DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley's husband Shawn plays with his youngest son in playroom

“My Dad Died in the War”

The other day, Tommy had over a friend for a few hours. They spent much of the time playing some sort of game where they were both soldiers and tried to “get” each other. I wasn’t really paying attention to them, but then I heard Tommy say, “my dad died in the war.”

I turned to him. “Your dad didn’t die in the war,” I said.

“Yes he did!” Tommy said back to me.

“Why do you think that he died in the war?” I asked.

“Well, dad was in the army, and he died, so he died in the war!” he said emphatically.

I sat down and explained to him that although his father had been in the Canadian military, and although there had been many wars in the world, and although his dad did die, it wasn’t a war that killed him. Cancer did that.

“What’s cancer?” he asked.

I stumbled through some sort of response. (Later, when I actually asked a doctor friend of mine to describe how someone gets cancer, I realized that my medical knowledge of it is actually quite rudimentary. Cancer is a hell of a lot more difficult for me to understand than political violence, apparently.)

It all got me to thinking. Claire and Austin know that it was cancer that killed their father. They might not really understand what cancer is, but they saw their dad get skinnier and sicker throughout the fall of 2017. They know it wasn’t a war that killed him.

But Tommy has forgotten. In fact, he’s forgotten much more than just how his dad got sick. He remembers bits of Shawn – just a few days ago he reminded me that they used to have really fun pillow fights – but Tommy can’t really remember much about the life he shared with his dad for the first 3 1/2 years of his life. “Remember our other dad?” he asked me the other day. “Our old dad, from before?” He was talking about Shawn, of course. He was trying to differentiate him from Grandpa Tom, who holds a father-figure-like position in his mind. He knows Grandpa Tom isn’t his dad, but he can’t quite remember the roles that everyone plays.

It’s heartbreaking.

I mean, it’s wonderful that my dad is around. I’m so lucky to have him, as are my kids.

But he’s not their dad. The big kids know that. But Tommy? He’s still just trying to figure out the world. The strange, crazy world where his dad would die before his grandpa. The world where something other than a war could kill a young, vibrant man.

A few days after this initial incident, Claire had to get two of her teeth pulled. It wasn’t pleasant, so later that day we decided to go and get ice cream. It was just the two of us, and we sat in the baking heat with ice cream dripping down both of our chins. I went on and on about how much I loved coffee ice cream and she laughed at how animated I was. We started to talk about how fun it would be to be to have a job as an ice cream tester, and then we got on the general subject of what kind of work she’d want to do when she grew up.

“Maybe a doctor,” she said. “I could help people. Maybe people with cancer.”

“That’s a great job,” I said, “but really, whatever you decide, you just want to enjoy doing it every day.” I paused, and got a bit contemplative. “I love my job, and I think a lot of people who do jobs like teaching and medicine end up happy with their work. Sometimes, it seems like people who work in offices don’t like their jobs as much.”

“Dad worked in an office,” she said, “and he liked his job a lot.”

“Good point!” I said. “I guess I’m overgeneralizing. I think maybe you just have to have a good place to work, no matter what the job.”

“Dad had a lot of fun at work,” she said. “I went to his work a few times and it was always fun. He had so many friends there. They were always laughing and he was always smiling.”

“That’s your dad,” I said, “he was like that at work. He could be serious, especially when you weren’t around, but he liked to have fun.”

“Yes he did!” she said. “Do you know what he kept under his desk? A nerf gun! At work!”

She laughed thinking about this, and I smiled too. I was happy she remembered this piece of her father.

“Maybe you should tell Tommy that story,” I said.

“So then maybe he will stop telling people that Dad died in the war?” she said, and rolled her eyes a bit. We both laughed.

That evening, I was with Claire and Tommy and they got into a nerf gun war. I thought about how much Shawn would have loved to see them grow up. I also thought about the pieces of him that remain with each of them. Tommy’s memories of Shawn will be mostly those that other adults tell him as he grows up. But some of the memories he hears will be from his brother and sister – two people who definitely remember that their dad loved every bit of life.

Shawn didn’t die in a war. He didn’t even fight in one. He worked on defense policy, but his job usually involved being behind a computer, not getting out on the front battle lines. But that doesn’t matter now, really. What matters is that Claire reminds Tommy now – and in twenty years – about what it was like to go to Dad’s work, and watch him fill the place with joy.

Because that is what made Shawn the man that he was. Not how he died. But how he lived.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Krista

    Have you read or heard about the book called Rabbityness by Jo Empson? In my (egocentric!) opinion,it was written about my husband, for my three year old son. The story tells of a rabbit who filled the forest with colour and music. When he dies, the forest turns grey. Soon though, his friends discover that the rabbit left gifts for them in his den and they use the gifts to fill the forest with music and colour once again. THAT was my husband! He filled the world with coulour and music- literally and metaphorically. It sounds like your husband did exactly the same thing.

    • Marjorie

      I love this! But no – I’ve never heard of the book Rabbityness….I’ll check it out. I love that it reminds you of your husband. Mine was full of color and life, that’s for sure!

  • Rebecca Gorman

    Hi! I commented a few months ago on your post about how things can’t get any worse. I was more positive back then, but I still believe it could be worse. Yesterday was four months since my husband died. Things have gotten worse, my A/C flooded my attic, my son got double pneumonia and got sent home from Marine Corps OCS and was terrifyingly sick, and we have no health insurance. I got some ife insurance money, so groceries aren’t an issue anymore. BUT, I worry about dying every day. I honestly just want to get all the insurnace stuff done and have everything wrapped up, so if I die, my brother can easily take over. My kids are much older than yours, but I can tell they worry about it too. I have lupus, and it’s been kicking my butt the past month. I take medicine so I won’t die easily, but I worry. They worry. Just wanted to say I’m so thankful I found your blog. It seems like every time I have a problem you are right there saying it will be ok. So my greatest thanks to you.

    • Marjorie

      Oh, I’m so sorry about everything. It’s so much to handle losing your spouse and then to have all the other stuff on top of it – it feels impossible. I will say this – four months was the worst point for me. It DID get easier after that. Hang in there.