Shawn Brimley teaching Claire to play the guitar
Missing Shawn

Pooping on the Potty

Yesterday afternoon I heard the ding of a new text message as I was sitting in our school library, attempting to grade an essay.  “Good news,” my dad wrote, “Tommy pooped on the potty at preschool today.  He is very proud of himself.”

“That’s incredible!” I texted back.

Seconds later, I had the immediate thought that I should text Shawn.  It’s a reflex that’s still there months after it should have ended.  I don’t ever actually start texting him, but the moment where I think, “I cannot wait to tell Shawn about this,” always occurs when something like this happens with our kids.

I didn’t text him.  But I did start to cry.  Actually, I started to openly weep in our high school library and I had to put my head down on the desk to compose myself.  These moments – the ones where grief overwhelm me – still come at times like these, and I’m never ready for them.  I’m sure my dad didn’t think that texting me about my youngest child’s pooping habits would hit me so hard.  And yet it did, and I was wholly unprepared for the grief that followed.

But the thing is, it’s not about the poop.  It’s about a million moments like this, ones that I have multiple times in every day.  It’s a bit like Russian roulette with these moments, because sometimes I can handle them.  Other times, I cannot.  I never know when a funny story or a photo or a song might make me desperately miss Shawn.

Even though that moment in the library had thrown me into grief, I know that not all moments like this are going to be unexpected.  In fact, later that day was Austin’s first guitar lesson.  As I pulled myself together for my afternoon classes, I thought about how my library breakdown might not be the only one I’d have that day.  By late afternoon, I would head home to try and catch the tail end of this first lesson for Austin.  I was so excited for him – and I was also bracing myself for the sadness of missing Shawn at such a momentous time.

As I arrived, I caught an ecstatic preschooler after he literally jumped into my arms screaming, “I POOPED ON THE POTTY!!!!”  In the living room, Austin was working through his first guitar lesson.  His teacher – a bald guy with a huge beard and a big laugh – taught him a few notes and he quietly plucked along.  Afterwards, he said to me, in a bit of a hushed voice, “that was AWESOME mom!  I can’t wait to practice all the stuff I know!”

It was both adorable and awful to see Austin’s excitement.  What I wouldn’t give to be able to relay that to Shawn.  It was such a dream of his to have our kids learn how to play the guitar.  Obviously, I can’t text him and I can’t call him.  I can’t describe what Austin’s face looked like when we talk after the kids have gone to bed.  That knowledge – that I can’t share these moments with him – can be crushing at times.  So in those moments when I feel the grief rain down on me, there’s little I can do but surrender to it.

Claire had her first guitar lesson with her dad a year ago.  Austin will never get that.  And I’ll never get to watch either of them play with their father and then gush with him later about how talented they are.

I remember years ago when my kids were really little, I was talking to another friend who was not yet a mom.  She and I knew an acquaintance who had just become a single mom.  My friend was talking about how hard it must be to do the daily logistics alone – diapers, day care, and the like.  I agreed, but I said to her, “you know, I think the hardest thing about being a single mom is that you wouldn’t have someone to share everything with.  Sure, you could call your best friends or your mom, but the thing is, no one except your partner loves that kid like you do.”

I’ve thought about this a lot lately.  It’s really hard to figure out all three of my kids’ schedules and make sure they are doing their homework or learning to poop on the potty.  But what’s truly difficult is the part when they do something impossibly cute or incredibly challenging and there’s no one that appreciates my kids in the same way that I do.  That means that although my friends and family will be supportive when my kids do something great, or they will laugh when they do something cute, there’s no one who gives me that look.  If you are raising kids with a partner, you know what I mean.  It’s the look of “Oh My God, our kid is The Best/The Silliest/The Cutest/The Funniest/The Smartest.”

After I got the news about Tommy’s potty success, I texted a few friends about it, and I got back a number of lovely, supportive replies.  It wasn’t the same as telling Shawn, but it helped a little and it certainly made me smile to get this one: “F*#k YES, Tommy!!!! Daddy would be sooo proud of you!!!! And so are we!!!!”

For now, that’s going to have to do.  I’m going to have to find solace in the fact that others are loving my kids, even if it’s imperfect and not the same type of love that their dad could offer them.  And hey, Shawn probably would have had a similar reply if I had been able to text him about the poop.

I bet it would have been something just like, “F*#k YES, Tommy!”


  • Emily

    I get it. Sending you love and F@*k yes Tommy!!!!

    I feel for people who have never had that as well. I think having kids doesn’t fundamentally change who you are as a person but what you think and feel about parenthood and children can’t be predicted before you both (1) are a parent and (2) have a child. When we all know there is no going back. If the views or feelings are too far apart between partners I can see how otherwise in love people would never share that look and would not stay connected for very long.

  • Amy

    I read all of your articles. They are brave and beautiful, and split my heart wide open. You’re in my thoughts & prayers. Amy Haffner

  • Jerry

    Oh shit, I’m crying again. Shawn was so into his kids, even at the office. You bet he would have been saying “way to go Tommy!”

    • Marjorie

      I love love love hearing this. Really. It’s so great to know how much he shared at work about his home life.

  • Sheryll Brimley

    YAY! YAY! Tommy ….pooping on the potty!!! That is awesome!! I can imagine Shawn sending us an email….”Guess what!!! Tommy pooped on the potty!!” He did that with Claire….

    Love you all!

  • Rebecca

    I believe the last time that I saw Shawn at home, you guys were in the midst of dealing with an epic poop situation with Tommy. I can hear his voice and see his facial expressions as I recall coming over that day. But, whatever shit you guys were dealing with – real or metaphorical – he loved you all so much and brought such an extraordinary sense of humor to everything. He would have been so happy to get that text.

    On a different but strangely similar note, this reminds me of my wedding day. I will always remember Colin’s mom telling me that the happiest times are the hardest to be a single parent. She could manage the impossible challenges but she really wanted to share her joy.

    Love you, my friend.

    • Marjorie

      Oh, I love this story! And yes – Maggie was right. You can deal with the terrible stuff, but the happy times in parenting are so brutal. Miss you.

  • JPR


    I just saw your story on the WaPo website and felt compelled to learn more about the story of your family, your loss and your journey into “ the new normal”. As a husband, father, parental partner and whatever other roles we all play each day, I was touched by the most mundane considerations that, from your writings, have seemingly taken on entirely new meanings and levels of significance, in your daily lives. Not that the thoughts of a complete stranger are of concern to you at this juncture in your journey, but I wanted to share both my respect and admiration for your strength of character during this God awful time, and for your tremendous love and insightful compassion for the emotional nuances that each of your children require. I can not begin to comprehend what you and endured and what lies ahead, but I can relate the following: My parents lost my younger brother, at 4 years of age, back in the early 70’s, due to what, at that time, was a usually fatal heart-related birth defect. 18 years later, when I was 26, I spent one last evening with my dad just before he entered the hospital for the last time (he had pancreatic cancer, and had just a brief period to get his estate in order)…

    Whilst sharing a bottle of his favorite scotch, I was able to ask him many of the questions that had remained unspoken, one of which was how did he and my mother ever find the strength to carry on after the death of their baby boy? He mentioned, faith in God, the kindness of family and friends and the like, but he noted that what got them up out of bed each morning was the fact that they had 6 other children who needed them and who were also struggling to deal with the loss of their baby brother…. in some small way, I hope your strength and love for your children provides that enduring connection to your husband and the love you shared

    PS. Just a thought…. there is nothing wrong with sharing your daily thought and emotions , via text messages to your husbands phone (assuming you still have it?). It can be a cathartic release

    • Marjorie

      Oh, thank you for such a kind comment and for sharing your story. I’ve met so many widows and widowers now, and I will say that though my children make my life more logistically difficult, they are absolutely the reason that I am surviving this time period. I have to do it for them, and in turn, they are the ones who make it possible for me to do it. Thanks again for sharing.