DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley's daughter, Claire, performs in the Little Mermaid as Flounder

Not Such a Guppy Anymore

For weeks leading up to the tryouts for the elementary school musical, The Little Mermaid, Claire kept telling me how much she was hoping to be cast as Flounder. (As a note, Flounder is the small fish who is Ariel’s best friend.) When I wondered whether she might rather want to be Ursula or Ariel, she remained firm that Flounder was the best role for her. We talked about how she might be cast in the ensemble, like last year, and she said that she would be happy with any role. But when she found out that yes, she had been cast as Flounder, she was over-the-moon.

And in case you don’t know my daughter personally, I’ll tell you this: it is the perfect role for her. Flounder is the character who feels everything – excitement, nervousness, joy – and expresses that onstage. And Claire relished the role to its fullest.

Over the two-plus months that the kids practiced, Claire learned almost everyone’s lines. She was filled with glee every day after practice, and I’d catch her studying her lines with a flashlight when she was supposed to be sleeping. She sang her solo, “She’s in Love,” constantly, belting it out in the shower and the kitchen and the living room. Even her brothers learned the lyrics.

So when opening night arrived, I was super nervous for her. I tried not to show it. As I put on her makeup in the hours before the show, she chattered on about the details of her costume and her big solo. “I can’t believe today is here!” she said about ten times.

I went to drop her off early, and on the way, we picked up her dear friend Liam (my friend Becky’s son) who was playing the role of Prince Eric. They requested music, and I let them shuffle through the songs as they laughed and squealed with joy. “Let’s play Lizzo!” Claire said, and put on “Good as Hell.” They both started singing at the top of their lungs, and I joined in, laughing too.

When we got to the school, I planned on walking them in, but they saw a friend and bounded out of the car to hug her and scramble in school together. “I love you!” I shouted from the car, as I watched them run up the steps.

And then I burst into tears. She’s so big, I thought. She’s really becoming a young woman, complete with her own dreams.

And Shawn is missing it.

I knew the musical would bring up all sorts of emotions, since it did last year. But I also knew this: I wasn’t about ready to let my nervousness or my tears interfere with Claire’s joy. So I held my breath, pulled the rest of my family together, and got us to the show.

Claire didn’t come on until the third scene, but when she did, both Austin and Tommy did a little jump. She looked great, but within a minute, I could tell something was wrong. Her microphone was falling off her face.

It must be the makeup, I thought. The tape that held the microphone in place had come loose. I saw a little panic in her eyes, as she tried to figure out how to keep the microphone on and still deliver her lines. She managed it, holding the microphone as she talked, but she wasn’t nearly as smooth as she’d been in practice. I figured they’d fix the microphone during the next scene, when she was backstage, before she had her solo.

The crew obviously tried, but when her big scene arrived, it was immediately apparent that they hadn’t fixed it. Now it really wasn’t working, and she was bounding on stage to sing. My heart sank.

She clearly realized it too, and a momentary look of confusion went across her face. Her microphone was totally out. 600 people were staring at her, waiting to see what would happen.

She took a breath, appeared to compose herself and then belted out the words. “SHE’S IN LOVE,” she sang, her voice carrying to the back. She started to dance and sing as loud as she could, skipping around the stage and smiling as though she couldn’t have been happier. At the end of the number, she did a hop and a pose, and her hat fell over her face as the crowd cheered. “Way to go, Claire!” I screamed. A bunch of parents turned to me, giving me excited looks. She’d done it, even with the equipment failure.

At intermission, I went backstage to check on her. She was upset. “My microphone didn’t work during my solo!” she said, looking like she was going to cry.

“Okay, let’s get someone to help fix it,” I said, and we found one of the high school kids who was helping with the show. As we worked on it, Claire kept talking about her solo. “It wasn’t the same without the microphone,” she said sadly.

I took her face in my hands and looked her in the eyes. “You were great, baby. Really. Everyone could hear you, even people in the back.”

“I’m so sad the microphone didn’t work,” she said.

“Listen to me,” I said. “There are times like this in life when things don’t go as planned. You know that’s true. But when bad things happen, you have a choice about how to react. And what you did tonight was the best thing you could have done – you sang your heart out, as though the microphone was fine. You kept going, even when things were not perfect. More than anything, that makes me proud.”

She smiled at me, a real smile. “Do you think the other people in the audience thought that I did okay?” she asked.

Almost every person there knew our family’s story. I wanted to tell her that most of the audience was cheering for her like they would cheer for their own children. I wanted to tell her that her story of resilience is one that many people find inspiring – not just on stage that night, but also through every single day of the past two years.

Instead I said, “I saw so many people who said, ‘Claire was great!’ and I know they meant it.”

She smiled, and I assured her that her microphone was now secure. She hugged me. “I go on right after intermission, so I have to go,” she said, turning away, and I went back out to the audience. As I was taking my seat, I ran into one of the parent directors. “Wow, Claire did so great,” she said.

“She’s sad about the microphone,” I said.

“I’m sure,” she replied, “but wow, she really was a true professional! Her mic failed and she just belted out her song anyway!”

I smiled. I couldn’t wait to tell Claire that line. As the second act started, I could see her elation that the musical was going well, that her microphone worked, and that everyone was (mostly) remembering their lines.

In the final scene, Ariel and her friends (including Flounder), fight the villain Ursula and win. They celebrate afterwards, and Ariel thanks her friends for the help. “Not such a guppy anymore, am I?” says Flounder.

And then they all sing a final number and take their bows. Claire and Liam were right at the center, dancing with each other and their classmates. The looks on their faces were ones of elation, and I knew they didn’t have to act at all in that moment. It was genuine. And so were the tears that were streaming down my face.

My girl. Out there in front of hundreds of people, taking the setbacks that came and still jumping with joy at the end.

Not such a guppy anymore, is she?

Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.


  • Phyllis

    What an amazing girl! And you handled it so well. When they have suffered such loss so young you really want them to never be disappointed ever again but you know that isn’t realistic. My granddaughter is an athlete, the catcher on her high school softball team. On the night my husband (her grandfather) died she was playing in the state tournament. It was decided not to tell her until after she had played her game because we knew there would be so many hard days ahead. And her team had worked so hard to get to this place. Of course when they told her she was devastated. She was with her team at the hotel and decided to stay with them rather than with her parents that night. Two of her teammates sat with her. One of them had lost her little brother to leukemia and the other her mother to cancer. They showed such empathy as only one could who has been through it. They also had not won the championship but that seemed to not be the big issue anymore. Her team really showed up for her and it gave me so much comfort just watching that unfold.

    • Marjorie

      As a high school teacher, I am constantly impressed by the compassion kids show. I see it from my students and from the my own children’s friends. It is beautiful, and reminds us of all the good in the world.

  • Jillian

    I cried reading this because I felt for you. In one moment you’re happy and so proud of her and then in the next your sad knowing Shawn isn’t here to see her. I feel that way every day when I look at my two kids. My son was 13 and my daughter turned 11, 3 days after their dad died suddenly of a cardiac arrest at age 42. I feel incredibly guilty that I am still here and he isn’t here to see all the little moments and big mile stones. He was an amazing husband and father and it saddens me to know he will never know his grandchildren some day.
    I enjoy reading your posts and hearing your perspective. I have since remarried to another widow. He brings so much joy and happiness in my life but I also still have the hurt and sadness of missing my late husband.
    After I read your article I thought of a saying that I heard on the show, This Is Us. Rebecca says in the scene when she sees her first grandchild being born, “Even the happiest moments are sad.”
    I truly feel that way everyday. I’m sure you felt that watching Claire on stage.

    Love your blog Marjorie! You’re inspiring others.

    • Marjorie

      Thanks so much for reading! And yes, I think it’s true that the sad and the happy just come together now. It’s a bit easier than it was at first, because I expect it, but it’s never EASY. Your story is one that is inspiring to me!

  • Henry

    Claire is a real trouper. As someone who spent four seasons doing summer stock, I can attest that things go wrong in the theater. Equipment, props, and sets can fail, and actors blank on lines. The actors who can take this sort of thing in stride and go on with the show are the ones who really belong on the stage – and Claire obviously loves it and belongs. At some point in the future, Claire’s ability to deal with this mic failure will doubtless become one of the great stories in Brimley family lore.

  • Sharm Running

    What an AMAZING girl, you and Shawn created! You’re an amazing girl, too, Marjorie! I think Shawn gave her courage, to belt out her song, without a mic!!!!!

  • Cathy Phillips

    This is my new favorite post, Marjorie. Jim and I taught lessons on resilience to our Academy kids at West. As you know, all had experienced more than their share of bad things. If I were still teaching, I would use your wise words to Claire as a good model.