Family of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley

What Are You? (Father’s Day, 2021)

Below is a post that was written by my partner, Chris. While I wish he would write more often, he feels that this blog is mine and so he usually wants to stay in the background. But I managed to convince him to write something recently, and it struck me as a perfect great Father’s Day post. It’s about love, loss and what it means to become a father.

Those of you who know Marjorie, know that she is nothing if not direct. Never one to shy away from offering her opinion, I’ll often find myself on the receiving end of a talk-shouted “That’s dumb. Don’t do that” from across a loud kitchen, as I wonder out loud if potatoes should be stored in the fridge (to be clear, she’s right – leave those suckers on the counter…I guess I should know this at age 41). She has a way of speaking, in her characteristic (and very cute) raspy voice, such that it doesn’t feel mean, or judgy — she’s just being direct.  She’s equally unabashed when it comes to expressing her affections. Her kids, her friends, her extended family all know how she feels about them. Because she tells them. 

A complementary manifestation of her direct style is that Marjorie is rarely shy when it comes to asking questions.  For the most part, her kids have inherited this trait, which is why I maybe shouldn’t have been surprised when Tommy sidled up to me in the garage a of couple months back as I was cutting up some scrap lumber for him to make another of his abstract creations with some wood glue, nails and a hammer. 

“What are you?”  

Without context I wasn’t entirely sure what Tommy was getting at (although, to be fair, even with context, I am often confused by the non-sequiturs that come out of Tommy’s first grade mouth). 

“Are you our Dad?” 

“Well, Tommy. Shawn is your Dad.” 

“Yeah, but he’s dead, so are you our Dad now?” 

Each of the kids has a different experience when it comes to losing Shawn. Tommy, as the youngest, often seems the most matter of fact about his Dad’s death and my subsequent arrival in his life, a couple years later.  Marjorie has written about these differences much more eloquently that I could, so I won’t try, but the way Tommy was asking the question was just so simple. This potentially loaded, tricky, complex, hard-to navigate thing, boiled down to “What are you?” 

We’ve had a version of this conversation now a couple of times, each time with a varying cast of the kids, and I’ve realized that what they’re really trying to feel out are actually two separate things. 

The first is more semantic, and really is closer to: “What should we call you?” From the beginning, the easy answer has been “Chris”. Because I have known the kids since they were little, owing to their close friendship with my niece and nephew, there was a very brief time after I first showed up when they called me “Uncle Chris”. I nipped that in the bud pretty quickly because something felt a little creepy about “Uncle Chris” kissing Mom in the kitchen.  

The kids have tried out some other options along the way. 

On the first Father’s day that I spent here, Tommy wished me a Happy “Father-ish” day.  

Claire’s powerpoint slide to introduce herself to her sixth grade class had me listed as “Chris – Dad on Earth”, right next to “Shawn – Dad in Heaven”. “Earth Dad” does have a nice ring to it. 

Most recently, Austin declared to me while playing catch in the yard that he wanted to start calling me “co-Dad” (this felt like maybe a more straightforward version of the Earth/Heaven Dad thing). I chuckled and didn’t say much. It lasted an afternoon – then we were back to just Chris.

And that is what has seemed to stick – Chris. If they call me that until I am old and wrinkly, I will be happy as a clam, provided they (and more importantly Marjorie) are still keeping me around when I’m old and wrinkly. And if they decide that some other label feels better, that’s ok too.  I, quite honestly, have no preference. 

The second part of what Tommy was asking is less about language and something more along the lines of  “What does it mean to have you in my life?”. It’s a question that feels simultaneously more obvious and more unresolved. 

On the one hand, it smacks you right in the face – we’re living the answer every day. We’re snuggling, and reading before bed, and rushing to get ready for school in the morning, and brushing teeth, and having a talk when someone wrestles too rough, and unloading the dishwasher, and all the things that we do. 

And yet, on the other hand, it’s an answer that has not yet fully taken shape. I can’t see into the future to know how this bond will evolve. What will the love that binds me to 7-year-old-question-asking-Tommy feel like when he’s 18-year-old-graduating-from-high-school-Tommy? While no less meaningful, I have a hunch that it may feel just a touch different, as our lived experience together deepens. 

And it makes me really happy to think about that. What I’m called aside, that I get to experience this process of becoming whatever it is that I will become to these three great kids, makes me feel like I just won the damn lottery. 

And it also makes me feel sad for Shawn. I’m not original in saying that a great life cut short is unfair. But, from what Marjorie has shared with me about who Shawn was, what he believed in, and what he wanted, during his life and after it, I think he would get a kick out of seeing his kids now. I don’t really know Shawn, but I know he would be proud of how hard Claire works in school, and how considerate Austin is, and how quick Tommy is to show love. I know this, because I am. 

“Co-Dad” feels like an awkward fourth-grade invention, but maybe Austin is onto something.


  • Melissa

    Tommy’s “Happy Father-ish Day” made me smile. My daughter was four when my late husband came into our lives after my divorce. She always called him by his first name, Rick, until he became a grandfather to her kids. Then he was officially Pappy. We used to joke that since he was her step-father and not her “real father,” then he should be called her “rubber father.” In other words, a reasonable facsimile. Lol

  • Julie

    Well, I need time to collect my thoughts after this beautiful post!! I’m going to bed but couldn’t until I said wow, just wow. Chris, your writing strikes the perfect chord between love, respect, and reality. Hearts have so much capacity to grow. It is so freaking terribly sad that Shawn lost his life, a life he lived and loved to the fullest. It is also so wonderfully joyful that you have fallen in love with Marjorie and are earth dad (my personal favorite) to the children. Their affection for you is clear (it bursts through the pictures) even if they dont understand the nuances of it just yet. I admire your strength of self, your patience, and your compassion for Shawn. It really is what makes this love story so complete, you are a WHOLE family with everyone able to feel and share their hard emotions. I’m so excited for the wedding and this family. Happy Father’s Day to Shawn in heaven and to Chris, here on earth, two of the best to ever do it ❤❤