer now.

What’s even harder is sitting with this knowledge: In the next twenty years, I will forget pieces of Shawn.

I will forget exactly how he shaved in the morning and how strong he liked his coffee.  I will forget some of his favorite foods and the way that he made the bed.  But the thing that worries me the most aren’t these small details.  What troubles me is that I might forget exactly the sound of his laugh and the way that his eyes sparkled when he looked at me.

I worry about this because, in some ways, I’ve forgotten these parts of my mom.  They aren’t fully gone, but like the fog that hangs in the air during my early morning runs, the memories of who she was are cloudy.  I remember the love she so obviously showed me, but I don’t really remember what her voice sounded like.  I remember the hugs, but not all of the reasons that she gave them to me.

I worry that in 20 more years, my memories of Shawn will be like those I have of my mom:  happy, but with fuzzy edges.

In 20 years, I am likely to forget pieces of my own experience too.  Those pieces of me that were so tied to Shawn will never be quite as bright or as sharp.  They will fade, or get a foggy quality to them, just like many of the memories that I carry of my mom.

But I will not forget everything.  I will not forget how Shawn looked when he sang for me on our wedding day and I will not forget the tears that streamed down his face minutes after Claire was born.  I will not forget those things, just like I still remember exactly what it felt like to feel my mom’s hands on mine as she taught me how to sew and the way it felt to hang out in our kitchen and tell her about my life when I was in high school.

In many ways, I know I will carry Shawn into the next 20 years with me, because I carried my mom into the last 20.  Shawn never knew my mom, but he knew a lot of great stories about her.  Shawn didn’t know what she looked like in person, but he knew that our children all have a bit of her in their eyes.  Shawn didn’t know her.  But he knew me, and in that way, he knew a part of her.

I do not know what the next 20 years holds.  I can’t even imagine it, just like I couldn’t have imagined the last 20 when I was a grieving teenager.

But I know this.  No matter what my life holds, I will still miss Shawn.  I know that I will miss him because I loved him so much.  I also know that I will miss him because I still miss my mom.  Probably because I loved her so much too.


  • Joy

    Wow. What an amazing piece. One of my favorites that you’ve written. And the photos!!

    What I find remarkable about you is that you are still living an intentional life full of love despite the tragedies. The last twenty years were full of love and life and laughter, and the next twenty years will be too.

  • Sharon

    One thing remains constant in the first 20 years, the next 20, and the 20 to come — you. You are a totally original voice, Marjorie. For all of us who walk around with that invisible sigil of an untimely death on our foreheads, thank you for speaking out loud.

    • Marjorie

      Oh, thank you so much for saying this. It’s so lovely of you. I really appreciate you reading and commenting and being so kind about my writing.

  • Carmelita

    It is hard with death, to lose some of the vividness of these memories. Yet perhaps there will be new memories too, feeling his presence or seeing his eyes in the eyes of one of your children. Or hearing his laugh through them. His sense of humor,his intelligence. I know: I enjoy my husbands personality so present in our oldest daughter, and with my youngest daughter there’s my mother’s beauty and determination all over again.

    • Marjorie

      I love this. Thank you so much for sharing about your experience. I think, though our losses are not all identical, we can heal so much by sharing with each other.

  • Amy

    I still think fondly of your mother; she just seemed incredibly kind based on my brief experiences with her. Thinking of you and your family.

  • Cheryl Sloan Rees

    My heart breaks for your pain and losses as you maneuver survival and grief. You’re made of good stuff, girl. Keep writing and living and loving and being the wonderful person you were brought up to be.

    • Marjorie

      Oh, thank you so much. And yes – my mom was so important in the woman I now am. I like to think she’s somewhere watching me, and happy at who I am.

  • Glenda

    Thank you for writing this piece, Marjorie. Your mom was compassionate, funny, smart, clever and caring… and just a really great friend. Susan was one of a kind, and I miss her.

    • Marjorie

      I know. She loved you dearly as well, and it was great comfort for her to always have you as a dear friend. I love how you wrote about her in this post.

  • Pat Carter

    You’re a brave courageous young woman. I am Cheryl Sloan Rees sister, I knew your mom, & meet you while visiting with her. Sharing your feelings gives me hope, that in the next 20 years you will sort life out, and be happy. Grief & time go together, take care of yourself. Thanks for writing.

    • Marjorie

      Oh, thank you so much for commenting and for reading. I am so glad you got to know my mom. She was wonderful.

  • Lisa K.

    Hi, Marjorie
    I’ve never participated in a blog (from either side), and I don’t even remember how I found yours this morning. Today marks 3 months since I lost my husband (also to cancer), so I’m still early in the process (I guess). Though I’m older than you (58), the youngest of my three kids is still in high school (we took our time) so I’m still under the illusion of being a “middling” adult. Yes, it’s achy sometimes, but my kids (26, 21 and 16) are my connection to the life I had before. I think, sometimes, my strength in getting through one…day…at…a…time is that I try to stay strong for them; they’re keeping my memories fresh.

    Good luck to both of us; it’s what our husbands would have wished for us.

    • Marjorie

      God, the first few months, especially months 3-4, were so tough on me. It did get easier, though I’m not sure if it ever really gets easy. Thank you so much for writing and sharing. And you are right…our husbands would have wanted the best for us.

  • Erika

    This is my favorite piece that you have written, Marjorie. Susan was such an amazing woman. Losing my mom at such a young age, I have fleeting memories of her. I give credit to women like Susan, who taught me what motherhood is supposed to look like. I am thankful for her and for your friendship over the years. We may forget details about our loved ones who have passed, but we will never forget the love they had for us. Or the huge impact they had in shaping our lives.

    • Marjorie

      I love this, Erika. You were so important to my mom, as well. I think she saw a kindred spirit in you – you both shared a deep kindness towards others. Love you my friend.

  • Margaret

    Susan was such a special person… the best of her lives on in you and Lindsay. Your writing is beautiful and so very moving. I can imagine how proud Susan would be of you. Take care…

    • Marjorie

      And she so loved you, Margaret! You were a wonderful friend to her, especially because of how you supported my sister after she was gone. We feel blessed to have you in our lives!

  • Gabe

    I’m late reading this post but wow, Marjorie, I love it and you so much. The photos are perfect and your words are so beautiful. I don’t know what your future holds but I’m certain more beauty is in store for you, as you find and celebrate it better than anyone I know.

    • Marjorie

      Thanks my dear friend. You were there for me in the early days of my loss of my mom, and have been here for me now. Love to you.