Children of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley run down a hill in Europe

Shawn’s Birthday, Year 2

“It’s hot!” Claire said just after she touched her food. 

We were spending the day in France and Monaco.  Just before sitting down for a late-morning snack, we’d hiked to a beautiful outlook.  From the top, we could see a gorgeous view of the French Riviera.  I was dumbstruck, but the kids were mostly hot and hungry, because, well, they are kids.

So we found a little café nearby and I ordered croissants for everyone.  It took a long time because they made them from scratch and then brought them out straight from the oven.  “Just take a small piece to eat,” I told Claire.

She took one bite and her eyes lit up.  “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted!” she said.  “It doesn’t taste anything like a normal croissant!”

I laughed.  “This is what they are supposed to taste like!” I said.  I watched her slowly eat the entire thing.  She enjoyed it totally and completely and tried to lick the crumbs off her plate afterwards.

Yes, I thought, I remember the first time I tried really delicious food abroad.  I think I probably felt just like Claire did.

The day continued, and by mid-afternoon, we were in Monaco.  It was steaming hot, and Austin was the only one who wanted to venture outside the air conditioning.  He could see the fancy cars pulling up and wanted a closer look.  I gave him my camera, and he ran from car to car.  “Mom – this is a Rolls Royce!” he shouted, “and over there is a Porsche!”

It was like Disneyland for Austin – clearly one of the best places he’d ever been.  I have no idea where his car obsession started, but damn, every time he starts talking about cars I think about how much Shawn would love to witness it. 

Austin ran up to me after a while.  “Take my picture, mom,” he said.  Then he turned around and posed in front of some amazing car.  He was more joyful than I had seen him for the entire trip.  The people surrounding me all stopped to look at him – he was that cute.

When we finally returned from our tour that evening, we went to see a show.  It was a production of Rapunzel.  After the first scary scene, Tommy crawled into my lap and cuddled with me.  His head was on my chest when, in a final scene, the sky darkened and then filled with lanterns.  It’s hard to describe, but what it felt like was that little bits of light was surrounding us in the darkness.  I looked at Tommy, worried that it might have scared him.

But it didn’t.  Instead, his eyes were filled with awe.  He reached up and tried to touch a bit of the light, and then he looked back at me.  “Wow,” he said.

It was then that the tears finally came.  Because this day – the one that had such a special moment of joy for each of my kids – would have been Shawn’s 42nd birthday.

And he was missing it.

That night, we did a quiet celebration at our dinner table.  We had a treat with a candle and I had the kids say what they remembered about their dad.  A new friend of Tommy’s came over and asked what we were doing.

“It’s a cake for my dad’s birthday,” Tommy said.

The other kid looked puzzled and asked, “but where is your dad?”

“He’s dead,” Tommy said without emotion.  Because Tommy is five and his dad is dead and that’s how you see the world when you are that age.

Claire got a bit sad then.  “I miss dad,” she said. 

“Me too,” I said, and I held her hand. 

After a while, our server came over and could see that it was a bit somber.  “Would you like to see a magic trick?” he asked Claire.

She perked up.  “Yes!”

The kids watched him draw a star on his hand and then magically transfer it to Claire’s hand.  I honestly have no idea how he did it and neither did the kids.  Their eyes were wide and they all started to laugh at what they’d just seen.

“It’s magic!” Austin said.  “Real magic!

As I tucked them in bed that night, they were all still talking about the magic trick.  “Tell us a wonder story!” Tommy begged.

“Wonder stories” are just true stories from my life.  I have no idea what made Tommy decide to call them “wonder stories” but I love the name he chose.  As I sat back and thought about the story that I was going to tell them, Tommy held my hand and looked at me with anticipation.

It had been a day of wonder, I realized.  Claire tasting a real croissant.  Austin seeing incredible cars.  Tommy in awe of the lanterns.  And then a magic trick at the end.  Everything was new and everything seemed to fill my kids with wonder.

And Shawn was missing it. 

Tears fell down my face as I told them the wonder story that night.  I recounted some of my travels with their dad and remembered all of the times we had when the world was filled with magic for the two of us.

How was he missing these moments of wonder for the kids?  It’s one of the best parts of being a parent, and it would have really made for a special birthday if he could have seen the kids so amazed by the world that surrounded them.

They all fell asleep before I could finish my story.  “I miss you,” I said quietly to the dark before falling asleep next to them.


  • Sarah

    What a beautiful day for all of you. The way you described the events—I can picture Shawn so clearly enjoying the day with you, laughing with Claire’s delight, posing with Austin in front of the cars, and holding Tommy close. Thank you for sharing so much with us. We miss Shawn’s enthusiasm for the wonders of the world, too.

    • Marjorie

      Oh, that’s such a great way to describe Shawn’s personality – enthusiasm for the wonders of the world! I love it.

  • Eric

    A terrific piece. Thank you. Every time I read your column I am struck by how much you have lost, but also by how much you have.

    • Marjorie

      Thank you so much for this comment. Sometimes when I’m really down, it’s hard to see all I DO have – but these past few weeks have been really important for showing me how lucky I still am.

  • Melody

    I’ve been reading your blog for about a year which was when my best friend committed suicide and now here I am all of a sudden a widow… I haven’t cried yet like I did when my friend died and I don’t know why…I feel emotionless..tomorrow will be three weeks.

    • Marjorie

      I mean, I don’t have any real training in grief, just life experience, but I’ll say this – my grief looked like yours in the beginning. Mostly, I was shocked. The tears – the real ones – they took a while. Go easy on yourself. This is such a hard time you are in.