Patio view from balcony of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
New Perspectives

Moments of Pause

Over the past few months, it’s really felt like things are getting easier here in Colombia.

Sure, nothing is really the same as it is back home. It takes me three times longer to go through the grocery store and I still get lost in my own neighborhood and when someone in my apartment talks to me in Spanish, I only get about 50% of it, even now. But the kids have settled into school and they have sports events and they even get invited to birthday parties and so, in some ways, it all feels similar to my old life too.

That’s been a nice feeling.

I have a routine, and so do the kids. We know the people in our community and our Spanish teacher Lina has become like a part of our family. Some days, it doesn’t feel strange at all that we are living thousands of miles from home.

We’ve gotten so comfortable, in fact, that we decided to leave Austin and Tommy home one Saturday morning, so that Chris and I could both go and watch Claire’s volleyball game. We have locks and doormen and security cameras, so we figured it was fine. We’d only be gone an hour or so, anyway.

(You know what’s coming now, don’t you?)

Yes, right in the middle of the volleyball game, the fire alarm went off in our building. No, there was not a real fire (it was some sort of drill we didn’t seem to know about) but Austin and Tommy didn’t know that at the moment. As the sirens rang, we obliviously sat at the volleyball game, and Austin yelled at Tommy to put on pants as he grabbed the keys on the counter. They knew they couldn’t take the elevator so they ran (without shoes) down 9 flights of stairs to the lobby, where they found everyone else who’d exited the building. Smartly, they went to the doormen, who they know.

But the doormen do not speak English.

Somehow, Austin communicated that Chris and I were gone, and everything seemed okay until they realized that the keys they had grabbed were not the keys to our apartment. They were locked out. This was the time when the doormen finally called us and we raced back to get the boys. (I was just a little bit nervous.) It took us quite a while as the game was far away, and when we got back, the boys and one of the doormen were sitting in front of our apartment. I ran up to them and hugged them vigorously. Everyone laughed at my wild state and I restrained myself from crying with gratitude while I thanked the doorman.

That night, we stayed home and congratulated Austin on doing his best in a stressful situation, but also reminding kids that shoes are usually a good thing to wear outside the apartment. We re-lived every moment of the fire drill as well as Claire’s standout game, and we laughed a lot at what the doormen must think of our family. Everyone was very proud of themselves. Afterwards, Chris made me a stiff drink and told me to sit outside on the balcony while he did the dishes. He’d join me afterwards. I think he could see I needed a bit of a wind down.

Inside, the kids messed around doing nothing, teasing each other and just generally being kids. I watched Austin do a trick with the yo-yo for his siblings and then I looked over at Chris at the sink. He wasn’t doing much other than focusing on the task at hand, but he smiled at me when he saw me looking at him. Outside, the sun was setting, and it was beautiful, as sunsets often are. In the background, Me Hace Dano Verte, my current favorite song, was playing.

I started crying before I even realized I was crying.

I am so happy, I thought.

It wasn’t that I was thinking about how happy I was with our move to Colombia, or how happy I was with my darling kids or even with my incredible husband. All of those things are true. No, what I let myself feel in that moment was simply the happiness of the moment. Chris came over to me, a questioning look in his eyes, and all I could say was, “I’m just happy, that’s all.”

It was a perfect point in time – one where I felt that nothing could get any better. It wasn’t my wedding day or a vacation to Paris or some other momentous time. No, it was just an evening at home. But it felt so special, right then.

It wasn’t long – just a moment – but in that pause I could feel everything that was good.

As I reflected on this moment a few days later, I was reminded of my favorite book, 4000 Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman. I could write 10,000 words on his ideas, but to keep it short, here is one of his key points: when we face death – when we really understand that we are going to die – we can “finally become truly present for our lives.” It’s not that we become “happier” by facing death, but rather that “things become realer” and we can appreciate how incredible it is that we are simply on this earth.

When I read that part of the book, I felt like Burkeman was speaking directly to me, and to so many widows I know.

Stopping and “being fully present” in the moment wasn’t something I did much of before Shawn died. Sure, there were times when I could step back and see the moment of happiness for what it was, but they were usually the big moments. Shawn was better at reminding me to take time to appreciate the world, but I didn’t always let myself. There was always laundry to do, you know?

And now there’s still always laundry to do, and I’m still a crazy neatnik and want to get that laundry done, but something about Shawn’s death fundamentally shifted how I see the world. It didn’t happen right away, of course. Early grief was so terrible that sometimes taking a step back and really feeling the moment was just too painful. But as that grief eased a bit, I started to really think about how short life was. And that changed how I saw some parts of my life.

I don’t wish widowhood on anyone. But living through it has given me this whole other perspective. It’s not one I have all the time – I’m not some strange Buddha-like wise widow. No, most of the time I’m folding laundry and organizing paperwork and grocery shopping.

But now, almost 5 year after Shawn’s death, I have many more moments when I pause. In those times, I let the beauty of my life wash over me.

I feel so lucky that I can see it.