Fireplace like that of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley
Things That Suck

My Body Knew

I sat in front of the fire, not because the wind was whipping the tree branches side-to-side, and not because the ice had started to cling to my car windshield over the past week. It was cold, to be sure, but the inside of our house was warm on that November night. Still, I shook. Confused, I put my face close to the flames, hopeful that it would stop the involuntary shaking that had taken over my body.

Shawn was upstairs, finally asleep. I had held his hand and pretended to sleep as I waited for his grip to loosen mine, so that I’d know that he was unconscious. He had slept so little over the past month, though he often spent entire days in bed, and I was glad that he was finally resting. Plus, I needed to call my dad.

It was my sister’s birthday and I hadn’t called her for much of that day. I was trying to process the facts on the ground first: that my husband was much, much sicker than we’d previously thought and that the scans they took at the ER showed spots on his liver. I didn’t want to ruin my sister’s birthday, so I didn’t call her. She finally called me that evening, and she was crying. It struck me, because I hadn’t cried yet. It was the first time I realized that things were really, really bad. But I didn’t really cry, even then.

I was still in shock.

That night, as Shawn lay asleep upstairs, the shaking grew steadily worse. I hadn’t yet called my father back. I hadn’t yet started to really understand what it meant that Shawn was so sick. I hadn’t really processed anything besides the fact that Shawn would need a colonoscopy soon. My head hurt. My thoughts were slow, as though I was underwater, not quite able to rise to the surface.

I dialed my father’s number. His voice was soft at first, becoming more urgent as he talked to me. “It’s bad, and you need to plan,” he said, when I asked him to tell me the unvarnished truth.

But plan for what? I was red-hot angry at my father. What was he suggesting? That Shawn could actually die?

I stared into the fire for a long, long time after I hung up. I actually opened up the screen and put my hands closer to the flames in an attempt to warm myself. Eventually, probably out of sheer exhaustion, the shaking partially subsided, and I rested my head on the nearby chair. Next to me, the Christmas tree was lit up, sparkling as though the world still had joy.

My husband couldn’t die. It wasn’t possible. He had cancer but lots of people get cancer. Lots of people do chemo and are fine. What does chemo even mean? He’d lose his hair, maybe, and feel a bit weak, right? He’d be okay. He had been doing Cross-Fit every day for years. He was strong. He was going to be fine. It was Christmas time and he was going to be okay.

But the shaking came back, again and again. I shook again that night as I crawled into bed next to his warm body, slid one hand across his chest and put my other hand on his. I shook again when I brought him back to the ER the next day and watched him double over in the waiting room. I shook again when they brought me back to the little room by doctor’s office and said that yes, it was cancer and we had only a little time left.

I shook and I shook and I shook.

He was going to be fine, I kept telling myself. He was strong and he was the rock of our family and we had three young kids, one of whom wasn’t yet potty-trained. We were just starting our lives. He was going to walk our daughter down the aisle and he was going to negotiate with world leaders and he was going to make love to me during our retirement trip across Europe. He was going to do all of this because he was going to be fine.

But as I sat by the fire that night, calming myself with the twinkling tree lights and the warmth from the flames, I saw my hand start to twitch again.

Shawn was going to be fine, I kept telling myself.

But my body knew what was true.

My body knew.


  • Christy

    This struck a chord with me as my reaction was quite the same. I was trying to hold it together when we got the news about my husband’s cancer. It was bile duct cancer and the tumor had taken over his liver. It was also too late to do anything, and all I could do was shake. My thoughts are with you this time of year.

  • MHL

    I come back to your blog every few months. It always makes my heart ache — not just for the loss, but for the loneliness, the envelope of love, the forward movement & the stubborn hope. You persist, by need & choice. That makes it easier for us to persist too. Press on.

    • Marjorie

      I love this comment. So much. Thank you for saying this – it really does make me feel like I’m making some meaning out of the cards I’ve been dealt.

      • Julie Giordano

        Thank you for reposting this, it is one of your most beautiful pieces, one that we can feel in our bones. It strikes me, re-reading it after all this time, how many of your impactful life moments are spent around fire, your spirit definitely has a connection to it. Mine is mountains 😊

  • Phyllis

    Marjorie, Your writing has been so helpful to me. My husband died one year ago after a surgery. He was a medical oncologist who devoted his life to the treatment of cancer patients and research. He died because of an infection after a hip replacement. Life can take some very strange turns for sure. I always wonder if the outcome would have been different had we have gone to a big institution…he didn’t want to. Keep writing. You are helping others. Phyllis

    • Marjorie

      Thanks so much for writing this. I’m so sorry for your loss, and I’m so glad my blog can be helpful even in a small way. Take care.

  • Lori

    I feel EVERYTHING you just described as if it was ME. My husband died about 19 days before yours. We had a 7 year battle. When I first got the news, I got in the shower because that is my safe haven, warm water running over me. I had to bring a bowl in the shower as I threw up repeatedly. My body was completely rejecting this news. And for the next 7 years…surgery after surgery… body continued to try to not accept it. When Brian passed, the doctor said “you really didn’t think he was going to die did you?”. Nope….never. Mentally I could not think that….but my body knew. It still knows and I SO want to go on….but my body stops me and it makes me mad. I took the kids snowboarding last year and my friends had to take them out as I sat totally in “meltdown” in the ski lodge. I love to snowboard….but my body couldn’t and I was so mad I smashed a phone on our dashboard as we drove home. I literally sat in the lodge for 9 hours unable to move to even go take a picture of the kids (thank God for beautiful friends who took them on the lifts all day). I will get stronger and my goal this year is to GO DOWN THE HILLS with my kids, but I will have to honor my body and I’m hoping that it will let me. I sincerely LOVE your posts and your honesty. Bless you sweet lady!

    • Marjorie

      Lori, I’m so sorry for your loss – it’s just awful. And yes, I think our bodies can sometimes know things that our minds cannot yet accept. I think “going down the hills” is a great goal for this year, and also, I love that you are going to go easy on yourself if your body tells you otherwise.

  • Kate

    My husband died suddenly and unexpectedly. I remember shaking uncontrollably when they led me to his body in the hospital. I couldn’t believe what had happened. The shaking continued for several weeks. Our bodies most definitely know even if our minds are not ready.

    • Marjorie

      Yes. As I’ve told this story again and again to fellow widows, I’ve heard similar accounts. Sometimes our bodies can accept things first.

  • Amy

    I had the same problem with uncontrollable shaking in my hands. It lasted on and off for a year. But it also brought me the first episode of incredible kindness and empathy from strangers as I sent a teapot into flight and sliding down a table with a crash in a cafe near the hospice. I cried out of frustration and embarrassment and the waiter gave me a big, long loving hug when I told him why I couldn’t control my hands.

    Life is beautiful. And hard. These moments makes me think back to the Jewish tradition we observed at our wedding. First we drank wine from the cup and then John stepped on it, shattering it into shards of broken glass. Life is bittersweet but I didn’t think his death would happen so soon.

    • Marjorie

      This imagery is just beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing it. Sometimes those moments of real sadness and grief are ones when others around us can show us grace and love. That is a blessing, for sure.

  • Barry

    Whenever I’m reading another’s story of loss I’m moved. This had me shaken. Time seemed to stand still as I read such powerfully evokative words. Although the story of my wife’s last days is very different, during the days and weeks that followed the news from her oncologist that there was zero chance of her surviving my body went into revolt while my mind refused to accept what was happening. At the end she knew. I still have to remind myself from time to time ‘This really happened?’. I’ve only just discovered your site Margorie. It’s amazing.

    • Marjorie

      I’m so sorry to hear about your wife. I’m also so glad you could find my blog and get something out of it. Those days – those memories – are so hard and yet they keep me connected to Shawn.

  • Barry

    Memories, both the painful and the joyful ones will forever be the source of connection. While we all wish we had no reason to seek out a site such as yours, all who do will be grateful to have found it.