Bunny

Since we are on the topics of both Mack’s animal loving heart and her impish nature, I want to offer one of my favorite stories that illustrate both. When Mack was in middle school and Savannah was at Indiana University, Mack decided she wanted a bunny. Since she really had no good bunny arguments to make to convince us to add a bunny to the McDermott Menagerie, she relied on her wit and determination instead. She found clever and not so clever ways to work “bunny” into conversations every day. For weeks and weeks she regaled us with bunny talk. Sometimes she would discuss the delightful qualities of bunnies. Other times she would show me pictures of adorable bunnies doing adorable things. And when she was feeling less creative but still tenacious, she would just look at me, tilt her head adorably and say “bunny.” No context. No persuasive argument. Just the word “bunny.” I actually started to look forward to how Mack would work “bunny” into her daily dialogue with me.

It was also around this same time that Mack started to ask for extra chores so that she could earn a bigger allowance to go bowling with friends or to the dollar store after school. While I never really believed that she and her friends actually bowled (although I learned recently from her friend Justice that they did, indeed, bowl), I did believe that Mack had turned a corner. “She wants to earn her own pocket money so she won’t have to scam all of her mother’s dollar bills and loose change,” I thought. It was only in hindsight that I would discover the errors in what I know now to be seriously flawed logic. Don’t judge; those dimples of hers were quite powerful.

After several months of bunny talk—and after a point when Kevin and I were working “bunny” into our own conversations—Mack made initial inquiries about the purchase of a bunny. She learned that she had enough cash for said bunny but, much to her chagrin, she also learned that a child of her age could not just walk into a pet store and buy a bunny. But remember, my friends, this is Mack about whom I am writing; and Mack Attack never gave up on anything. Enter: sneaky, college-aged sister. Of course, Mack’s initial bunny inquiries, the bunny buying discrimination, and the reason behind an unscheduled visit from Savannah were all completely unbeknownst to me at the time.

So Savannah came home from college. Mack and Savannah plotted the timing of their illicit purchase. And the two little criminals drove to the mall. Yes, Savannah would have been allowed to purchase the bunny. Yes, the bunny was within Mack’s budget. BUT, my devious daughters had failed to factor in the cost of a bunny hutch, quite an expensive item I understand. Savannah was willing to be a part of the plot, but she was not willing to cough up the extra cash for bunny housing. Some children would have given up and gone home and forgotten about the whole thing. Others would have gone home and saved more money and then tried again later. Others might have spent the money at American Eagle. Mack did none of those things. Instead, she counted her money and evaluated what other small-rodents-with-appropriate-housing opportunities were available that day within her price range. She picked out the cutest teddy bear hamster in the store, selected an appropriate cage, and picked out some food. Savannah fronted as the purchaser, and Mack brought home Strawberry Fabio McDermott.

I should have been mad, and maybe I was at first. But it was always so damned hard to deny Mack when she displayed such fixed determination. I also knew that getting that hamster would satisfy the desire for a bunny. Strawberry Fabio (don’t ask, because I have no earthy idea about the name) lived in Mack’s room for two years. He cruised around our house in his little hamster ball; and we all came to appreciate his company. Mack never abandoned the care of her little guy and spent time with him every day. She loved him as much she loved all of the other pets we ever had. And I never regretted allowing him to stay.

Here is Mack sitting with Strawberry Fabio McDermott. SFM is modeling a pair of Mack’s favorite middle school shoes…

Strawberry the Hamster

From Puppies to Pep Dog

Mack LOVED animals. While growing up, she was the adoring zookeeper of our collection of pets, consisting over the years of an enormous Labrador/Rottweiler mix (Barley), three Pugs, (Hops, Napoleon and Josephine), a Pomeranian (Pepper), two cats (Whiskers and Keyhlar), an iguana (Junior), two Guinea pigs (Snowball and Cleopatra), a giant goldfish (Phyllis), a teddy bear hamster (Strawberry), and various newts, fish, frogs and turtles. Even though we also raised three litters of Pug puppies and five litters of kittens (the ridiculously adorable spawn of our evil and slutty little Keyhlar), the McDermott Menagerie was never enough for Mack. No matter how many pets we had at any given time, Mack wanted more. Over the years, she asked for a house-sized pony, bunnies, an ocelot, a lemur, a penguin, a red panda and, most recently from college, a hedgehog. Whenever Mack saw a cute animal picture or video on the Internet, she would start a campaign for the adoption of her very own version of the animal starring within it.

When Mack was in middle school, she heard that the Animal Protective League (APL) in Springfield was looking for families to foster litters of puppies. Basically, these foster puppy families take in the puppies, love them, socialize them and nurse them through spaying and neutering surgeries until they are socialized and well enough for adoption. Mack believed with the full measure of her animal-loving heart that this was the single best idea in the entire galaxy. She could not believe she didn’t think of the idea herself, and she instituted a quiet but relentless campaign to become a foster parent of puppies. For months she lobbied for the job, begging her father and me to co-sign the agreement with her. She made some pretty good arguments about how much love she could offer them, how much experience we already had with baby animals, and what an amazing contribution we could make in the lives of poor orphaned dogs. As usual, Mack’s strategy was simple: be dogged and relentless and cheerful all the while. Almost every day she found a way to put puppies into the conversation in creative and different ways and she always put on her sweet how-can-you-deny-me little face.

Finally, after months of torture, we relented. It was late February 2008, and at that time our household consisted of Kevin, me, Mack, Napoleon and Keyhlar. So what the hell, right? I mean we were down to just three humans and two pets at 709 S. Lincoln, so why not add a litter of puppies to bolster our numbers? Mack and I went to APL to fill out paperwork and then we anxiously awaited some puppies. In early March, the call came; puppies were coming and we could pick them up on Friday. That Friday morning, Mack went off to school anticipating the arrival of her fur babies. I have to admit, I was kind of excited, too. Later that morning, a woman from APL called me at work to say that the puppies had come in with Parvo; and since we had animals in our home, we would not be able to take them until they were treated. “Oh no,” I thought (or maybe I even sighed and said it out loud). “Mack is going to cry,” I thought (or, again, maybe I sighed and said that out loud, too). I told the woman that we were disappointed, but we would be available to take the puppies just as soon as they were better. There was a brief silence on the other end of the phone. Now I know that the woman was assessing the degree of my disappointment. “Well,” she said slowly. “Perhaps you would like to come take a young dog to keep until the puppies are ready?” Then there was silence on my end of the phone. Oh, these people are good. The APL woman told me that they had just received a six-month-old Pomeranian mix that was not adjusting well to the kennel. The APL woman then told me that because this was a young lap dog, she would be quickly adopted; and then we could get a litter of puppies.

Well, I could not disappoint Mack, now could I? It was not what we had bargained for, exactly. But, it was a young dog; and a single pup would certainly be easier than a litter, right? I agreed to pick up the Pomeranian, and I also determined to do it before picking up Mack from school. I could assess the pup before presenting it to her as the consolation prize for her puppies. When I arrived at APL, the woman said that I should come back to the kennel with her so that I could lift the scared little pup out of the kennel myself. Did I tell you that these people are good? Oh, my, these people are good.

I scooped up that little black puff of fur, she burrowed into my chest, and I fell in love. I took her to school to surprise Mack; and when Mack arrived at the car, she squealed. She did not even ask about the puppies, as she scooped up that little black puff of fur and fell in love. And that is how we came to have Pepper. That is also how Mack’s career as a foster mom for puppies ended. For once we decided to keep our new Pepper the Pomeranian, Kevin forced Mack to retire from the puppy foster program. Mack was disappointed, but she admitted that, in a way, she had won. She had wanted temporary puppies, but she had gotten a permanent dog.

Pepper cuddled her way into the hearts of the McDermott family. When we lost our old Pug Napoleon and then our cat Keyhlar in one year, we all loved Pepper all the more. In June 2012 when Kevin moved to St. Louis six months ahead of the family, Pepper was a steady companion for Mack and me. When Mack went to college that August, Pepper kept me from feeling too lonely. Pepper was always Mack’s first order of business when she came home for a visit, because the one thing she disliked about college was living without her last surviving pet. That little dog, the last of the McDermott Menagerie, now provides Mack’s devastated parents with constant cuddles, unconditional love, and a great deal of comfort.

Thank you for being the dogged, determined little imp that you were, Mack. Thank you for loving animals with a heart the size of the sun. And thank you for bringing Pep Dog into our family. I promise to love her enough for us both.

Baby Pepper and Kid Mack…

Pep2      Pep

Pepper lounging in a pile of laundry in Mack’s messy room in Springfield…

pep in mack mess

Cuddling with Pepper in St. Louis…

Pep3     Pep6

Pep5

And now me with Pepper, alone…

Pep4

A Perfect Last Bite in NOLA

Dear Mack: I just enjoyed my best meal yet in New Orleans at Jimmy J’s Cafe. It was a perfectly prepared frittata with roasted eggplant, peppers, broccoli and asparagus finished with a lovely tomato and arugula salad. A side of oven roasted potatoes and peppers and a bacon Bloody Mary combined for an amazing Christmas Eve brunch. I savored my perfect last bite just for you, sweet girl.

IMG_1256

Ghosts of Christmas

Ghost of Christmas Past

We are not a religious family, but when the girls were little we fully embraced all of the secular pleasures of the Christmas season. I decorated two trees and carefully arranged a porcelain Christmas village, Kevin strung lights around our porch, and the girls and I baked cookies and rolled old-fashioned sugar plums. Visiting Santa, driving around town enjoying Christmas lights, and watching holiday Christmas shows were essential elements of the holiday season at the McDermott house in Springfield. Perhaps our family’s most favorite holiday tradition was seeing a new show at the movie theater on Christmas Day after eating cinnamon rolls and opening our gifts.

Christmas past 2  Christmas past 5  Christmas past 1      Christmas past 6  Christmas past 4  Christmas past 3    

Christmas past 8

As the girls got a little older and wanted money to buy their own gifts, we started taking short shopping trips during Christmas week, visiting St. Louis or Chicago instead of staying at home. One year we spent the holiday at sea on a Caribbean cruise and in another we lounged on a Florida beach and had oysters for Christmas dinner. When I look at Christmas photos from the past, I feel a pang of nostalgia for those years when my girls were sweet babies, but those photos make me smile. I accepted some time ago that my years as a mother of children are behind me, and those sweet memories do not make me sad. Pictures and memories from last Christmas, however, are another story. In 2013, for the first time since Savannah moved abroad, the four of us were together for Christmas. While I appreciated it then, I really had no earthly idea just how precious that Christmas would be to us. I am so grateful we had that holiday, but I am shaken by the reality that there will be no others.

Christmas 2013 b  Christmas 2013 c Christmas past 7  Christmas 2013 a  Christmas 2013 d

Ghost of Christmas Present

December 25, 2014, is the day that we were supposed to pick up Mackenzie at the airport from her semester abroad in Spain. I would have spent this week before Christmas eagerly anticipating her arrival. I would have cleaned and organized her room, purchased all of her favorite junk food and a case of Gatorade, and strung some holiday lights on the balcony. I had planned to roast a ham and a huge pan of cheesy potatoes (Mack’s favorite holiday meal) and bake a batch of oatmeal cranberry cookies that she always craved. I was going to have a new pair of Ugg moccasins for her to open and was planning to present her with several goofy gifts, all individually wrapped with excessive amounts of tape just to aggravate her.

I figured we’d sit for a couple of hours at the dining room table, eating too much and drinking some wine while she regaled us with her stories. I know most of them would have been so funny, focused on all of the little difficulties she had encountered and the mistakes she had made in Spain. After dinner, we would have settled into the over-sized leather chairs in front of the TV with snacks to watch “Christmas Story,” and Mack would have recited much of the dialogue and said “Fra-gee-lay” a hundred times.

I was expecting a quiet, but special Christmas. Instead, this year there will be no Christmas. Instead, this year we will all pass the holiday season without our Mack. Savannah and Levi will spend Christmas week in Morocco; and Kevin and I are heading to New Orleans. We all hope to find some joy and some peace to fill the terrible void that is left in our hearts without the zaniest and most spirited member of our little family.

Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

Throughout my life, I have really enjoyed the holiday season. Except for Christmas music, which I have to admit I detest, I love the lights and the greenery, the food and the giving, and the festive spirit of a winter celebration. And even though I am not up to celebrating this year, I have been searching high and low to see if the enjoyment of Christmas going forward is even possible. In thinking about how to find joy in my Christmases yet to come, which seems an impossible task in my current state of grief, I keep thinking about Ebenezer Scrooge. By confronting his past and his present and getting a glimpse of the bleak years ahead of him, even the hardened, hateful Scrooge was able to make a brighter future for himself.

At the end of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens wrote that Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” If Scrooge can hope, then perhaps I can as well. I know that the sweet little girls of my Christmases past are gone. I know that my Christmas present will be sorrowful. But I hope that my Christmases yet to come will be happy and special; and I can tell you for certain, that I will never pass another without my beautiful Savannah. So perhaps, like Scrooge, I will possess the knowledge (and the spirit) to keep Christmas well next year and for all of my years to come.

Crazy Cool Nerd

I think it is true that the main reason why people were drawn to Mack was because she was a crazy cool kid who had absolutely no desire to be popular. She was always just who she was, comfortable in her own skin; and she never altered her personality, her interests, her wardrobe, or her beliefs in order to win friends or to fit in with a particular peer group. She possessed such a cool confidence in her abilities and her convictions at a very young age. Yet she was never boastful. She never used her accomplishments in sports or other venues to gain acceptance or advantage. She never violated her personal principles just to go along with the crowd. It is a rare teenager who rises above all of the drama, but my unflappable Mack was a special kid.

I think it is true that the main reason that Mack’s friends loved her was because she was a crazy cool kid who also always embraced her inner nerd. She possessed that athletic swagger, but she could trip over her size 10 shoes and make a joke of it. She publicly showed her love for Harry Potter, Glee, Selena Gomez, and Taylor Swift (or T-Sweezy, as Mack and her best friend Justice called her), even though she endured a fair share a razzing for doing so. Mack was confident and smart, but she was never afraid to act silly and enjoy herself. She did not care who might see her suck in her lips, hike her over-sized basketball shorts way up over her chest, or hear her rip out a big, juicy belch. She was just a real kid who was dedicated to keeping it real.

Last weekend, I came across an autobiography that Mack prepared for a class in sixth grade, and I was reminded of one of my favorite Mack-is-a-Dork stories. When she was a student at Franklin Middle School and did not have a sports practice, she frequently walked home from school with her friend and cohort in nerdy crimes, Maggie. Maggie is the daughter of my dear friend Alicia, and the girls grew up together. One night at dinner, Alicia mentioned that she had come home from work that day to find Maggie and Mack eating couscous and playing their band instruments on the front porch. Now what makes this story particularly funny to me, is that Mack NEVER practiced her trumpet at home. In fact, she hated playing the trumpet. But I have little doubt that she played it loudly and vociferously for the neighbors on Ivywood Drive and took great delight in the spectacle.

I know it is true that two of the things I miss most about Mack are her cool confidence and her comfortable dorkiness, which combined to characterize her joyous spirit. She understood who she was, and she was incapable of pretense. She loved to be silly and to have fun regardless of who might be watching. She understood how important the simple pleasures of life could be. It really is no wonder why people were drawn to her cool side, fell in love with her nerdy side, and held on so tight to the friendship and fun she offered us all.

nerd 2         IMG_1008

DSC00276   no lips

Page from Mack’s 6th grade autobiography, featuring Baby Mack and Baby Maggie….

Mack Autobiography 24

Too cool for school Mack and Maggie…

too cool

Below is the picture that Mack chose for the Springfield High School athletic website for the “Meet the Seniors” section. Do you see what I mean when I say she did not care what people might think? She was always herself, and that was always enough for me!

Meet the Seniors Softball pic

Making Life a Little Sweeter

It is quite strange, I know, but Mack loved to recite and to sing television commercials. The dorkier the commercial, the more she delighted in it; and she just loved to annoy me by repeating advertisement dialogue and by singing the most irritating but catchy jingles. She started this habit in elementary school when she learned to mimic the old guy on the Menard’s home improvement commercials. She would bug out her eyes and clench her teeth just like he did, and then she would sing: “Save big money at Menards!” Her impersonation of that Menard’s guy singing that stupid jingle was PERFECT. Every time she did it, she cracked herself up; and, I have to admit, she made me laugh, too.

Mack never grew tired of the habit of repeating catchy ad campaigns, and she frequently worked “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba…I’m loving’ it” into a conversation. She acted out and sang the “five dollar…five dollar…five dollar foot long” ad for Subway. And she could get oh so very hoedown when she belted out “Bob Evans…down on the farm.” Not only did Mack have a weakness for a catchy jingle, but she was also a sucker for the very ads that she so happily added to her repertoire. If she heard the Taco Bell bell and the words “Live Más” on the TV or radio, she went all Pavlov’s dog for a Crunch Wrap Supreme. If the goofy Sonic guys came on the tube, she would jump in her Jeep and go get an extra-large Ocean Water. And that damned “I’m lovin’ it” campaign led to Mack’s consumption of an ungodly number of items off McDonald’s value menu.

During her senior year of high school Mack saw her first television commercial for Edible Arrangements, a delivery company that cuts fruit into the shapes of flowers and puts them together into bouquets. From the very first time she saw that ad, she so badly wanted one of those bouquets. Now Mack did, indeed, love fruit, but she was also an aficionado of the absurd; and those fruity flowers were nothing if not absurd. She started singing the jingle: “Make life a little sweeter with Edible Arrangements.” For months, she would recite that commercial, talk about the beauty of the sculpted fruit, and beg for a sublime bouquet of her own. She also noted that if I really loved her that I would have one of those things delivered to her at school for lunch. She drove me crazy with that Edible Arrangements refrain, so for her birthday that year I went online to order a fruit bouquet for her. But, alas, they were not available in Springfield. Why they were advertising in the Springfield television market where they would only break the hearts of teenaged lovers of fruit bouquets is beyond me.

Sometime in the fall of 2012, after Kevin had moved to St. Louis and Mack was up at Truman State for her first semester of college, I was walking around downtown and happened upon a store front for Edible Arrangements. I was so excited when I saw that shop. When Mack came home at the end of the semester, we would be completing our family’s move from Springfield to St. Louis. We would be in our new home by Christmas. My crazy, jingle-singing baby girl would have a crazy fruit bouquet just in time for the holiday.

And so it was, that in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, in a modern loft in downtown St. Louis, a small edible arrangement arrived for Ms. Mackenzie McDermott. She squealed with delight as she opened up the box, and as these pictures so aptly illustrate, she was thrilled with the bouquet but also appreciative of the silliness of it all. Mack’s good humor and joyous love of simple pleasures—like a ridiculous bouquet of fruit carved to look like flowers— always made my life a little sweeter. Therefore it was always easy, and one of the great joys of my life, to be able to give her so many of the things she believed made her life a little sweeter, too.

edible arrangements 2    edible arrangements    edible

Honoring Mack

I have learned two truths over the past two, terrible months.

One: There is no magic elixir for the pain of losing a child, and not even time can offer a cure. There is no silver lining in the dark and gloomy storm cloud under which grieving parents must live the remainder of their lives. There is no solace from the heartache of a mother who loses a cherished daughter.

Two: Realization of permanent sorrow sinks into the frail, human psyche fast and hard, and finding constructive outlets for such unbearable grief is imperative. Savannah, my older daughter, is my primary motive for looking forward into the future. She provides me with an obvious and joyful purpose. But I have also found that setting my sights on a present and a future life that might include—in some small way, at least—my lost younger daughter is as necessary as is pushing air in and out of my lungs. To that end, I have undertaken two very different, but equally important steps.

One: I am writing about my Macko. I am sharing stories about her humor, describing her amazing character, and illustrating the myriad ways in which her generous spirit and sweet heart enhanced my life and touched the lives of the people who knew her. I am keeping her alive in my heart, in my mind, and in my memories, but I have an overwhelming need to put pen to paper. My blog is an important part of my personal journey down this lonely and bumpy road, but it is also one of the ways for me to keep her alive for all of us.

Two: Within hours of getting the terrible news of Mackenzie’s passing, I was determined to establish a scholarship in her honor. She had chosen Truman State University, a little-known liberal arts gem in northern Missouri, as the setting for her growth into a young woman; and it was there that she was blossoming as a writer, as well. Truman was the place where she was preparing for the pursuit of her personal dream to write television shows; and it was immediately obvious to me that establishing a scholarship at Truman to support other aspiring young writers had the power to provide me and her father with some measure of comfort.

With the initial help of the incredible staff of the Truman State University Foundation, the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship was in place by the time of Mack’s memorial service. We created a $1,000 scholarship for a student majoring or minoring in creative writing in the 2015-16 academic year, and we also created an endowment fund. A $15,000 endowment would ensure an annual scholarship of about $700 and would exist in perpetuity. I was confident that the annual scholarship would quickly be funded, but I thought that funding the endowment might take us many years.

I could not have been more wrong. Due to a tremendous, remarkable, and awe-inspiring outpouring of love and the amazing generosity of family, friends, colleagues, teachers, and even the kindness of a few strangers, a deserving student will receive that $1,000 scholarship in 2015. But more incredibly, however, the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship is fully endowed as well. Just two months after losing our little girl, the people who loved her and the people who care about us have given us the best gift that is possible in the wake of our terrible loss. I have no words to properly express my gratitude. Knowing that the Truman State University Foundation will award a scholarship in Mackenzie’s honor in perpetuity is a comfort. I know that Mack would be happy and proud, because this scholarship is, indeed, a constructive outlet for all of us who loved her so well.

Nearly 100 personal donations came in from California, Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Illinois Legislative Correspondents Association, the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, and my mother’s small Indiana church all made generous donations. Ruby Tuesdays, Mackenzie’s former employer, donated a percentage of their profits for a special day in Mack’s honor. The Sunrise Rotary Club in Springfield, Illinois—the organization that sponsored the “This I Believe” essay contest for which Mack contributed her winning “Anything Boys Can Do” essay (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Afpjdwf-994&feature=youtu.be) also made a generous donation. I am simply overwhelmed by the contributions of so many people, and I love you all.

I want to extend a special thank you to Christopher Ave, Kevin’s editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Not only did he take up a collection of personal donations at the paper, but he also organized a “Music for Mack” fundraiser on November 6. The event was an amazing night of live music (including a very moving performance by cellist James Czyzewski of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra), good food, great St. Louis beer, and a silent auction. The event raised almost $2,500. I will be eternally grateful to Christopher’s generosity and support. I also want to thank the dear, sweet parents of Mack’s college roommate Meagan Banta-Lewis. Tony Schmitt and Mary Banta-Schmitt made their own generous personal donation to the scholarship fund, but they also spent the evening with us at “Music for Mack.” They provided emotional support and friendship, and then they also purchased many of the best items from the silent auction, including the highest priced item of the evening, a hockey stick signed by the St. Louis Blues players. Tony and Mary have found a special place in my heart now and forever.

So thank you, people. Thank you. And thank you again. This scholarship has brought us some peace. It has been a constructive outlet for my grief. It honors my sweet girl, and it provides a way for her to be with us all forever. But for years and years to come, it will also help students who dream of being writers. And what could be better than helping students achieve their dreams? Mack would love that, and she would give you all one of her famous Big Mack hugs.

Weatherbird     Music for Mack        

The above left image is original art depicting the famous St. Louis Post-Dispatch Weatherbird, drawn especially for the “Music for Mack” event. He’s wearing Truman State purple and cheering for the Bulldogs (for which Mack played golf her freshman year). Tony and Mary went home with this item, too! The flyer at right was used to publicize the event.

We will continue to build the endowment fund to support a self-sustaining annual scholarship of $1,000.(http://www.truman.edu/giving/ways-of-giving/) But no matter what happens going forward, we’ve accomplished something constructive faster than I ever dreamed possible. I would like to give you all one of those famous Big Mack hugs, too.