Claire Brimley, daughter of DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale, at the colon cancer race in DC
Missing Shawn

They Remain for Me, Too

The kids know that the annual 5K ScopeItOut run (put on by the Colorectal Cancer Alliance) is a really big deal in our house. We talk about it for weeks and they know that the team is one that is in honor of their dad Shawn. We even have t-shirts. They are all still young enough that they think the team name “The Turd Offset” is hilarious. (Lots of team names utilize the puns of butts, and ours is the same. Shawn worked on “The Third Offset” strategy when he was in government.)

In any case, this year was no different. Everyone was excited to do the run, and for the first time, I wasn’t super worried about getting across the finish line. The kids were older, among a variety of other factors.

And then Austin got Covid.

I guess it was inevitable that this illness would eventually come for us. We’re all vaccinated, so I wasn’t too worried, but he couldn’t do the run, even though he’d be almost out of quarantine by then. I figured that none of us would do the run, but Claire protested. “It’s really important to me!” she said, when I casually mentioned cancelling our family’s participation. To be honest, I was a bit surprised by her reaction. I hadn’t realized how much it meant to her.

Ultimately, I decided the boys would stay home and I would just take Claire, after we got back negative Covid tests. Claire insisted we both wear our “Shawn Brimley” shirts from the first year. Hers barely fit her, but she squeezed into it. She’d only been 8 when she first wore it. Did she remember the first run? Yes, she did. We’d crossed the finish line together. Every year since then, however, she’d run with her friends, holding hands as they completed the run.

She’d been so little at that first run – just a bit older than Tommy is now. Sometimes I think it’s improbable that she remembers so much from when she was that age. And yet, the other day, we were riding in the car and Tommy was talking about his only vivid memory of Shawn. “He plopped me on the bed and was wrestling with me. It was fun!” He then reflected on this, and said, “You can’t remember much from when you were a baby, because when you are a baby, you can’t talk!”

We all laughed at this, but then Claire said softly, “I have a lot of memories.” I looked over at her, and she had a little smile on her face, though she didn’t share them.

We just drove on, each of us thinking the things in our head.

The day of the race, we got downtown early, as I wanted to get everyone’s registrations and bibs all set, so we could more easily gather as a team before the start. Claire searched around for the face painting tent and then pulled me to the middle of the event after she found the memory sign. “Someone’s already here!” she said, and pointed at the sign. On it, someone had written #TurdOffset Shawn. She was beaming, and picked up some chalk. I wasn’t quite sure what she was going to do, but she drew a little heart next to the words, and then turned around and smiled at me, before taking a few minutes to look at the sign.

Such a simple act. She’d written on that board every year, a small way to show that she was there and that she wanted it recorded. She remembered doing it in the past, remembered how important it was for her to mark the day. She remembered it, just like she remembered Shawn. Not all the things, of course, but many of the special memories still stuck in her head – backyard parties where Shawn helped her swing at a pinata and evenings snuggling up to watch movies. She didn’t recount anything for me in that moment, but standing there, it was clear to me: those memories remain for her.

They remain for me, too.

Quickly, we found our team, gathered together and got ready to start the run. Claire would run with her two dear friends. I’d run with some of the other adults. Everyone was jovial. This wasn’t a race. It was a fundraiser.

The kids dashed off, and I jogged for a bit with some friends. After a while, they needed to walk, so I decided to try and catch Claire and her friends. I figured it wouldn’t be a problem. I’m a decent runner, and those kids are only in 7th grade.

But I couldn’t do it. Even as I passed a ton of other runners, they were always so far ahead that I couldn’t even spot them. When had they all gotten so fast?

I slowed down to a jog, just as I passed the US Capitol building. I wasn’t going to catch them. It was a freezing morning and the light was really beautiful and I wanted to take it all in.

I wanted to think about Shawn.

I don’t do this a lot in my daily life anymore – or at least, not nearly as much as I once did. I have moments, of course, when I remember him or when I tell a story about him. But I don’t frequently spend long stretches of time just thinking about Shawn and who he was and what it was like to be in his presence.

He had such a big booming laugh, one that showed up frequently at parties, and he really looked at people when they were speaking, not just to be kind but because he was actually listening. He hated the idea that status mattered in DC, and so he mentored young people because he thought it was really important. He loved the Nats and U2 and America. He loved our life, and reminded me of how lucky we were all the time.

I thought about all of these parts of Shawn as I jogged toward the finish line. It was nice, in a way, to do it alone. It felt right to be running on my own on that cold and windy day, a day that Shawn would have liked even though my face felt frozen.

When I crossed the finish line, my girl was waiting for me. I wrapped my arms around her, and we went with our friends to get breakfast burritos. I wanted to check on Austin and make sure he still felt okay. I was worried about getting my lesson plans together for the next week. I hadn’t yet done the laundry. I thought about the day, about how much more I had to do, and I looked forward to having a gin and tonic with Chris before dinner. I knew the day would unfold like it often does, busy and full.

I know Shawn would understand that my days aren’t always wrapped up in his memory anymore – not for me, not for the kids, not for the many friends and coworkers he had. I know he’d understand that life continues on, and that it’s good to live in the present.

But I also think he’d appreciate that there are still times for him. Claire’s moment with the sign, and remembering her dad in the car. And my run alone, thinking of all that once was, as the wind was blowing hard but the sun was peeking through the clouds.


  • Cathy

    Oh, Marjorie. Once again, you express so eloquently what so many of us feel. The kids and I hit deathiversary #5 in December, and we are always looking for ways to remember and honor my late husband. Your kids’ varying degrees of memories really strikes a chord with me, as my 11-year-old daughter was only 6 when her father died. Her memories of him are sparse, and they wear thin with time. My son, now 15, has more memories, but even those are beginning to dull a bit. Your willingness to share your experiences is so appreciated and needed. Thank you.

    • M Brimley

      Thanks so much for this note. I’m glad you can find a bit of solace in my writings – I’m actually working on a post right now about how I wonder how relevant my emotions are anymore! But yes, some of what I’ve found is hard now isn’t the terrible falling-on-the-floor-crying parts that used to happen all the time, but rather the my-kid-doesn’t-remember parts. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, too.

  • Julie S Giordano

    So beautiful. This one just gave me the feels and the tears. I love the subtlety of Claire’s love for Shawn even though I ache for all that she’s been through and lost at such a young age. I love that you are both smiling when memories arise (at least most of the time, tears can be good, too) and I love that you had Chris and the kids to go home too. Yes, from what you’ve always written about Shawn, he wanted a full and happy life for you all. I still think about that very early post where he said something like “Marjorie, you have to get remarried”. So selfless, even in his worst hours. As always, I’ve babbled on too long. Thank you for the update on the race and the memories of Shawn, I hope you enjoyed your gin and tonic, well deserved!

    • M Brimley

      Thank you! And yes – this was one of Shawn’s biggest wishes for me: to be happy. Thanks for reading!