Shawn Brimley with Austin Brimley looking at the sky outside of DC

What If the Plane Crashes?

I’ve taken my kids on airplanes since the very early days of their lives. Claire was only six weeks old the first time she rode on a plane, and I remember boarding the flight with Shawn and about fifteen bags to guarantee we had everything. As I sat down, the man in front of me turned around and said, “that baby better not scream for the entire flight.”

Claire was six weeks old. Through some miracle, she slept through the entire flight and I smugly de-boarded the plane afterwards. Shawn was livid at the rude man, but I felt victorious. I must have been doing everything right if my baby didn’t cry, right?

Of course, my kids had plenty of flights after that when they screamed or whined or were just generally badly behaved. But that was the only time I’ve ever had someone be outright rude to me on a flight with my children. As I’ve said to many friends, “there’s nothing like a single woman boarding a flight with three little kids to elicit kindness from strangers.” I traveled a lot every summer without Shawn, and I never worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. In the rare instance when he was along for the flight, it felt like total luxury to have someone else help with the seat belt buckling and the snack dispersal. Usually, it was just me and I planned accordingly. I also asked for a lot of help from strangers.

So traveling without Shawn this summer does not bring me to my knees. In some ways, it feels more normal than a lot of things that I do at home where his absence is so much more obvious. In fact, I’ve gotten so good at traveling without any other adults that I’m typing this post as one child sleeps with her head in my lap, and I feed another strips of red peppers that I stuck in my bag.

What’s hard isn’t the multitasking – that’s just par for the course. What’s hard is the adorable couple sitting in front of me with their baby who can’t be more than six months old. They are enamored with her. We’ve been flying for a few hours now and both of them are still laughing at her antics and taking turns holding her. The dad repetitively kisses his baby. United Airlines should hire these people for a commercial. They are having the best time just being with each other and their baby.

It’s just another reminder of what was once so perfect. Even when I didn’t know it.

My own kids are mercilessly too old to need 100% of my attention. They can watch TV or color or sleep without needing me to deal with everything. I actually managed to write almost 500 words before I was interrupted by Austin tapping me on the leg. I was planning on writing this post on missing Shawn in unexpected places, like the airplane. But Austin had a serious question that made me examine something new.

“Mommy,” he said in a hushed voice, “what if the plane crashes?”

“The plane is not going to crash,” I said dismissively.

“But what if it does?” He insisted. “Will we all die?”

There it was again – a question about death. Lately, my kids are fascinated by the subject of death and dying. Maybe elementary school aged kids are usually interested in this sort of thing, but I don’t remember my kids being like this before Shawn died.

“Don’t worry,” I assured him, “the pilot is very well trained and the plane is very sturdy.”

This statement wasn’t enough. He wanted to know what would happen if there was a hurricane or a bomb in the air. I had answers for everything – there are air traffic controllers, there are ways to move the plane around bad weather, there is security to make sure no one brings anything dangerous on to a plane.

He was somewhat satisfied. “But,” he said to me, “we could all die if someone shot down the plane.” I made a face at him, but he was not deterred. “It can happen! It happened a lot in World War Two.”

“Austin,” I said, “World War Two was a long time ago and we are not going to be shot down in this airplane.”

He quieted down after that. I think he liked my answers, but I knew they were insufficient. I sat there afterwards, as he played yet another game of Minecraft on my phone, and thought about what he was really asking. Death is something that most kids don’t really have to understand. Until my mom died when I was a teenager, I thought that only old people died. I knew that it was possible for people who weren’t really old to die, but no one close to me had ever died an untimely death. That meant I didn’t think about it that much.

My kids think about death all the time. Because cancer killed Shawn so quickly, my kids now know – in a very real way – that death can strike almost anyone at anytime. Sometimes they worry about it, especially about the possibility that I could die. But sometimes they are just curious. For example, as we were riding in a cab the other day, Austin asked me if we were going to get in a car crash and die. Embarassed, I reassured him that our driver seemed very competent. I heard the driver stifle a laugh and saw him peer back at Austin in the rear-view mirror with a grin on his face. I’m sure he thought I just had a precocious kid – one who asks questions about everything. He didn’t understand that Austin has been asking questions like this a lot lately. His questions about death are his way of trying to understand this world – a place where bad things can happen for no reason.

Austin is thinking about death, but he isn’t really asking “why me?” about his Dad’s death. Rather, he’s trying to pinpoint “when will it be me?” Of course, I don’t really have an answer for him. But as I told him on that flight, “you don’t need to worry about dying.”

I know it’s not necessarily going to make his worries go away. He’s only seven, but he knows that there’s no guarantee in this world that you will live until old age.

When he asked me one last time if I was sure we wouldn’t die on the airplane, I could tell him only, “Don’t worry about that, baby. I feel very confident that we’re going to get to Nana’s and swim in the pool and eat ice cream in just a few hours. You’ll soon be with your cousins and so many people who love you.”

I can’t promise much else these days. It feels somewhat irresponsible. And so I offer only distraction and reassurance to Austin that he is loved and as safe as I can possibly make him.

In some ways, plane flights are easier than they were when the kids were babies. In other ways, they are much more difficult. No one used to ask me about imminent death while I was 30,000 feet in the air. I guess that’s because my kids never used to grapple with such big life questions like they do now.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Sherry G

    Please Don’t be so hard on yourself!
    ALL parents can’t promise much, feel irresponsible and use distractions and reassurances to answer true, tough questions from their kids, no matter how old they are when they ask.
    Having them feel safe and loved will carry them through whatever life hands them
    because that IS the truth and you CAN promise them that! Beyond that……Life isn’t fair.
    Enjoy the vacay and remember all of us who are getting stronger, ourselves, because
    of YOUR strength!

    • Marjorie

      Thanks Sherry! I am hanging in there….though it’s hard not to worry obsessively about my kids and how my every move might impact them. But it’s so wonderful to hear that others are reading my blog and getting something out of it. That means a lot to me.

  • Ian

    I imagine the only thing you can do is reassure and redirect at this point. I honestly don’t know how you do it, but I’m in awe of you, my friend!

    As they get older, I suppose the only positive direction to guide such feelings is into making Shawn’s loss a motivator to seize each day and draw out everything they can from life. Brims knew how to enjoy life but also how to optimize his time. I’d expect your kids will do likewise, and in a “supercharged” kind of way.

    • Marjorie

      Yes, I know that you’re right. And I love comments like this because I read them to my kids to remind them about their awesome dad.

  • Joy

    Your kids ask the deepest, most thoughtful questions. They are so smart and kind.

    Can we reflect for a moment on the fact that you wrote this on an airplane, while multitasking with three kids, and then doing some super advanced parenting? I’m glad you’re writing about this year for lots of reasons, one of them being that it’s a log of all the Herculean things you’ve done.

    • Marjorie

      Haha! Well, yes, it was certainly multitasking at its finest! It’s one of those things – like many things in parenting – that seem normal at the time, but I’m sure I’ll look back and think it was unreal I survived it all and wrote through it all.