Microphone for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
Missing Shawn

What If?

I teach the only International Relations class at my school, so I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months listening to the news. I am a particular fan of podcasts, because I can also cook or clean or do other tasks while I listen. And right now, all I’m listening to is one news analysis after another, particularly around the war in Ukraine. Did Putin miscalculate? What do we know about Zelensky? How are refugees faring?

I like listening to podcasts, because I like knowing about the world and because – like many people – I find it hard to look away from what’s happening in Ukraine. The funny thing is, when I’m listening to these podcasts, I sometimes hear people I know.

Shawn worked in the world of defense policy, of course. So it’s not crazy that I’ve met people who are experts in war. And yet, every time I’m listening to a podcast and I hear someone I know – not usually a friend, but rather someone I met at Shawn’s work or at a party, or someone I remember hearing he’d once worked with – a really interesting feeling comes over me.

I think, “what if?”

Some of my friends have mentioned it to me, too. What do I think Shawn would think about everything happening in Ukraine?

Well, he’s not here. But when his obituary was in the Washington Post, here’s a piece of what they wrote about him:

As a White House official and later at CNAS, Mr. Brimley pushed the military to prepare for a new era of robotic warfare. His ideas helped drive the Pentagon’s “third-offset strategy,” which sought to reshape the U.S. military in preparation for a possible conflict with a major power such as Russia or China.

The concept, which originated with a CNAS study that Mr. Brimley co-authored, was announced by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014 as Pentagon policy.

I mean, he didn’t exactly know what the future would be…but he certainly understood where some of the danger was.

And so, as I hear his former colleagues talk on podcasts and in other news outlets, I can’t help but think that same thing again.

What if?

Let me be very clear here. This is not about still being in love with Shawn. That part of my life is radically different than it was 4 1/2 years ago.

No, when I think, “what if?” I’m actually wondering what Shawn’s life might have turned out like, had he been given the chance to live it. Would he be in the government, trying to help? Would he be traveling to Europe and making me nervous? Or would he be somewhere else, and I’d hear him in one of these podcasts I keep listening to?

And what would he think about all of it?

I can take some guesses, based on what he said and what he wrote – I know he was worried about the increasing aggression of Russia, based on what they’d done in Crimea, so I bet he would have guessed war was more likely than most thought back in January. I know he was thoughtful about the issues of civilians, as we attended church meetings about refugees together, and so I’m sure he’d be horrified about the refugee crisis. I know he was well-versed in the military capabilities of all of the countries involved, so I’m sure he’d have something to say about tanks and anti-aircraft missiles and other stuff that I can’t even begin to understand.

But, really, I can’t truly know what he would think about current world events. I also don’t know what he’d think about the other big questions that would exist in our lives, like what it means to raise a teenager, how we would support our children’s educations throughout their lives, and how you continue to be a good partner as you age. Again, here I can guess about what he would say.

And yet, I don’t really know.

I think it’s the same for almost anyone who’s lost someone, but particularly those of us who’ve been missing someone for a long time. In the early days, I knew exactly what Shawn would think of, say, former US presidents, since he’d written and talked plenty about them before he died. But now the world has changed, and though I can take some guesses about what he might be doing or what he might be thinking if he were here, he’s not. I can’t speak for every widow, but I bet it’s the same feeling that widows of realtors or accountants or avid gardeners – or anyone else with any other profession or interest – understands. What if? I’m reminded of Shawn’s work life right now because the world is reminding me of it. But that’s just my specific example. I know there are others who wonder this question, “what if?” too.

What would my partner have been like, what would he have thought, what would he have done, if had he lived?

What if?


  • Melissa

    Wow, great post, Marjorie. My husband’s undergraduate degree was in microbiology and I often thought “what if?” these past couple of years in regard to the pandemic, especially since i had to go through it alone without him. I know he would have been fascinated with all the twist and turns the virus took and would have been enthusiastic about promoting the vaccines (as well as having a few choice words about those who are anti-vax!) Later in life he taught anatomy and physiology to nursing students and really enjoyed giving them information that would be useful in “real life” experiences, not just something they could get from a textbook. When he died, one of the things I mourned was the loss of his great knowledge on so many subjects. I have the box with his ashes in a drawer in his desk and I put the thank you cards he saved from his many students on top. He really did make a positive difference in people’s lives and, like you, I find myself thinking what he would make of the world today, four years later.

    • M Brimley

      Oh, I love hearing this story. It sounds like your husband would have had so much to say about the world today. I love how you talk about him – such love.

  • Leigh Peltier

    Probably this is a very popular topic amongst us mourners. My husband was semi retired and had made great strides with his realtor association to bring it to the 21st century, to align some goals, to become more altruistic. I’m certain that would have continued. And yes, I know we would be discussing this war and other world, and local events. The day to day living is what I miss most I think.

    And thank you for the link to Shawn’s obit. Loved reading it.

    • M Brimley

      Yes, exactly – there are just so many things to miss about those who have left us. And thank you for reading Shawn’s obit. I loved reading this note about your husband, too.