DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley greets her children at event
Things That Suck

24 Hours

I wake with a start. The clock says 5:15 and Tommy is next to me. My anxiety kept me up last night for an hour or so, but at least it’s better than the previous week. The room is freezing because the HVAC hasn’t worked in a week. But I can’t worry about that because it’s time to run, eat, shower, get the kids ready and get out the door.

I get to school early and meet with a student. “You need to craft topic sentences that connect back to your thesis,” I say, and show her how to do that. Then I’m off to teach about US-Chinese relations. I don’t really know what I’m talking about but at least I read a little about it on my phone in the bathroom that morning.

“The HVAC guy showed up,” my dad texts. “There is a big problem with the whole system that needs fixing.”

I can’t deal with this now because I have to keep teaching. (Did you know the Chinese government is building up islands in the South China Sea and putting military bases on them? Well, they are. I find out more about it during the break between classes as I lean against the wall of the staff bathroom and scroll through the New York Times.)

Classes keep going but then somehow it’s lunchtime and I should be eating, but I’m on the phone trying to shut down an old bank account in Oregon. “Your husband’s name is on this too,” the woman nervously says. “So we need you to send in a death certificate. I’m so sorry to ask this.”

“Hell,” I tell her, “this is nothing. I send death certificates around everywhere.” She is too shocked at my callousness to reply. I fold one up that I keep at school and put it in the mailbox.

I talk to students in the hallway about China. For a moment, I actually am distracted from my life as I see their animated faces.

It’s in between classes now so I call a therapist. I’m looking for a new one, so we do a set of intake questions. “What are you looking for in therapy?” she asks me.

I look around and think I’m in private. “Well I’m trying to figure out who I am going to be with the rest of my life. I am realizing that no matter how much I want a partner, I might never have one again, and I need to try and make meaning from my life if I’m going to do it alone.” I am honest, though maybe a bit raw. I tear up a little as I talk about how up-and-down life has been lately.

I look up. One of my freshmen students is listening. Great. I hope she didn’t hear the part where I said I was almost at my breaking point.

I look back at my phone. There’s a missed call from my accountant. I call him back. We discuss what to do with my tax situation for the very complicated year of 2018 when I lost my husband and started collecting Social Security and became a single mom. I’m only half-following what he’s trying to get me to understand, and I feel super frustrated by my lack of knowledge. “I just want you to do whatever you think is best in your expert opinion, so I can go back to living my terrible fucking life,” I say to him.

“Okay, don’t worry,” he says kindly, and I immediately feel bad. He has no idea what my day has been like and he’s just trying to help.

I hang up and look at my texts. There’s another one from my dad. “The HVAC guy is going to text you. It’s going to be $1600 to fix the problem.”

Below the message from my dad is the text from the HVAC guy. Things do not look good.

I need to make copies. I get my papers and I put on my headphones and don’t care that it’s rude to walk around a high school like this. I don’t care that I constantly tell my students not to do it. I need to block everyone out or I’m going to lose it.

I’m in the copy room. I need to get home to make dinner. The copier keeps jamming. I re-set the copier and keep going, but the third time it jams I start crying. I have ink all over my fingers and I lean over the hot copier and let tears drip on the machine.

“Okay, breathe,” I say to myself and I do just that. I compose myself because really, crying over a jammed copier is insane, even if it’s not really the reason that I’m crying.

“I am gonna lose my damn mind,” I text a few friends.

I get home. I don’t sit in the car in front of the house because then I will start crying again. Instead, I go in and start dinner with my coat still on. We’re having stir fry.

Claire can’t figure out her math and is upset. Tommy clogs the toilet and I have to find the plunger. Austin appears to have wandered off to the neighbor’s house to avoid the chaos.

I pull Claire into her room while Tommy screams for me outside. She’s visibly upset. “Do you know what happened today?” I ask her.

She shakes her head. “I got overwhelmed. I was worried about too many things including that I might have to pay a lot of money for the heater to start working again and I started crying when I was making copies for my students. That’s what’s happening to you now. You are overwhelmed. Let’s both take a break.”

We eat. We shower. I braid her wet hair in two braids and feel good, for once, because that’s something that I do well. She hugs me and then sits by me and plays Minecraft while I type a strongly worded email to the landscaper whose previous work seems to have screwed up the HVAC system. I do not pay $1600 to anyone, at least not today.

And then it’s teeth brushing and stories and bedtime. I fall asleep on the boys’ bed and move myself back to my own room at midnight.

The room is still really cold. I curl up on my side of the bed and pull my robe up to my chin. Shawn’s side will be filled by Tommy in a few hours, but for now, it’s just me.


  • Kristin

    I relate so hard to this. I had plumbing problems and car problems in the same week and a kid away at college having a melt down. And no partner to share decision making. No partner to hug me tight. You really expressed it well about the figuring out you and the future well. Who knows what tomorrow is going to bring. But I want to be working on me to get to that point where there are possibilities!

    • Marjorie

      I think that’s what makes it so hard – EVERYTHING I do seems hard and then to have no partner cheering me on….that’s what makes it feel impossible. And yet we continue on. Hugs.

  • Ivan

    I’ve been meaning to write a comment on your blog since your previous post “It Might Not Happen For Me”, but this one is even more relatable. I feel overwhelmed all the time too but yesterday I decided to let my children use the TV, computer, video-games… for as long as they wanted and I spent all afternoon in bed – it felt good, and not too guilty.
    Now they are having Monday and Tuesday off school but I have a lot of work so we’re not doing anything, this does make me feel a bit guilty.
    And last week, one of my daughters (11) asked me “what if you have a new girlfriend?”. I don’t think about it much but I had to after her question, and your post about it came only 2 days after that. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want anybody new around while my children are with me. I do miss having a partner but this family is something I built with my wife and I don’t want to share it with anybody else.
    Sorry for the long comment, and thank you for your blog!

    • Marjorie

      Oh, you should read my summer posts about how I basically let my kids watch at least 6 hours of TV Every Single Day. Don’t feel guilty – we’re just figuring out how to survive!

  • Melissa

    I’m seeing a lawyer for the first time ever in just an hour from now. It looks like my husband’s daughters from his first marriage may have a claim to half ownership in my home. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When I heard about this last week, I couldn’t sleep at all that first night. My brain just kept spinning “what if” scenarios. It’s been nine months since his death and this is NOT something I need right now.

  • Duane

    Here’s my motto since my wife died
    You can’t solve all the worlds problems in one day. Of Everything I read most of which was not close to being helpful; one point was significant to remember. However I deal with the loss of my wife; my child will deal with life issues the same way.
    So everything my wife did like the budget taxes school related I became an “expert “
    So when my daughter had a question I had the answer

  • Marlene

    “I send death certificates around everywhere”…..oh, I do relate to this! I don’t have children at home anymore so perhaps my ‘new life’ isn’t quite as busy as yours, but it’s stiill vastly different to the comfortable life I had before my husband died. We’ll keep going though, because even though others say how strong we are, we know it’s nothing about being strong….it’s just survival and getting through each day.

    • Marjorie

      Right after Shawn died, I used to keep death certificates everywhere – in my desk at school, in the glove box of my car, in my purse, etc. Now I just have a few left. It was a strange, strange world to have more death certificates around me than any other identifying piece of information.

  • Melanie

    Oh, Marjorie, I’ve had many days like this. One thing that keeps me going is remembering my husband’s words, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. “ The jammed school copier? Small stuff…it seems like every school has to have at least one of those. I swear the one at my school wants to eat me alive. I’m surprised I haven’t been shocked to death by now from shoving my hands into it to pull out ripped papers in multiple places because it’s never happy and wants more and more attention!

    The HVAC system…well, that’s a pain, but if it makes you feel any better mine went out 6 months after he died and had to be completely replaced to the tune of $6000. And while I was sitting with the dog wrapped in blankets next to a space heater as they worked on it, the space heater blew a circuit and fried an entire line all the way from an outlet to a wall switch. The electrician assured me I wouldn’t have a fire on my hands, but I sat in the chair all night long with the fire extinguisher on my lap until he got there the next morning. Then, a few days later the on-demand water heater that heated the radiant floor heat downstairs decided to spring a leak during a polar vortex which then caused pipes to start freezing up. That got replaced the following year when I purchased a “combi-unit” to the tune of $10,000. The fireplace also started leaking because the metal thing on the top of it rusted out and developed a hole so that had to be replaced as well. What a drama. What a comedy. I look back and wonder how I ever survived it all.

    Take some mental health days. Deal with the hvac issue, accountant (love what you said to him by the way) and all that and make it go away. In the grand scheme of things it really is “small stuff”. You’ve been through big stuff. You can do this. Believe me, you won’t always get overwhelmed by this stuff although I know so well how scary and downright unfair it is. You are doing your best and you are doing it well.

    • Marjorie

      That’s insane! God, my issues were SMALL compared to that HVAC issue. But yes, I know I can make it through the small stuff, and yet there is SO MUCH of it that sometimes it can spill over into that overwhelming feeling. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Kathleen MacDonald

    My child is a college sophomore, my a/c is still working, but wow you nailed the feelings. Overwhelmed. I wish it would follow some predictable path, and 4 years 5 months into this, there’s not “predictable”. What I do know, though, is that I do come through each thing, each issue, each day. So that’s good to know- nothing is the “end” of me.
    You are a fabulous writer. Thank you for writing!❤️

  • Miranda

    I can so relate. Taxes and being a widow at 40 and having my kids collect Social Security survivor benefits was new to us in 2018. So I too have been asking my accountant questions, and trying to figure out how to pay taxes if I owe. On the bad days I have this repeating thought, “this is too much. I can’t do this. There is no way I can handle everything. It’s too much.”
    And on the good days, there are clean clothes and clean dishes and some food in the fridge. On the REALLY good days, the kitchen counter is clean and the clean clothes and dishes are put away! We do the best we can. We go to sleep and wake up, whether it’s a good day or not. We teach our children to do their best and it’s okay to cry when we are overwhelmed. I think it’s incredibly normal to be a young widow who is overwhelmed with working and rearing children. It’s just not normal to be a young widow.

    • Marjorie

      Yes – you can say that again: it’s just not normal to be a young widow! But yes, on the good days I manage to feel like I’m rocking it just by merely keeping my job and my kids and my house in order. Which is not a small thing!

  • pam mccurry

    I had a day just like this. It has been so nice hearing others talk about being totally scared and overwhelmed. It’s also nice to hear that others feel guilt about somedays being too busy or tired or overwhelmed to give their kids the attention that they deserve. Everyday seems so hard. I wake up with anxiety that I won’t be able to do another day and yet I do. I have to believe it will be ok and that I’ll get use to doing all this on my own. It sure seems unfair though.

    • Marjorie

      It is unfair! And yet it’s our lives. But yes, the anxiety makes things that are tough feel impossible. Hang in there!

  • Carmelita

    Beyond survival I think what we’re all doing is being dedicated. Dedication is what got me through the kids being small and growing up. It wasn’t all fun and amazing. And that’s true for now too. It strikes me that everyone interacting with this blog has a lot of dedication going on in their life.
    I also think there something to being on your own and making decisions yourself. I see it as strengthening. . Something I haven’t done in a long time. We’d all like to have that loving partner back but it seems that now is the time for something different, practicing new ways of being.

    • Marjorie

      Yes – I feel like some day all I’m dedicated to is making it through the day….and yet, that’s certainly an accomplishment in itself those days! And yes, here I am, “practicing new ways of being.” (Love that)

    • Kate

      I survive, every day a little more. My kid is fed, has clean clothes. The dog gets fed and walked and the house looks like I don’t have to be embarrassed when someone visits unexpectedly, then I consider it a great day. I still have my job and I even managed to complete an entire work project on time. Yet, I still feel like I fail all.the time. Sometimes, I just want to run away. Away from the responsibilities, decisions and most of all my thoughts and the pain.

      • Marjorie

        Oh, I want to run away ALL THE TIME. I think at least a half-dozen of my blog posts hint at this. That’s certainly the reality of being a widow. And yet we do carry on, and that’s something to be proud of.

  • Jill

    I can totally relate. We are forced to learn so many new things when mentally we are challenged. I never no who to trust, no time to get multiple opinions and no privacy or time at work to make phone calls. My daughter also has some medical problems, so all of my break time at work is spent arguing with my Health Insurance and reordering her very expensive med that they try not to provide every month. (This is something my husband would do very well) It’s been a little over a year since my husband died. Still sending out Death certificates. After a long conversation with my cable company explaining that my husband had died
    I believe i’m teaching my 15 yo Dtr very important lessons about resilience and life in
    general. I still have goals for my family ;daughter ,myself and in a way my husband.
    We are whole individually and as a family not a “broken”. It’s everything else in my house that is broken, but I can get those things fixed. 1 thing at a time.

  • Jill

    Addition to my post-
    Sorry th above was choppy, I’m getting my car serviced.
    I mentioned I was on the phone with my cable company after I faxed the death certificate.
    They still didn’t have the info. Then the representave asked to speak to my husband to verify some information. I still laugh about that!

    • Marjorie

      Yes – so true. I’ve learned so much (that I never wanted to know) but I realized this the other day when someone was asking me about Social Security. Turns out, I’m an expert on that! But yes – we have to see this as teaching our kids resilience, that’s for sure.

  • Gabe

    You recounted this so well I could feel your stress like it was my own. I hope it all gets easier. I love you and I’m cheering for you always.

  • Carolyn

    I love your writing and how beautifully you capture what a lot of people feel. Why is it that the house seems to fall apart at the worst times? My husband was in the icu for kidney failure and when we got home the hot water heater was broken. I just broke down in front of the plumber and his wife. It had been a horrible 48 hours with an ambulance ride, icu drs fighting about treatment and then him miraculously recovering and walking out of the hospital and I just couldn’t take anymore. They waived the re-installation service fee to give me a break. I think sometimes you just have to have a breakdown so you can give yourself permission to feel like crap and move on. Thank you for not making me feel alone.

    • Marjorie

      I mean, I feel like it’s been so true this year – when it rains, it POURS! I have weeks when things go really smoothly, and then – BAM! – it’s like the crazy really hits all together and we just have to hang on and survive.