Backyard of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley

Shawn’s Birthday, Year 3

I’m doing the best I can to make this summer a happy one for my kids, but it hasn’t always been easy.

Back in March, when schools were closing and my dad was leaving, I started to worry about being home for a long time with no possibility of seeing anyone else. How was I going to manage my children and my teaching responsibilities? How was I going to go to the grocery store? What in the world were we going to do all summer, if we couldn’t see our extended family or go to camp?

So during that first week of quarantine, I bought a pool. Turns out, it was a good move, because a month later, all of the cheap above-ground pools were sold out. I waited until school was out, and then set it up. I knew it was going to kill the grass, but I didn’t care. Hell, I put it next to the mud pit my kids had created under the hammock and near the massive hole they’d dug just out of sheer boredom. But I figure this summer is not about beauty – it’s about survival.

The pool has been a hit. It’s freezing cold and the cover is already ripped, but they swim in it every day for hours and it’s definitely already worth the $300 I spent on it. That said, the pool has been a bit of a pain for me. I never remember to check the chlorine and it keeps getting tiny holes in the sides and leaves are always falling in it. But the biggest drama has been the filter, which broke last week. I went out and bought a new one, and then Claire and my boyfriend Chris spent an entire afternoon putting it together. I came outside just as they had set it up, and water was flying all over the yard.

“It looks like chitty-chitty bang-bang,” Chris said, laughing. Claire and I both started laughing too. What else could we do? After a while it became clear that we weren’t going to get it to work. So, the next day we got another filter, which was much easier to install. We put the two broken filters next to the big hole in the yard. I figured if the kids got bored, they could take them apart. It really added to the landscape of my backyard. But again, this summer is not about beauty.

Friday night, Chris and I went on a walk and came home to a flood. The third filter was broken and a huge quantity of water had spilled out in the yard. We decided we’d try to fix it in the morning.

So I knew that the next morning was going to be exciting, but not just because we were going to work on the filter yet again. It was also because it was an important day for me and the kids: Shawn’s birthday.

As I’ve noted previously, Father’s Day, Shawn’s birthday and our wedding anniversary fall within a two week time period every year. It can be pretty intense. But Shawn’s birthday has always been the easiest of the three, maybe because he was pretty low key about his birthday. In any case, I decided we’d just hang out at home and have some brownies to celebrate.

The day started slowly, but soon Chris had repaired the filter and all three kids were back out in the pool. They played some sort of game that made Tommy laugh so hard I could hear him from inside, and then they laid in the sun and ate snacks. Meanwhile, Chris spent the rest of the day putting up a basketball hoop on the side of the garage, because we’re really trying to make this a house where kids have fun. At one point, I went out to check on him and he was standing in the bed of his truck, using it as a makeshift ladder, and twisting something into place. He had sweat dripping off of him. I handed him some water and we laughed at how much work both the pool and the basketball hoop were turning out to be.

I came back in the yard and the kids were getting ready to go back in the pool. Tommy had his goggles sideways on his head, and Austin’s uncut hair was sticking out everywhere. Claire was telling a story about something, commanding an audience from her brothers, when she yelled, “back to the pool!” at the top of her lungs. All three of them ran towards the pool and bounded in, screaming as they hit the cold water.

It took my breath away, in an unexpected way. It was just so beautiful.

I let the moment sink in. There I was, standing in the ugliest yard in the neighborhood. Most of the grass was dying, the mud pit had grown, and the dead appliances stood nearby. The trash from the basketball hoop was strewn around the yard, and a pile of granola bar wrappers lay on a heap of wet towels.

But all I could see and all I could feel was how lucky I was in that moment. Lucky that Shawn gave me these three kids who have his eyes, and lucky that he helped me build a life in this house. Lucky that he told me to find someone else once he was gone, so that when I did, I could do it with my whole heart.

I guess it’s me that got a present on Shawn’s birthday. This life – the one that’s so been so hard and so ugly at times – it is also one that still has so many beautiful moments. I am grateful for the gifts he left me, ones that I sometimes haven’t been able to see but have always been there.