Husband and son of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale on porch in Colombia
New Perspectives

Pico y Placa

I wake up early in Colombia. I’m not totally sure why, as the sun doesn’t come up any earlier than it did back home and the city isn’t that much louder than DC. But every morning, around 5 am, my eyes pop open and I am awake.

It’s okay, this waking-up-early thing. I have always woken up early (though not quite as early as 5) so it’s not totally bizarre for me to be up before everyone else. Anyway, a few weeks into our time here in Colombia, I found myself awake in the wee hours of the morning, yet again. I figured I’d get up and make something special for the kids, muffins or biscuits or something that would remind them of home.

I chose a simple recipe for rolls. As they were baking, Tommy got up. “I’m sick,” he moaned, and said his stomach hurt. I wasn’t sure if he actually was sick, but Austin was sick and I didn’t want to send Tommy to school if he was under the weather. Chris was still asleep, as he’d had a lot of work and stayed up late to do it the night before. I thought about waking him up so we could determine together if Tommy should go to school. He had to catch the bus by 6:45.

After a moment of hesitation, I decided that I wasn’t going to wake Chris. I had made these sorts of decisions all on my own for years! For a while, when I was a new single mom, it had been very stressful. And while it never got easy to make all the decisions, I got used to it. In fact, it was one of the things that was the hardest to change when Chris moved in. I would routinely forget to ask him for his opinion on some parenting-related thing (both big and small) and sometimes – especially once he’d become the kids’ dad in every real way – it would be hurtful to him.

Now, we usually make the decisions together, but sometimes we can’t consult each other. That morning, I unilaterally decided that Tommy would stay home.

An hour went by and everyone woke up, including Chris. I realized as they were all getting up that I’d burned the rolls, but no one seemed to care much. Tommy started to perk up after having some breakfast, and Chris knelt down to talk to him. A few minutes later, he turned to me and said what I already was starting to understand: Tommy wasn’t sick.

We decided to drive him to school, and we’d take Claire too since she was headed to the same place (Austin stayed home sick.) I felt badly that I’d miscalculated, but Chris wasn’t worried. It was still really early and we would be able to get back to the house in time for his work and my Spanish class.

We piled in the car, everyone in a rush to make it to school, and we got to the exit of the apartment building when we finally realized one detail we’d forgotten:

Today was our pico y placa.

“Oh, nooooo!” I said loudly enough for everyone in the back seat to jump a little. Chris and I both exhaled. We wouldn’t be able to drive. In order to combat congestion and pollution, the city has mandated one day a week (based on the last digit of your license plate) when you can’t drive your car. It’s called pico y placa. Our day is Tuesday.

It was Tuesday.

We decided to call a cab, which came fairly quickly, and we all piled in. We explained to the driver what had happened and he said it was a good thing we called him because if you get caught defying pico y placa, your car is impounded and you have to pay a huge sum of money. As he was explaining this, I was trying to find the seatbelts for the kids, but of course there were no seatbelts, so I just wrapped my arms around both of their legs. “Mom, I don’t think that’s going to work if we get in a wreck,” Claire said, her eyes raised like teenagers do so well.

“Well, I’m holding on anyway,” I said, which we both knew was stupid, but no one tried to move my hands.

We live in the valley, but in order to get to the kids’ school, we have to go up into the mountains – the Andes mountains that is. It’s basically straight up and every section of the road is curved. I’ve been up there before, of course, but Chris is usually driving and he knows to go slowly. The first day we sent the kids up to and back from school in the bus, they all came home quite carsick. But by the end of the first week, no one complained. Even little Tommy (who has always been carsick) seemed to be okay. Austin even said he sometimes reads on the bus.

But I am not like my kids, apparently. A few minutes into the ride, I was both terrified and very nauseous. I gripped the kids legs harder. Claire looked at me. “Are you worried we are all going to die?” she asked.

“No, it will be fine,” I said, unconvincingly. I was definitely worried that I’d puke all over the cab in the next 5 minutes, but I was more worried that we’d get in a wreck and our whole family (minus Austin) would fly through the windshield. It all seemed pretty plausible.

The fog rolled in. “Is it foggy like this every morning?” Chris asked the kids.

“Oh, lots of times it’s worse!” Claire said. “Sometimes you can’t even see the other cars.”

“Oh my God.” I said. (I think I grabbed her leg even tighter then.)

Claire smiled at me, just as Tommy laid his head on my shoulder. “Mom, you worry too much,” she said. “We’re not going to die.”

I just shook my head, and kept holding on. Eventually, we made it to school just as the middle school bell rang. Claire ran off quickly, but over her shoulder she waved at me and said, “I love you!”

“I love you too, baby!” I screamed, even though it made me stick out as the American mom.

I didn’t care. We’d made it, and Tommy was only a little bit late. I hadn’t puked in the car. We had enough time to get back home. Our car was still in the parking garage and hadn’t been impounded. Even the burnt rolls had been okay for breakfast.

Most important, we were all still alive. Which, of course, is the bar by which I measure everything. We are here. We are alive. And Andes or no Andes, that is a goddamn miracle every single day.


  • Sarah Barber

    So – I love your blog, and have been reading for several years now. I had to laugh. Did you notice/remember that in the early days after Shawn died the kids were worried you would die too? You spent a lot of time reassuring them that you’d do your very best to be there for them. That you can’t control everything, but you were their mom and would take care of them. They used to panic when you’d leave the house. NOW, your lovely kids are reassuring YOU that you won’t die. They are wonderful kids on an amazing adventure (hats off to you and Chris). Look how far they’ve come. Shawn would be immensely proud, I think.

    • M Brimley

      Oh, totally. I think they still worry (or at least think sometimes) about me dying, BUT yes, now my kids are doing the same for me. It’s amazing, really!