Beach for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley
Missing Shawn

The Exploding Whale

Yesterday, an old friend alerted me that it was the 50th anniversary of the exploding whale video. I laughed to myself as I searched for the video. “Kids!” I said loudly, “come in the kitchen and watch this video. It was one of dad’s favorites!”

I clicked on YouTube and there it was: the exploding whale video. (For your amusement, I’ll link it here, but since it’s kind of gross I won’t embed it. For a description: a dead whale washed up on an Oregon beach in the 1970s and the authorities decided to use dynamite to blow it up. It did not go as planned.) The kids watched with interest and then fell over laughing at the deadpan commentary of the newscasters. Claire looked at me afterwards and said, “that was one of dad’s favorite videos?” with a look of incredulousness and also a bit of awe. “I want to show all my friends!”

She ran upstairs to share it with every sixth grader she knows (parents of her friends – you’re welcome/I’m sorry) and the boys kept watching the clip on repeat. Tommy was so immersed in it that he was late getting back on the computer for his virtual afternoon class meeting. When he joined, he made sure to tell his first grade class about the video. All afternoon, I could hear the exploding whale video being played somewhere in the house.

As my Aunt Terry used to say, “Shawn has a wonderful appreciation of the absurd.” She was right. Yes, Shawn was a man who was really serious in his work life, but when he wasn’t working, he truly enjoyed the silly and sometimes ridiculous parts of life. He loved talking about space travel, he delighted in dressing up like Santa, he actually spent time researching cryogenically freezing his body, and he was the master of the elf-on-the-shelf. Funny YouTube videos were his favorite part of our Thanksgiving get togethers, and each year we began the after-dinner celebration by showing the exploding whale video.

When I watched it again yesterday, I could feel my chest constrict a bit. Wow, it reminded me of Shawn, and of the things I miss about him. It’s a stupid video – but it was one that we laughed about so many times over the years. It was one that we watched every Thanksgiving as we ate pie, one that would make Shawn laugh so hard he cried every single year.

God – I can remember exactly how he laughed at that video.

I don’t know why it’s the silly and seemingly forgettable parts of a relationship that sometimes never leave you. I mean, if you asked me years ago what were the defining things I would always remember about Shawn, I would probably point to a talk he gave in Germany or how excited he was the first night in our new house, or the way he reacted when I told him I was pregnant with each of the kids. And of course I remember those moments.

But I also remember how he looked when he watched the exploding whale video every Thanksgiving – like he thought there was nothing more amusing in the world. He was always excited to see the shock and amusement on the faces of people who hadn’t previously seen that video, and so as he set the video up each year, he’d smirk, knowing it would make his friends and family laugh.

I mean, it’s so crazy that this is one of the lasting things I remember about him – a stupid video about an exploding whale, and his reaction to it.

But you know what? I don’t care that I’ve forgotten some of his favorite jokes or what his CrossFit routine was like. I can’t remember everything.

What I do remember is the way he laughed at the absurd, and how much he loved to make others do the same. I think for many widows, it’s these little things that we take with us. Things that other people forget – but that we won’t ever forget.

I see Shawn’s playfulness in all three of the kids, but maybe most in Tommy. In fact, it was Tommy who turned to me after his class was over and said, “let’s watch the whale blow up again!” I laughed, and agreed.

I studied Tommy as he watched the video for the sixth time. He was laughing, and in his face I saw his father. That feels silly to say, as though this video is a touching and precious thing, when really it’s a completely stupid YouTube video from 50 years ago that somehow both my late husband and his now 6-year-old child find hilarious. I’m almost embarrassed that I’ve now written an entire blog post about it. And yet….I’m going to see Tommy’s reaction as a real point of connection with his father.

Somewhere, Shawn is laughing about all of this. At least I hope so.

He had a great laugh.