Tommy Brimley fixing things in our house two years before Shawn died
Things That Suck

Who’s Saving Our Basement?

About a week after Shawn died the washing machine broke and the basement shower drain plugged. I had eight people in the house (me, my kids, my dad, my aunt and my two friends Kelly and Paige) and all of the sudden, nothing worked. A plumber eventually fixed the shower, but the washing machine was dead.

Luckily, I figured out that if I just washed everything on “quick wash” I could get the machine to work for about 15 minutes. And so, for the next month, I washed everything on that setting.

This wasn’t the only thing that started to atrophy when Shawn died. It seemed like everything did. I didn’t expect or even hope that I would marry someone who knew how to fix things, as my father wasn’t really a handy guy. So, shortly after we were married, when the garbage disposal broke, I looked up the number for a plumber. When Shawn found out what I was doing, he made me hang up. “I’ll deal with it,” he said, and then proceeded to purchase and install a new disposal. I remember being shocked that regular people could do something so complex.  I was really proud of my new husband’s amazing (and sexy!) skill.

I got used to it. Shawn fixed everything in our house and had the tool collection to prove it. He also dealt with the cars, which included everything from filling up the windshield wiper fluid to rescuing me and the kids when we got a flat tire an hour away from our house. This skill even extended to our neighbors. Our friend Chris Murphy wrote this about Shawn in the Congressional Record:

His generosity extended to his friends. Every weekend, I return to Connecticut, and one night, when I was away, the basement of our Washington house flooded. My wife sent out a text to our neighbors asking for advice, and literally, within minutes, Shawn was knocking on our door. Having dealt with a similar problem at their house, Shawn, constantly the oversharer, was eager to dispense all the knowledge he had gained regarding flood remediation. After an exhaustive consultation, he went home and looked up every part and device he recommended my wife buy and sent her a comprehensive email with the links to the websites where she could get the best deal. I imagine most of Shawn’s other friends have similar stories. To his coworkers, his family, and his friends, Shawn was a superman.

So, yes, Shawn fixed things. About a month after he died, I looked around and realized that everything was in a state of disrepair. What a metaphor for my situation – my life, my heart, my house – everything was broken.

And yet life goes on, and three kids generate a lot of laundry. The “quick wash” cycle was not cutting it, and so I went online and bought a cheap, dented washing machine. I certainly didn’t care about the look – I just needed something that would work. It was delivered in a week and I felt very proud of myself for organizing something that definitely would have been outside of my domain just a few months prior.

But of course the delivery guys didn’t unhook the old washing machine nor hook up the new one. I thought hook up would be easy, but about 10 minutes of trying showed me that it was not.

And so – like many times before – I texted my friends. Within a few minutes, two of them had committed their husbands to an evening of washing machine installation. That night, these two guys came over and saved the day. Both of them are lawyers who dabble in home repair, and they spent the evening joking about how they didn’t really know what they were doing. Yet, at the end of the night, I could wash clothes. I was enormously appreciative.

But I still was left with a nagging feeling that I was going to be royally screwed without Shawn. Who the hell was going to save our basement when we had the next hurricane?

A few days later I was getting coffee with a friend in another neighborhood.  Afterwards, I realized I didn’t have any gas, so I stopped at the gas station.  I got out to clean my windshield and the wiper that’s usually in the bucket was missing.  I’m sure someone else was briefly using it, but for some reason, this made me totally lose it.  I had to get back in the car because I was crying so hard.

Shawn always filled up the windshield wiper fluid.  Since he got sick, I’d just go to gas stations to clean my windshield, or I’d use the Windex on it at home.  I know this was a stupid solution, but trying to figure out how the car actually worked was just too much for me.  Shawn was supposed to fix it, dammit.

I knew that the windshield wiper fluid went in under the hood, so I tried pulling myself together and popping the hood.  But then I couldn’t figure out how to actually open the hood.

This is a car I’ve had for 7 years.

I started to feel really overwhelmed.  I knew in the back of my mind that this was insane because we are talking about windshield wiper fluid and the world doesn’t end even if you never have any windshield wiper fluid ever again.  But it didn’t matter.  In that moment, it was symbolic of everything I couldn’t do, and everything that I needed Shawn to take care of.

I looked around and saw a guy who was clearly trying to do something else and flagged him down.  Because I have no filter anymore, I just started telling him everything – how my husband died and I didn’t know how to do anything with my car, and the windshield wiper fluid was gone and I just didn’t know what to do.  I’m not sure what this guy expected to hear from customers when he came to work that day, but it sure as hell wasn’t what I was telling him.

He didn’t flinch.  “Let me get some wiper fluid for you,” he said, and went back in his shop.

He came out and pulled up the hood.  “Here’s where it goes” he said, and dumped in an entire bottle.  When he finished, he asked me what else I needed.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I should ask you.  What do I need?”

He proceeded to check all my tires and inflate the ones that needed air, and then he looked at the oil in my car.  It was low, and he went back and got extra oil.  Then he closed the hood and made me open it for him, so I’d know how to do it in the future.  He showed me where the oil should come up on the dipstick and how to add the needed oil.

When I tried to pay him, he refused the money, but gave me his card.  (It read, “David Pham – owner -DP Auto Service, 4940 Connecticut Ave NW.”  I’m putting that there in case you’re in DC, as I want to send as much business his way as I can.)  He told me to come back to him when I needed anything, but that he thought I could handle some of it on my own.

I’m not sure I can save our basement if it floods and it’s doubtful if I’ll ever use most of the tools that are now solely mine.  I will almost always call a plumber rather than fix a plugged drain myself and I’m likely to ignore many more problems than Shawn ever would.  But I do know one thing.  I can refill my windshield wiper fluid.

And someday soon, I’m going to learn how to install a garbage disposal.  Just like a regular person.


Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.


  • Sheryll Brimley

    These Brimley men, they can fix or build anything!!! Good for you Marjorie …..I am 67 years old & still don’t know how to fill my windshield wiper fluid!!! Too bad we don’t live closer…I live with a wonderful handyman! You are such an inspiration!

  • Joy

    I was wondering what was going on with the house! I’m so sorry. God bless David Pham and the other everyday superheroes!

  • Elissa

    I was similarly unable to open the hood of our car recently, even after digging out the owner’s manual and reading what felt like the whole book! Good for you for persevering and having the courage to ask for help.

    Your story reminds me of my grandmother, who passed away in 2015 at 104 years old. My grandfather died in his 80s, and he had always handled the cars and everything mechanical in their household. My grandmother was a force of nature with a strong personality, but she was not willing to learn how to pump gas, nor was she willing to pay the inflated price for full service gas. So for 20 years, every time she needed gas, she would drive to the self service lane but would persuade (coerce?) a gas station employee to pump the gas for her.

    Thank goodness for helpful mechanics and gas station employees 🙂

    • Marjorie

      Thanks for this great story! I guess everyone figures out how to make things work in their own way. 🙂

  • Terry Clark

    I didn’t even know that you had to refill the fluid. In the 2 years I’ve owned my first car in 47 years it’s always been there (lived in New York and didn’t need a car). It took me a year and a half after moving back to Texas to learn how to pump my own gas. I would just ask the nearest man for help. Many years ago I was in Austin and stopped at a gas station with my father. He told me to start the pump while he ran into the store. I, of course, asked the man at the next pump for help. He looked at me with disdain and said “You are either really rich or really STUPID!” I said “I am NEITHER! I live in New York and don’t own a car!”

  • Eric Meyer

    I’d be happy to teach you and/or your kids anything I know. I’m also happy to be on your list of people who will arrive in the night with a wrench.

  • Katharine Ryan

    It is surprising what you can do! We put new flooring down and redid our kitchen. Tired of having handymen over quote us so we are learning to do stuff ourself.
    You will too !!! 🙂

  • Julie

    Love this post, love them all. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to be faced with all the things Shawn once did. But as a renowned supermom, this post shows that your many talents and skills (and grit and determination) will see you through. And if all else fails, outsource, outsource, outsource. There is an army of us out here eager to help. If you created a new website for “come wash Marjorie’s car window with windex,” the sign-up would be full well into 2025. We’re here for you sister, for window washing, lego towers, meal prep, leaky pipes, lawn care, and stacking firewood. Don’t hesitate to ask!

    • Marjorie

      I know – it’s sometimes that I don’t even know what to ask for! But I do know there is so much love out there and I truly appreciate all of the outreach. It’s amazing.

  • Jen

    I can really relate to all of your posts. I became a single mom with 2 kids. My husband passed away in July 2017. He had been diagnosed with ALS in May 2014. 2 weeks before our daughter was born. He went into the hospital 10/2014 and nursing home 2/2015 until 7/2017. I was so lost when he got sick because he also did everything around the house as he was a maintenance tech for work. Everyone started asking what I needed help with and I had no idea and never knew what to say to anyone.

    • Marjorie

      Thanks so much for reaching out. Every story of a young widow is different, but somehow, the ones I hear all have such similar themes. It’s all hard. Take care and know there are others out there who are living similar lives. We’re all just doing the best we can.

  • Marci

    Two weeks after my husband died, I got a kidney stone that turned into a week in the hospital followed by pneumonia and another surgery two months later. Believe it or not, I can’t remember the intense pain, only yelling to my dad and my cousin about how angry I was that my husband wasn’t there to hold my hand. It’s when you least expect it that you miss them the most, unfortunately.

    PS… I’m very glad I renewed my husband’s AAA membership. It’s already come in quite handy!

    • Marjorie

      Oh my goodness – that’s so tough. But you made it through AND you had the presence of mind to renew the AAA membership – wow!