My Big Pink Bunny

The past fifty-four days of my life have been emotionally, psychologically and physically challenging. My sorrow has frequently consumed me. Each and every day has been a struggle, exhausting every ounce of my emotional, mental and bodily strength. By the time my head hits the pillow each night, I am weary and hollow. My eyes are swollen and empty of tears. My exhaustion brings an easy and mostly peaceful sleep, which is often my only solace. As if the first fifty days without Mack were not difficult enough, the past four days have been devastating. Enduring my first holiday in twenty years without Mack has exacted a particularly damaging toll on my already delicate psyche. My tears have been more numerous and more bitter. I have experienced my first, dreaded angry moments in this terrible grieving process. And in my head I have done battle with some terrifying demons who threaten to steal me away entirely.

mack and me       mack and me 4       Mack and Me 2

Because this holiday weekend was so damned hard for me, I thought I should make an attempt to record it. Since I started this blog, I have spent most of my words sharing stories about Mack’s life and celebrating her incomparable personality and charms. But today I wanted to focus on my pain. On my suffering. On my ruined life. But all afternoon and this evening I just stared at a blinking cursor as it mocked my intentions, questioned my courage, and dared me to expose my heartbroken soul. As I struggled to write a second paragraph about my feelings, no more words were forthcoming. Instead, my mind kept drifting to a ridiculous photograph that Mack texted me a year or two ago. She and her roommates had made a run to the Kirksville Walmart to purchase survival items like Ramen noodles, Gatorade and candy and found themselves in the clothing department trying on adult-sized footie pajamas. In the photo, Mack looks like a deranged pink bunny. When I originally received that photo, I laughed so hard that I cried.

Tonight, thinking about that stupid photo was keeping me from crying. Each time my mind drifted to that image, the corner of my mouth ticked upward in defiance of my purpose to pour out my emotions onto the page. On nearly every day that I ever spent with Mack, she made me laugh. And here she was again trying to make me laugh when I was trying to be serious. Here she was again reminding me that laughing was a whole hell of a lot better than crying. I could hear her imploring me to finish up this hard stuff so that something silly or fun could take its place.

I finally decided that perhaps the one paragraph was all I needed to write. Perhaps those words were the only words necessary. But mostly, I think, Mack’s humor rescued me at the very moment I needed to be rescued. I am still battered and bruised from my first holiday without her, and I will be weary and hollow when my head hits the pillow tonight. But thanks to Mack, I found a way to smile today. And she would be amused to know that help arrived in the form of a big pink bunny.

bunny suit

The Perfect Last Bite

On the eve of Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to share this particular story about Mack. It is yet another one of those quirky things about her that I have often referred to as a Mackism or described as “so Mack-like” or as a “Mack-thing.” But it is, more importantly, one of her personality characteristics that should inspire us all as we look forward to the bounty of food we will enjoy on Thanksgiving Day.

One of the greatest joys in Mack’s life was food. She loved junk foods like Funyuns and painfully sour candies, but she also craved fresh fruits and vegetables. She adored a greasy American bacon-cheeseburger with fries, but she needed a steady diet of ethnic cuisine as well. She was obsessed with bacon, Korean Choco-Pies (thank you, Jackie, for feeding that obsession!), mangoes, sushi, Arizona iced-tea in the big green can, and curry fried rice, to name just a few of her favorites. But no matter what she ate, she always took time to reflect upon the food she was shoveling into her mouth, to slow down when it was almost devoured, and to take time to savor it in the end.

Many kids are picky eaters, and most do not give a second thought to the food they eat. With the exception of tomatoes, peanut butter and turkey, Mack was not finicky. In fact, from about the age of two when she already had an affinity for spicy salsa, she possessed a sophisticated palate beyond her years. Most uniquely, however, she was a kid who appreciated food, always thanked me for cooking, and spent a large percentage of the little talking she did do on discussing the food she was going to eat, the food she was eating and the food she was planning to eat.

On a daily basis, Mack also engaged in an eating ritual uniquely her own and one that beautifully illustrates her uncommon appreciation for food. When she was quite young, she started a ritual that became a daily routine in her life: as she was eating, she always planned for a perfect last bite. If she was devouring a bag of Warheads, she made certain her favorite flavor was the last one. If she was enjoying a plate of pad see ew, she moved an exacting ratio of the various ingredients of the dish to the side of the plate to save for the very end. If she was warming herself with a big bowl of my homemade broccoli-cheese soup, she made absolutely certain that there was a big, fluffy floweret of broccoli for the final spoonful. And when it was time for her perfectly designed last bite, she cleansed her palate and consumed it slowly and with much delight.

Rarely did Mack discuss this ritual or draw attention to it, but it became obvious to people who dined with her on a regular basis. Occasionally, I would prepare my own perfect last bite if we were sharing a particularly good meal; but it remained, mostly, a Mack-thing. In honor of Mackenzie, however, I am not only going to take up her perfect last-bite religion on Thanksgiving this year, but I am also going to make a concerted effort to make it a regular part of my life. I do not know why I did not adopt it before, because saving a perfect last bite makes so much sense. I do not know why I thought of it only as another goofy Mackism, because, you know what, Mack’s respect and appreciation for food should have inspired me a long, long time ago.

Mack never presumed to tell people how they should live their lives, so it is not surprising that she never proselytized her perfect, last-bite ideology. But unlike Mack, her mother is far less shy about conveying her opinions to others. So even though Mack might find it unseemly, I am going to urge everyone at my table this Thanksgiving to think about a perfect last bite as they eat through all of the dishes before them. I am going to ask them all to prepare and to slowly savor a perfect last bite.

And I am going to take the proselytizing one step further by imploring all of you to be a little more Mack-like tomorrow. To slow down, at least a little, at the end of the meal. To pause a moment to appreciate the good food. And, most importantly, to savor and to take particular delight in your own perfect last bite.

eating 1     eating 3  Back Camera   eating 4

P.S. One of Mack’s best friends, Jackie Pascoe added the following message and a picture of Mack contemplating a perfect last bite…

“This was definitely a Mack-thing. I remember Mack doing this all the time whenever we’d get sushi; she’d save the last piece of her favorite roll for her last bite, and it even encouraged me to do the same. Mackenzie would even be her goofy self before her last bite (as shown in picture below). And yes, Mack could not get enough of those choco-pies but I definitely enjoyed watching her eyes light up whenever I would bring her one or even a box of them.”

eating 5

Hugs

If you were a person in Mack’s life, you knew that you were going to get hugs. Lots of hugs. From big bear hugs to hand hugs,* Mack hugged not only her own family members and her closest friends, but also her teammates, her coaches, her teachers and even some people she was just getting to know. She hugged you for pictures, she would sneak up on you to hug you, and there was no escape from her strong grip if she decided you needed one of her famous Big Mack squeezes. Mack was not a big talker, and she was never verbally effusive with her emotions. Instead, she chose to love people by physically embracing them. Mack was full of love and delight for the people who were special to her. But Mack’s hugs were more about her wish to make those she hugged feel unconditionally loved and accepted than they were about showing her own affection.

Mack’s hugs became legendary, especially among all of her various adopted moms. At the memorial service, one of those special women (Sonya, a basketball mom and good friend) told me that she always looked forward to getting settled in at the basketball games, because she knew that even if she had just seen her the night before, Mack would run up the bleachers and give her a huge hug as if she had not seen her in months. Another adopted mom (Ellen, who was the mother of one of Mack’s oldest friends) wrote to me about how much she loved those hugs, referring to Mack as “the human Great Dane who thought she was a lap puppy.”

Mack was, indeed, a bit like a big happy puppy dog. So many photographs of her with friends reveal her inner marshmallow. She loved people hard, and she hugged them harder. Sometimes she hugged me so hard, she squeezed the air right out of my lungs. If I had a bad day, a bear hug from my Mack could make all of my worries melt away. Often, she would wrap her long arms around my shoulders, pull my head onto her chest, rest her chin on the top of my head (always looking for an opportunity to acknowledge our significant height difference), pat my back and say, “momma knows, momma knows.” She was being goofy and ridiculous, but she was also showing love and tenderness in her own unique way.

God, I just loved those hugs. I cannot imagine how I will get through the rest of my life without them; and I would sell my soul to the devil for just one more.

 hug 3    hug 2hug 4    hug 5    hug 6 hug 7    hug 8

*Mack invented hand hugs sometime in high school and, I think, during a softball season. Basically, a hand hug is when two people press their palms together and wrap their own thumbs around the other person’s hand. It was just one of many silly rituals that Mack created to bond with teammates, be close with friends without being TOO gushy and gooey, and to give people around her an excuse to smile, laugh, and to be close to one another.

Spot

For her seventh birthday in 2001, Mack received a set of four miniature stuffed animals called Pound Puppies. I am not at all certain what prompted me to buy such a thing for her, because she was not really interested in stuffed animals. But, it turned out to be her favorite present that year. Those little puppies were just three inches long and two inches wide, and Mack immediately chose a favorite. Upon unwrapping the packaging, Mack pulled out the light brown one with a big, dark brown spot off-center on his back. She fell madly in love with him, named him Spot, and she carried him around with her everywhere she went.

spot

Initially, I assumed Mack would lose interest in Spot, as he was not a ball or a bat, but I could not have been more wrong about his future prospects. Spot become a full-fledged member of our family. He went to Ireland with us, he frequently joined us at the dinner table, and he always went away with us for weekend trips. Mack took Spot to school with her in her backpack and he often hung out in her pockets no matter what she was doing. After a couple of years, we all talked about Spot as if he was a real dog. And Mack, who was not inclined to fret about anything, would get a little panicky if Spot ever disappeared. Now given the size of that damn thing and given Mack’s proclivity to lose things that were far larger than little Spot, I began to worry that he would, indeed, get lost. I went on Ebay to find a set of Pound Puppies to have at the ready just in case. I purchased a set that had a brown one that looked a bit like Spot, and I ordered it. I realized that Mack was too old to fool, but perhaps a replacement would offer some solace when Spot went missing.

Surprisingly, though, Spot remained safe; and unlike many of her other belongings, Mack seemed to always know where Spot was located. Except for one time. Probably around 2004 or 2005 when Mack was in middle school, she announced that Spot had been missing for several days and she was worried. I remembered the spare Pound Puppy set hiding in the back of my closet, but crossed my fingers it would not be necessary. Mack and I turned her room upside down, checked in the laundry (where he had ended up on a couple of occasions), and inspected each room of the house. When we entered the library to look for him there, Mack suddenly remembered that several days before she had been throwing Spot around in that room and believed he might have flown behind our massive bookcase. Sure enough, after repeated probes behind the bookcase with a long broom handle, we fished him out. Mack cleaned off all of the dust bunnies that came out with him, and she said something like, “Wow, that was close.”

When Mack was in high school, Spot spent most of his time on her dresser or bookcase, but she sometimes popped him into a pocket of a sports bag for good luck. He went to the girls’ state basketball tournament three times, spent one spring in the bottom of Mack’s softball bag with the bats squishing him, and traveled to the golf state tournament her senior year, hitching a ride in the deep side pocket of her golf bag.

When I was helping Mack pack her belongings in preparation for her move to a dorm at Truman State University in early August 2012, I asked her if she was planning to take any sentimental item from her childhood to college with her. Savannah had taken her favorite teddy bear Pickles with her to Indiana University, so I was not at all surprised that Mack without hesitation and with a big crooked grin on her face said, “well, duh, Spot.”

Just a couple of weeks later, Mack was getting settled into college life. On September 2, she had spent the morning cleaning her dorm room, and she texted me a picture of the results of her effort:

clean dorm rume

I was impressed, and just as I was getting over the shock of seeing such quality organization, Mack texted this note: “Legitimately organized for the first time. Thought I lost Spot and nearly had a heart attack. He’s safe and sound, don’t worry.” Silly me. I thought Mack had changed her ways. Nope. Cleaning was just necessary to find Spot.

Eight months later, Mack posted this tweet on her twitter account:

tweet--spot is a lie

No worries, Mack, it’s always been the same old Spot!

When Mack was packing for Spain in August, she lamented to me that she must leave Spot at home, because taking him along for her study abroad was simply too risky. I pressed her a little, reminding her that he had been around for thirteen years and five months. He was tough, and I believed he was in for the long haul. She was adamant. “Nopes,” she said, “He’s gonna stay right here on my bookcase.”

I so wish Mack would have taken Spot to Spain. I am not usually a believer in lucky charms, but I think there is something a little lucky about that pup. I know it is probably silly, but I have now adopted Spot from the bookcase where Mack left him. He needed someone to adopt him. I needed something tangible of Mack’s to keep close. And now Spot sits on the keyboard at my desk, daring me to smile as I remember that sweet little girl who loved him so well.

Spot 2

Thanks for not smiling, Mack

Over the past few weeks, I have sifted through hundreds of pictures of Mackenzie, and all the while as I have paused over each image, I have smiled, I have laughed, and I have sobbed—sometimes exhibiting all three emotions simultaneously. As I have lingered over particular images, I have desperately sought to sear them into my memory. Mack’s adorable freckles, especially the big one on her left cheek, her brown eyes, her dimples, those long limbs, and that crooked little smile are all beautiful reminders to me of her physical appearance and her tangible self. But so many of the pictures also capture her humor, her athleticism, her joy, and her incorrigible determination to thwart all of my best efforts over the years to capture the perfect, smiling photograph of my younger daughter. When Savannah saw a camera, she always sat up straight, engaged me with her eyes, flashed me a dazzling smile, and delivered a beautiful portrait every time. Mack, however, always preferred to ham it up, make a ridiculous face, or strike an absurd pose.

It always drove me nuts that she couldn’t just sit still and smile and let me have my shot. But now I know that she has given me something far greater.

Most all of the writing that I have done so far has spun off of one of those hundreds of images that I have spent so much time with since October 7. All of the photos I have of Mack are precious to me in the same way that childhood photographs are precious to every mother. But the photographs that are inspiring my stories about her, about my life with her, and about my life now without her, are not the ones in which she is smiling perfectly for the camera. Don’t get me wrong, I adore those priceless few images in which she gave in to my wishes. But it is a fact that the photos in which she exerted her own interpretation of the event or activity that I was trying to capture that are the most comforting to me now. I always believed that Mack was just being goofy, that she was deliberating trying to aggravate me, or that she was disrespecting my attempt to capture forever her growing-up years.

Yet in looking at those images now and thinking about the writing that pours out of me as a result of considering those images now, I realize that Mack gave me a special gift. In those goofy photographs, she allowed me to capture her spirit at that moment instead of her pretty smile. She made the photos about her and not me, and she made them about her approach to the situation at hand and not mine. She did not believe that photos were about capturing the perfect smile in every context, but rather they were about capturing the absurdity of a situation, the joy or laughter provoked by a particular moment, setting or event, and about living life and not just posing for it.

Thanks for not smiling (all the time), Mack. I love you for it more than you ever could have believed possible during all of those hundreds of photo shoots when I begged you for a pretty smile.

And now some beautiful examples:

When I asked the girls to pose with the prototype wax Lincoln for the yet to open Lincoln Presidential Museum, I got this…

girls with Lincoln

When I asked Mack to pose with my newly published book, she gave me this…

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When I asked Mack to send me a picture of her Halloween costume one year, I got this…

nerd

When I asked for a picture of summer ball at The Gym, she gave me this…

goofy kid

When she sent me a picture of a kitten she was babysitting at college, this is what I got via text…

kitty

And here is one of the precious few in which she obliged my desire for a pretty smile…

Indiana braids

It’s a Pratt Thing

Tonight, I watched the first Indiana Hoosiers basketball game of the year, and as is typical for me at the beginning of every men’s college basketball season, I was missing my dad. He loved college basketball and was obsessed with the Hoosiers. Since his death in March 2001, I feel the loss of him more keenly at this time of the year. But once the season gets going, I always enjoy the games and feel my dad’s spirit with me. He is in my heart as I happily cheer for our team.

But tonight my heart is much heavier than ever before, and the beginning of this basketball season is far more emotionally painful for me.

Basketball was an important part of Mack’s life. She played the sport for thirteen of her twenty years, and watching her play was one of my greatest joys of being her momma bear. When she was little, she slept with her favorite basketball, dribbled for hours in her room, became an expert at spinning the ball on her fingers, and truly loved the sport. And even though I raised the poor child in Illini country, she became a Hoosier fan, too. As we often said to our numerous Illinois-fan friends, “It’s a Pratt thing, you wouldn’t understand.”

My dad died when Mack was only seven. It was a trivial thing, perhaps, but raising Mack on Hoosier basketball was one way for me to connect her to the grandfather she never had the chance to know. Mack and I always talked about dad’s love for the Hoosiers. In March 2013, Mack made a special trip home from college just so we could watch Indiana in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament together. We talked then about how tickled grandpa would have been at their success and how much we wished he could have shared the fun with us.

Indiana basketball has been one of the simple pleasures of my life. It was a family connection that I cherished. And now I face this college basketball season without my dad and without my precious Macko. Right now in my sorrow, it does not seem possible, but I hope that later in the season I will be able to enjoy some Hoosier hoops. That’s what both of them would wish for me. And if…no, when…that happens, my dad and Mack will be with me in spirit as I cheer for our favorite team.

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Golfing in Flip-Flops with Friends

Mack started walking when she was nine months old, and almost immediately she exhibited advanced hand-eye coordination and impressive athletic abilities. By the time she was three, she was adept at throwing and catching a baseball, dribbling a basketball, and throwing a tight spiral with her kid-sized football. Early in elementary school, she brought home every sports flyer available and begged to participate. With the exception of ice hockey, we let her try every damn sport, too: soccer, baseball, basketball, taekwondo, tackle football, and flag football. She was an amazing athlete, and I was always in awe of her ability to pick up a sport and play it well.

I started playing golf when I was about thirteen years old, and I’ve loved the game ever since. When my dad taught Mack to swing a club when she was just five years old, I knew she would be good at that sport, too.

baby golfer 2

In Springfield, the public courses allow kids to play at age six, so I purchased a set of junior golf clubs for Mack’s sixth birthday, gave her some lessons and then started taking her on outings with me. By the time she was ten, she hit the ball from the tee much, much, much further than her momma, but she never really adopted the sport. Oh, she enjoyed the game…at least a little…but she was always annoyed with the course etiquette, the “country club” attire and the general attitude of many male golfers she encountered who believed women and girls on a golf course were an annoyance. I also think Mack had a clear preference for competitive team sports. Sharing a basketball court with a group of friends was more enjoyable to her than a lonely walk up a fairway. I understood that about her; but I was always a little sad about it. Over the course of the next nine years, I had to just be content to enjoy a couple of rounds of golf with her every summer.

In July of 2008, just a month before she was going to be starting her freshman year of high school, Mack announced that she was going to try out for the golf team. I am pretty certain I just stared at her for a long time looking incredulous. She probably stared back, sucking in her lips and looking at me sideways. She did not own a decent set of golf clubs appropriate for her height. She had no golf shoes or a proper golf bag. She had not been playing golf all summer to prepare. She had never in her entire life taken a professional golf lesson. She said the golf team tryout was in a few days, and she asked me to go to the driving range with her and to take her to play a couple of rounds of nine holes at Pasfield (a short course near our house) beforehand. I asked her if she thought it would all be enough preparation to make a high school golf team, and she said that she had never failed to make a team before and she had no intention of breaking that streak. I am sure that I sighed in response, but we went to the driving range, we played a couple of rounds at Pasfield, she went to the tryout in basketball shorts and flip-flops and then became a freshmen member of the Springfield High School (SHS) girls golf team.

Well it turns out that there are not that many girl golfers in Springfield, and many of them go to Sacred Heart-Griffin (SHG), the rival private Catholic school. So Mack was probably pretty certain that she would make the SHS team when she so confidently answered my incredulity. However, she really did have a natural ability, could knock the cover off of the ball from the tee, and possessed such a calm approach to the game that she soon started to excel at it. She was never going to take the game as seriously as was necessary to be great at it, but she really did work hard to improve so that she could be pretty damn good at it. She started taking lessons from a local pro, practiced her putting and chipping on her own time, and listened to the advice of her golf coach with whom she quickly developed a special bond. It was no surprise to anyone who knew her that she quickly played the game well, but I’m not sure everyone recognized that her adoption of the game and her success with it had taken her a little outside of her sports comfort zone.

Just because she was playing “real” golf did not mean, however, that Mack accepted all of the “country club” aspects of the sport. She practiced in flip-flops, wore baggy sweatpants in lieu of fitted golf skorts, cussed and chortled on the putting green, and refused to accept the lonely silence of the sport. When her peers were taking practice swings on the driving range before matches, Mack was in the clubhouse testing out the local hot dog. After a match when her peers were bragging about a beautiful approach to a tight green, Mack humorously regaled them with the horrors of her worst shot of the day. At first, her golf coach, a few of the more serious members of her own team, and her opponents were taken aback by what they saw as her irreverence for the game. But after they got to know her, they learned that she didn’t disrespect the game at all. She just wanted to play it her on her own terms.

happy golfer      IMG_1089      IMG_1082

In her four years on that high school golf team, Mack always downplayed her successes and she laughed at her failures; and that attitude made her a better golfer. Most importantly, she made the game her own by turning it into a team sport. She interacted with the golfers on her team the same way she interacted with her fellow basketball and softball teammates. She demanded team dinners, made up stupid handshakes and cheers, and provided levity when teammates were taking the game too seriously. For Mack, golf was NOT a lonely walk up the fairway. During matches, she engaged her opponents, shared her humor, and treated them like teammates as well.

In fact, Mack became good friends with the SHG golfers and their coach; and her personal idea of team extended to them as well. After all, she actually spent more time during matches with SHG golfers than with her own teammates or other opponents, so why not bring them along for her joyride in the sport?

By senior year, Mack was playing some pretty good golf. She was still practicing in flip-flops and consuming hot dogs instead of warming up before matches, but I could see that she really wanted to make her senior year special. She practiced harder, visited the golf pro more, and provided a great deal of encouragement for the entire team. At Sectionals that fall at Lincoln Greens in Springfield, no one dared to dream that the entire team could make it to the state tournament. The team’s two top golfers each shot 81 and were definitely on their way to State. Lincoln Greens was always something of a challenge for Mack; many of her funniest ball-in-water stories came from that course. But on that beautiful sunny fall day, she put her head down and carded a 90. I am fairly certain it is the best score she ever turned in for eighteen holes at Lincoln Greens; and it had come at the perfect time. More importantly, however, that score turned out to be just low enough. The final combined team score qualified all of the SHS golfers for the Illinois State Golf Tournament for the first time since the 1980s. Mack was never more proud of any other athletic achievement. She was thrilled that all of them—Becca, Alax, Kristin, Rachel, and Mack—were going to state. All of them. Mack was right. Golf was a team sport after all.

The SHS Golf Team after Qualifying for State

Back Camera

There’s more…

People who live in Springfield know that the rivalry between SHS and SHG is pretty intense and can, sometimes, become ugly and bitter. In fact, it has a tendency to bring out the worst in even the best kids. But as it turns out, my Mack was so special that her spirit could melt even the iciest of rivalries. In October, while they were competing in the sectionals golf tournament, the SHG golf team wore ribbons in their hair to honor the memory of their lost competitor and friend. They were competing for SHG, but they wore red “Mack” and “SHS” ribbons. What an amazing testament to a beautiful person.

SHG