DC widow Marjorie Brimley at Joshua Tree National Park looking into the distance
Missing Shawn

The Joshua Tree

I was in Palm Springs last weekend to take a break, but really, I was trying to escape my life. I needed a break from the new sadness that was permeating my life. A friend lent me her house and I met up with some girlfriends who had once lived in DC. Between us, we have nine young children, so everyone was really excited for some down time.

The second day we were there, my friend Margaret got it in her head that we should go hiking. “Ugh,” I thought. “I just want to relax.” But I let her convince me it was a good idea. Plus, though it was wonderful to be in a place where I didn’t have to be in charge of anyone else, I wasn’t fully relaxed. My anxiety still woke me up every morning and I still felt the dread that had become a part of my experience for the past few weeks. A hike, I figured, might be good for me.

We didn’t really make a plan. Margaret decided we’d go to Joshua Tree National Park and we all thought that sounded fine. I’d been there many years ago and remembered it was beautiful. We brought water and little else, laughing the whole way there about how much more we would have had to plan if our kids were with us.

As we drove closer to the national park, the landscape became more austere. Vast expanses of desert reached to the horizon, dotted only with small bushes and some cacti. And then I saw it – a Joshua tree. They are the strangest looking trees with a thick trunk that then expands up towards the sky with spiky branches. “Evolution is crazy,” my friend Shannon said, and we all agreed. What else could grow in a place like this?

We had to wait in line to enter Joshua Tree National Park and we searched for music to play. “I know it makes sense to listen to U2’s The Joshua Tree, but I’m not sure how I’m going to react,” I told my friends.

They all knew what I was talking about. The day Shawn died, I had put U2 on in his room. For nine months, I haven’t been able to listen to their music. When it comes on the radio, I change the channel, and if I hear it in a store, I leave. But I love U2. It was one of the first concerts Shawn and I went to as a married couple and it was arguably Shawn’s favorite band.

“Let’s try putting it on,” I said. Shannon looked at me from the front seat. “You sure?”

“Yes,” I said. “I want to listen to it. If it’s too much for me, I promise I’ll tell you.”

The first song that came on was the first on the album: Where the Streets Have No Name. It has a long guitar intro, and we all just stared out of the car as it played. About a minute in, the first lyrics began. “I want to run, I want to hide…”

I cried a little bit then. Here I was, in this gorgeous place – a place that Shawn would have loved – and I was flashing back and forth between the past and an imagined future.

In the past, I was laying next to Shawn in his hospital bed, his body radiating heat as he drifted in and out of consciousness. In the past, I put on this album, and I listened to the first lyrics and I thought, “me too Bono. I want to run and hide right now.”

But then I flashed to an imagined future. In it, Shawn was with me in that car, windows down, music blaring, neither of us caring that it would be about the most cliche thing to play The Joshua Tree as we entered Joshua Tree National Park. In this imagined future, we were alone, surrounded by the desert. Together.

It was crazy to move between these two scenes in my head as I sat in the car with my girlfriends. I was crying, though maybe they were too. They had also loved Shawn. And they all knew how much he would have loved to see such a landscape.

We drove and drove, listening to U2 and saying little. We eventually stopped to hike, and we marveled at the beauty of the park. At one point, I climbed to the top of a rock that jutted out over a steep drop off. “It’s a long way down,” I said to my friends as I stood at the top. “But I’m okay. I just have to keep looking at the horizon.”

“That seems like an apt metaphor for your life,” one of them said back.

It was. At some point in the day I had realized that I was feeling lighter than I’d felt in weeks. I even had a moment that day when I thought about the future and didn’t imagine it as totally bleak.

Later that day, as we drove to the edge of the park, my friend Becky laughed as she said to me, “I can totally imagine Shawn driving through this park with you while he played U2. I can hear him saying, ‘Marjorie, can you believe that we are in Joshua Tree listening to The Joshua Tree?'” We all laughed at that one. Shawn’s ability to find even the small things mind-blowing was one of our favorite things about him.

And he would have definitely found Joshua Tree National Park mind blowing. I wish I could have seen it with him, but since I couldn’t, I did what he would have done. I put on U2, I hiked up to a steep overlook, I stared off into the distance and thought about life as we drove. I thought about his death, but I also thought about how he lived his life. Fully, completely, and in awe of what surrounded him.


  • Joy

    “It’s a long way down, but I’m okay. I just have to keep looking at the horizon.” Perfect. I’m so glad you went on the trip, the hike, and went for U2. You’re living life fully and completely too.

  • Rachel

    That place is magical and so are you. The plants that can live in that extreme environment are scrappy and unique and gorgeous and magic. Again, just like you.

  • Michelle

    I don’t know you personally, Marjorie, but I’ve been drawn in by your story and this post brought tears to my eyes. Your writing so beautifully conveys your emotions and everything you’re going through — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Just wanted to tell you that a complete stranger is rooting for you, and praying you can continue to not only survive but one day soon be truly happy again.

    • Marjorie

      I loved reading this. I love that you reached out even though you don’t know me and that you are thinking of my family and praying for us. I truly appreciate it.

  • Joseph Britt

    This is a fine remembrance, that also contains a hint of something I didn’t discover until much later in life. Wilderness heals: not everything, not completely, and not all at once, but it does. I love the desert, but there is more — it’s one of the great things about living in this country. I’m glad you were able to take some time to touch a little of the power wilderness has.

    • Marjorie

      Yes – so true. It’s something I’m just starting to discover – something I think I knew and just didn’t recognize before.

  • Gabe

    Braving through beautifully, Marjorie. I’m sure it scared you to listen to U2 in that moment, many people would choose to never do so again, but that earned you a touch of grace and healing. I’m so impressed by your tenacity. Glad you had an escape to such a gorgeous place. Keep your head up and those eyes on the horizon. I love you!!

    • Marjorie

      Thanks my friend. I’m glad I did it too. In fact, as I wrote later that weekend, I spent the whole time listening to U2. Happy to have the good memories of that music back in my head.