DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley's father, Tom, plays legos with her son Tommy
Family & Friends

He Pushed the Button

The call came out over the loudspeaker. “If there’s a physician on the plane, can you please press your call button?”

My dad put down his book and pressed the button. The flight attendant came over. “Are you a doctor?” she asked.

“I am,” he said. She told him he was needed in the front, and he followed her up there.

My dad was en route to Texas for a week-long break. He was going to play golf with his brother and his friends. He would also get to see our extended family. He’d spent the past two months caring for my kids without so much as a glimpse at a golf course or another Clark family member. It was time for a break.

But the break wasn’t going to start yet, apparently. At the front of the plane was a man who was unconscious in the bathroom. Another doctor – a cosmetic surgeon whose specialty was not this sort of thing – stood nearby. My dad felt the man’s pulse and pulled him out of the bathroom and started assessing what was wrong.

“Do we need to divert the plane?” the flight attendant nervously asked.

“He’s breathing,” my dad said, “but I need a blood pressure cuff. Get that. Don’t divert the plane. Let’s just see how he’s doing.”

The man was young and my dad ended up being the doctor who worked on him, with the cosmetic surgeon as a back-up. The patient eventually came to, and my dad managed to get him to answer some questions about his health. He gave him some juice and put him in a variety of positions to get his blood pressure up.

“Do we need to divert the plane?” the flight attendant asked again.

“No,” my dad said. “He’s getting better.”

The man eventually stabilized and they got him to the back of the plane, where he laid down. My dad continued to help him throughout the three hour flight. Eventually, the flight attendants came over and wanted to know my dad’s name and address and other identifying information for their report.

“Well,” my dad said, “I am from Oregon, but now I live in DC for nine months of the year. My son-in-law died and I’m helping my daughter raise her three kids. So I’m not sure which address you want me to put.”

Of course, the flight attendants couldn’t believe what they were hearing. “Oh my God,” one of them said, “that’s so sad! You are amazing for doing that for your daughter.”

“I’m glad to do it,” my dad said simply.

At the end of the flight my dad returned to his seat. People around him had heard the plane was almost diverted and they thanked my dad for everything he did. “It’s no big deal,” he said.

Across the aisle, another passenger leaned over and asked my dad, “what type of doctor are you?”

“I’m a retired internist,” my dad said.

“Well,” said the other man, “I’m a retired gastroenterologist. I did not want to push that button so I was glad you did.”

Eight days later, my father sat at my kitchen counter and told me this story. “Dad!” I said, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me this story before now! You saved that entire plane!”

“It wasn’t anything,” he said, and started doing the dishes.

“Yes it was!” I argued. “I hope they at least gave you a free plane ticket or something.”

“They offered me a drink,” he said. “But I don’t drink on planes.”

He didn’t say much else and went back to loading the dishwasher. Tommy arrived right then and whined. “Okay, Tommy, let’s go take a bath!” my dad said, and took him upstairs.

I finished cleaning up the kitchen. I could hear them upstairs. Tommy was laughing. I was relieved because for the first time in eight days, I didn’t have to give him a bath.

Of course, I admire my dad. I admire what he has done in his life and I admire what he’s done every day since Shawn died. But as I stood there, I started to really think about his choices.

He didn’t have to push the button on the plane. He could have been like the other doctor and instead put on his headphones and ignored the call.

But he didn’t.

And when Shawn died, he could have visited only periodically. He didn’t have to stay and give up his retirement to wash tiny toes in the bathtub. He could have decided to play a lot more golf and read a lot more books and make a lot fewer chocolate chip cookies.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he pushed the button.


  • Melissa

    Wow. What a remarkable man your father is. How lucky everyone on that plane was to have someone so cool and collected respond to the call. Like the gastroenterologist, many people would hesitate to get involved out of fear that they would be held accountable for their actions. This is a very litigious society we live in. But he did the right thing and stepped up, both for the man on the plane and for you. You are so lucky to have him in your life.

    • Marjorie

      This is one thing I know for sure – I am SO LUCKY to have him in my life. He is a man who is rare in this world. And my children are so lucky to have him too!

  • Amy

    Your Dad is a giver with a good heart. Please relay my admiration to him. His daughter must be special too.

  • Kate

    I can’t read your posts when I’m at work any more— No place to cry!
    Thank you for writing, every time❤️

  • Andrea

    There was post last week on Scary Mommy about grandparents–and family, generally–who show up. Who don’t have to, but do anyway. Who come to the hospital, do bathtime, clean that thing you never get around to cleaning when they visit, who push the button, who just always make sure you never feel like you’re doing it all alone. As you know, my mom has had her own battle with colon cancer this year and it’s been an exercise in showing up, for the chemo, for the surgery, for the ER visit for complications post-surgery, for all of us. And I have never felt luckier to have family that shows up when it counts. My mom did it for us for years and taught us well; it’s something I hope my brother, sister, and I all teach our own children. Your dad sounds a lot like my mom, in all of the important ways, and it shows in you. I am immensely grateful for my own mom, and also that your dad is just as willing to show up for you and your family and for a plane full of perfect strangers. XO

    • Marjorie

      Oh, yes, I saw this and thought of my dad. We are so lucky to have family who is close and can do life – ALL OF IT – with us. Your mom is lucky to have you and you are lucky to have her. Lucky, lucky us.

  • Jen

    Thank you for sharing stories about your Dad. He is a special one if a kind soul and it’s awesome to hear about bath time and his kindness towards strangers on the plane. Grandpas give the best bathes. I am pretty sure that he is loving his time with you and his grandchildren. It is important to feel needed and wanted in “retirement” and playing golf and reading can wait. 😃

    • Marjorie

      Oh, he does love the time with me and the kids. He still gets to read plenty, but I do wish he could play more golf. That’s what summer is for, I guess!

  • Marlene

    Your Dad is amazing, but this story made me think…would I do this? I am a widow and I am 63 with two small grandchildren who live on the other side of the country (Australia). If anything happened to my son-in-law, would I do this for my daughter? I am sad to admit it but I don’t think I could give up my life like that. Does that make me a terrible person?

    • Marjorie

      No, that most certainly does not make you a terrible person! I think my dad’s choice is extraordinary, in fact. But what I do know is this – you don’t have to move in with a loved one to show them that you care. Frequent phone calls and other check ins can show the same thing. I have plenty of family members who don’t live with me but who I know love me and my kids.

  • Kate

    What a wonderful man your Dad is and your children are fortunate to have him I their lives. I have to admit that I felt a ping of jealousy. My husband died six months ago. He died in a horrific accident. My parents didn’t show up. We talk on the phone every day, but it is not the same. There are lots of reasons, some more valid than others, but they weren’t here when I needed them the most. When my world crashed and I hit rock bottom. All I know is that I was alone. I needed my family. I have vowed that I will be there for my child no matter what.

    • Marjorie

      That’s so tough. Grief is hard for people, and I’ve learned that not everyone has the same attitude as me – the one that says, I’ll show up, I’ll be there in any way that I can, I’ll make sure you’re okay. It doesn’t always come from a bad place. Sometimes, it’s just impossible for others to engage. But it’s always hardest on the person at the center of the grief. Hugs.

  • Dallas

    Omg I am in tears 😭 you both are amazing people and do more than you know for people everyday. Hero’s in plain clothes. You both make this world a better place to love. Thank you.

  • Michelle Klein

    Marjorie, the best 15 years of my life were working for your dad. I cherish all of his thoughtfulness, he always treated each and everyone of us with kindness and respect. He made us feel as equals even though he was a Dr. He was not only a Dr he was a teacher someone who was always telling us about life and the realizations of many different scenarios going on in todays world. I would always ask him questions about raising my boys. He was always straight to the point no unneeded talk to go along with it. I cherish those years. From driving down the street and knocking on the door to just chat with him, he was always inviting. From seeing him while on his daily walk by our house to him zooming by in his Mustang. Those are the times we remember. You truly are blessed to have such a wonderful father and your kids have an amazing grandpa Tom. Take care and tell your dad hi!!!
    Michelle Klein

    • Marjorie

      I love this so much – I can’t wait to read it to him! I know he loved working with you as well. He always cherished the other people in his office. He misses you!

  • SLW

    I’m not sure you’ll see this, but I know your dad. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him for 14 years. I am a pharmaceutical representative that called on his office. Your father was always respectful and kind to me. He treated me like a person and not sales representative. He judged me based on the person that I was and not by the title I held. 5 years ago when my then 17 year old son was diagnosed with cancer, he made a point to make a donation to help my family and I cover some of my sons medical expenses. He didn’t have to make such a gesture, but as you said, “He Choose to Push the Button”!!

    It broke my heart when I heard of your loss. I pray that you and your family will find peace and strength knowing that you are never alone and that there are prayers going up for you all regularly!!


    • Marjorie

      Oh, I love this. I will pass it on to my father who I know will love hearing from you as well. I love that you remember my dad after all these years. Thanks for sending your love from Oregon!

  • Susie

    He is an amazing man, you have been blessed to have him as your dad! You are an incredible writer and I love that I get to feel a part of your life through your stories. I miss you and think and pray for you and your sweet family often.

    • Marjorie

      Thanks Susie! I am lucky to have him, though I know he is missed in Albany! I miss you and everyone there too – but I’m so touched that you are reading my blog. xo

  • Stacee

    I also had the pleasure of working with your dad. He is a very caring man. When I left the clinic I kept him as my doctor because he was respectful and really listened to his patients. He showed me kindness and understanding in some dark times in my life. He is quite an unsung hero and I’m sure likes it that way. I love reading your stories! God bless you all!

    • Marjorie

      Oh, I love this. My dad definitely has kindness – that’s his best trait. I love that so many people have been able to experience it.