Children of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale play in fountain
From the Archives

From the Archives: We Weren’t a Broken Family

On one of our last nights in Europe, back in 2019, Claire snuck into my bed. “I remember when Dad was sick,” she said. She curled her body next to mine, and I ran my fingers through her hair, which was something my mom had always done when we needed comfort. She still had the baby-fine hair of childhood, though her blond strands were long and bleached on the ends from the sun. I played with a tendril as we talked.

“You do?” I asked. I honestly didn’t know how much the kids remembered. Tommy knew nothing; that much I’d surmised. Austin was quiet about it all. But Claire had always been so aware. She had been the oldest when her dad died and I knew that she remembered his illness. She didn’t like to watch the videos Shawn had made for the kids because he looked so ill.  

“I remember the last night he was home,” she said, and then she paused.

This was when Shawn and I had decided that it’d be better if he left the hospital so he could die at home. He’d been discharged on a Sunday morning. By Monday he was so sick he could barely greet the kids when they got home from school. I had sent them to the basement and told them they could watch anything they wanted on TV. They seemed to understand that they shouldn’t come upstairs.

I somehow fed them dinner, though I don’t remember doing that at all. Maybe my dad did it? Our family friends had stopped by and were helping me care for Shawn. He needed that much help.

“I remember that dad was throwing up,” Claire said. Her voice shook, just a little, and her body seemed to shake as well. She didn’t look at me. “You came upstairs. The boys were in bed and you told me to help. You said to get towels.”

“Oh, baby,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“It was scary,” she said. “I was scared.” She turned to me then, her eyes big and full. Her eyelashes were so long, and they quivered, right on the edge of tears.

I pulled her closer to me, trying to get her right next to my heart. “I was too,” I said. “I was really scared too.” I could feel her heartbeat next to mine, quick because of her age and maybe because of her memories. 

We stayed that way for a long time, holding each other as I continued to run my fingers through her hair. It had taken her almost a year and a half to tell me this. Had she been thinking about it all this time? She was still so little. I closed my eyes and remembered holding her as a baby, promising her so many things. 

She was so much bigger now. Even in the year and a half since Shawn died, she’d grown from a chubby-cheeked little kid to a pre-teen girl. She held Tommy’s hand when we were crossing the street and she corrected Austin when he didn’t follow directions at home. I relied on her to help me. And now, she talked to me with such honesty that I had to remind myself how young she really was.

I didn’t know what else to say to Claire that night. I cradled her as though she was a baby and hummed a bit to soothe her as I twirled her curls around my finger. “I’m glad you told me,” I said, as her heart slowed and her eyelids drooped.

The next morning, I woke up determined to make our last day in Europe a special one. “We’re going to take the cable car over Barcelona,” I told the kids. They were excited.

I was not. I didn’t like heights and I didn’t like the idea that we’d be suspended by just a small set of wires. When we got there, I almost backed out.

“I’m a bit scared,” I told the kids in a burst of honesty. “You know I don’t like heights.”

“Mom, it will be okay!” Austin said. He was excited, I could tell.  

The ride was pretty incredible, over the buildings of the city and then the beach and the water, to a peninsula that jutted out high above the water. The cable car was made almost entirely of glass, and the sea was a deep blue below us. Beyond us rose the city, though the cars were almost too small to make out. Tommy kept scaring me with how close he got to the open windows and Claire and Austin fought over who would take photos. When we arrived at the other side, I insisted we take a break before returning. I had a bit of motion sickness. “Let’s get sodas and look at the view,” I said.

Tommy got Fanta and the other two got Cokes. I had an espresso. The guy who made my coffee came over to my table as we sat down and opened up a bag. Inside were tiny, perfect croissants. “Take two!” he said in Spanish. “I’m not supposed to give these away, but you should have them!”

I’m not sure what made him give them to me, but I took them. The kids tried shaking their sodas and then drinking the foam. I sipped my espresso slowly. It was hot, but it was so beautiful.

“We did it,” I said to the kids, “we made it through our whole trip to Europe.”

They smiled, but they didn’t know how important this moment was to me. “I thought I would just survive this trip, and that it would be really hard. And yes, there were hard moments, but I had so much fun with the three of you!”

“We are fun!” Claire said.

“That’s true!” I said.

“This was a really special trip!” Austin said. “We got to eat ice cream every day!”

I laughed, but thought about how the weeks had helped me see something that was true: We weren’t a broken family. It wasn’t that I was brave, or that my kids were brave, or anything else like that. It was that even without any friends or extended family, we had stumbled into something that looked and felt like happiness.

Tommy got motion sickness from the cable car ride back, and in the cab back to our hotel, he laid his head in Austin’s lap. It wouldn’t have been his first time throwing up in a car. I sat in the front, because the kids were still too little to do that, and put Tommy in the middle of Claire and Austin. Worried, I turned around many times to check on him. “If he throws up,” I told Austin, “use your hat to catch the vomit.”

Austin complied, and dutifully took off his hat and held it near Tommy’s mouth. I talked to the driver for a bit and when I turned around again, Austin brought his index finger to his lips. “Shhhh” he said.

Tommy had fallen asleep. My eyes got big and Austin gave me a slight smile. He continued to hold the hat while Claire played with Tommy’s hair. They huddled close to him, just in case.

It was the best moment of the trip.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.