Family of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale together before Shawn's death
From the Archives

From the Archives: Marjorie, What If I’m Dying?

Throughout the past 4 1/2 years, I’ve written pieces that never appeared on the blog. Sometimes, these pieces of writing were too raw for me to share, and sometimes they were simply musings that I wasn’t sure were interesting for a bigger audience. Often, I wrote to process what had happened and to try and understand how my life had turned out the way it did. These writings went in a folder, and for the next few months, I plan to share some of them with you. I’m calling these posts, “From the Archives”. Here’s the first one.

The pain in Shawn’s gut became obvious at the end of October, on one of those beautiful fall days when it’s just cool enough to put on a sweatshirt after dinner. The leaves on our big Japanese maple tree were bright red, a signal that the cold was coming, though not quite yet. Every year we gathered with our friends to carve pumpkins, and Shawn and I had decided to host the event. When we first met as young English teachers in Japan, one of the things that drew us together was our shared love of parties. Fifteen years and three kids later, it was still something we both enjoyed. But in the back of my mind, I’d known it was a bad idea to host the pumpkin carving party that year. 

Shawn was ill. In fact, he’d been unwell for quite a while. In early October, after a night out to the ballpark with some friends, he hadn’t been able to get out of bed. “I shouldn’t have eaten the hot dogs,” he’d moaned that morning as he clutched his stomach. When he didn’t get better, we became more concerned. His doctor and my father thought maybe it was some sort of infection. But a few days of aching intestinal pain turned into a week and then into two. As I set up for the party, I realized that he’d been sick for almost three weeks. Shawn could sometimes be whiny when he had a cold or a touch of the flu, but really, he was tough. To carry on like this for more than a week was something I’d never seen him do.

I made lamb. I hadn’t ever cooked it before, but I found a complicated recipe and spent much of the day preparing it. Shawn was on the couch for most of the day, as had become his routine. The kids didn’t have anything to do and at least every ten minutes, I heard someone shout, “Mom!” about some sort of conflict that had erupted. At one point, I gave them the task of organizing the Halloween candy, and I could hear shrieks from the other room.

“Mom!” Claire screamed, “Austin is eating all of the Halloween candy!” 

I was sure it was true but I just couldn’t enforce any more rules that day. Shawn was not in the living room. I found him upstairs, in bed, looking at his phone.

“What are you doing?” I asked him. “The kids are going crazy downstairs.”

He looked at me, his face a mixture of pain and frustration. “I need a break from them,” he replied.

“Well I do too,” I said.

“Okay,” he conceded. “I’ll be down in a little bit. Just give me ten minutes.”

Back downstairs, annoyed by how much parenting I had been doing alone, I snapped at the kids when they complained they were bored. “Just leave me alone,” I said at one point, and I watched Claire’s face fall. How was it that I had turned into a parent who said things like this? I again worried whether the party was a good idea after all. But it was such a beautiful day and this was a tradition with our friends. I couldn’t cancel it now.

Eventually, the party began, a flurry of costumes and side dishes and pumpkins and lots of tiny voices.

“Shawn still feeling bad?” our friend Rob asked me after the first guests arrived and Shawn still hadn’t come downstairs. 

It was right then that Shawn appeared. “Hey, people!” he said in that big, happy voice he always used in a crowded room.

“Brimley!” Rob said, in the same type of voice. The two men shook hands, and did a partial embrace. “How are you feeling?”

“I don’t know, man,” Shawn said, furrowing his brow. “This infection is a crazy one.” He told Rob that he was taking antibiotics, that he was sure that things would get better soon, that it was a weird issue but hey, maybe this was just part of getting older. Then he got down to business, carving the pumpkin for the kids. Austin and Tommy, dressed in their ninja costumes, crowded around him. Shawn had on a shirt that my Aunt Terry had bought him earlier that year. It read, “Hi! I’m Shawn and I’m 40!” He’d laughed when he’d gotten it in the mail and loved to wear it when we had friends over because it made people chuckle. That afternoon was no different—he posed with the pumpkin guts and made sure to show off the shirt.  

But then I caught his eye. “Ugh,” he said, clutching his stomach.  

“Bad again?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m going to go and lie down.”

And so he did. I went back to entertaining and he lay on the couch. A few of our friends talked to him and I prepared the food for dinner.

“Marjorie,” Shawn yelled from the couch, “that food smells amazing. It’s killing me that I can’t eat it.”

“Can you just have a little bit?” I asked him. In a hopeful gesture, I put a bowl aside for him.  

Years ago when we lived in Japan, I had gotten e-coli. It was terrible, but I’d taken antibiotics and rested and gotten through it. I was confused about why Shawn was still acting like his pain was really intense. At one point, I reminded him of all of the many times in the past where he had been overly dramatic about some sort of mini-illness. He said back to me, “Marjorie, what if I’m dying?”

I rolled my eyes at him and laughed. He’d meant it as a joke.


Things went downhill over the following month, and by late November, we were grasping at straws, trying desperately to get Shawn better. His doctor had done a number of tests and one of them revealed that there was blood in his stool.  

“That’s not good,” my dad told us on the phone one evening, as we sat in our kitchen. It was a phrase that made me sit up straighter and turn up the volume on my phone. My dad had retired a few years prior, so he wasn’t actively treating patients or conferring with them on the phone. Still, even though I didn’t understand medicine like he did, I knew my dad didn’t say “that’s not good” unless things were really bad. 

Later that evening, as Shawn went to deal with the kids and I talked to my dad in the privacy of my bedroom, he echoed what the doctor had said: Shawn needed to get a colonoscopy as soon as possible. I sat down on the edge of my bed and looked down at the comforter. It was white, just like the rest of the room. The fan, painted to match, disappeared into the ceiling. Both Shawn and I had grown up in houses filled with decoration and knickknacks. Our house, and especially our bedroom, was much simpler—just a few side tables and a massive king bed filled the space. We liked that all five of us could cuddle together on weekend mornings.

I pulled a pillow into my lap. “Are you telling me this could be something bad?” I asked my dad.

“Yes,” he said. “It could be cancer.”

He paused, and I couldn’t say much. Just the mention of cancer took my breath away.  “But that wouldn’t be fair,” my dad continued. “You already lost your mom when you were a kid. It wouldn’t be fair to lose your husband.”

When I hung up the phone that night, I was stunned by the idea that there was even a remote possibility that Shawn could have cancer and that the worst could happen. But I was almost as surprised by the words my father spoke after telling me that terrible news. Medically, he understood the possibility that his son-in-law could die. And yet, for once, he seemed shocked that such an outcome could exist.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.