Talking to Mack

On most days, I talk to Mack. I whisper her a good morning, I share with her my plans for the day, I talk to her about the food I am cooking, or I read the news to her. Yet I still yearn to hear her voice in conversation, to debate an issue with her, or to ask her a question. But since real conversations are no longer possible, I quietly commune with Mack’s spirit, and it brings me a little peace. But today was one of those days when my desire to speak with Mack was particularly powerful, whispering to her spirit did not suffice, and the peace stepped aside for my tears. Because today is a good day. It is a historic day. It is a day that my justice-loving, fair-minded, and passionately good-hearted Mack should be here to see for herself.

When I first heard the news today that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of marriage equality for every American in every state, my thoughts immediately went to Mack. I actually reached for my cell phone to call her. I paused with my hand on the phone, put my head down on my desk, and cried in happiness and in sorrow. I cried in my elation over this historic news that will have such a positive impact on the lives of many friends, and I wept because Mack would never know it had happened.

Oh, Mack, how I longed to hear the excitement that would have filled your lungs and danced off of your tongue as you discussed this news. No doubt, you would have provided a clever quip about how long overdue the decision or how pathetic and desperate the dissenting opinion of Justice Scalia. I know that you would be celebrating tonight with all of your friends at Truman State. You would be exuberant about the broader historical meaning of this ruling, and you would be thrilled to your bones for the personal significance it will have in the lives of a couple of your dearest of friends.MACK AND ME

Oh, Mack, what a week it has been; a week that may have the power to restore your skeptical Momma Bear’s faith in a country for which I have struggled to find hope. The governor of South Carolina has called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol building. The U.S. Supreme Court has smacked down the evil assault on the Affordable Care Act and decried racial discrimination in housing by saving the Fair Housing Act. And then, today, the improbable news about marriage equality, topped off by a rousing and historic speech by President Obama about racism, gun culture, hatred, and finding the grace of a better America. I wish you were here, baby girl, to see with your eyes what you always knew in your heart was fair and just and human.

Oh, and Mack, I wish you could have heard Obama sing Amazing Grace. I wish you could have read the spoof by Andy Borowitz in the New Yorker entitled “Scalia Arrested Trying to Burn Down the Supreme Court.” And I wish you could see this perfect cartoon that the Southern Poverty Law Center posted on Facebook. I bet you would have made it the background of your own Facebook account, right? This is for reals, Macko; and I feel pretty certain that your spirit has been smiling all day.


Mack’s Beautiful Brain

Mack’s self-effacing humor, silly personality, and humble nature often disguised her intellect and concealed the profundity of her intellectual curiosity. She loved to play the fool in order to make people laugh. Downplaying her own talents and accomplishments was also one of her ways of putting at ease the people around her. Growing up, Mack also invested so much of herself into athletic pursuits that she frequently put serious academics aside. She often joked about her slacking study habits, and among her friends and teachers, her academic procrastination was legendary. Throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school, Mack’s public persona was that of a witty and affable jock with a strong tendency toward frivolity and fun. Yet behind Mack’s goofy-girl façade, underneath that unpretentious layer of modesty, and well beyond her natural and effortless athleticism, was one of the most beautiful brains I have ever known.

Of course Mack’s family members and closest friends knew the truth about the depth and breadth of Mack’s intellect and intellectual curiosity. I am sure as well that there were people beyond family and close friends who may have noticed the impressive range of her vocabulary, as she peppered her comic routines with new favorite words. No doubt there were others who appreciated one or more of her razor-sharp critiques about a song or a book or a news story. And certainly there were still others who respected Mack’s uncanny ability to make an absolutely astute and succinct observation about the most random of topics.

But because Mack was always so modest and so damn quiet about her intellectual ideas, I think a lot of people might have missed out on Mack’s brain. I think there may be people who knew Mack growing up who never knew that she followed current events from a very young age, that she was reflective and philosophical, that she loved words, especially quirky or archaic ones. There are likely some people who did not know that my girl of few words was a master of debate, that she worried about climate change and the fate of endangered animals, that racism in America haunted her dreams. I am sorry that others might not have been aware that Mack was interested in how mechanical things work, that she learned quickly and possessed a remarkable ability to remember the smallest of details, that she understood people so well because she quietly watched and observed and considered them.

Frequently throughout the years, I would catch Mack engaged in a moment of deep thought. To me there was no sweeter scene than watching her freckled and expressive face as she was thinking through an idea, puzzling over a problem, or contemplating an object or event. It was such a frequent occurrence that I actually captured quite a few of these moments with a camera. While it is true that many of my happiest memories of Mack are of her dramatically delivering the punch line of a very bad joke or badly singing a silly song, it is frequently a memory of Mack’s face in quiet reflection that touches me most profoundly.reflective 2

Recently, I remembered a conversation that Mack and I had about one of those photographs. When we attended freshman orientation at Truman State, I snapped a photo of her peering into the office of a creative writing professor we were waiting to meet. I showed her the photo and asked her what she was thinking about when I took it. She looked at the picture, flashed one of her famous faces of incredulity, and said: “What the hell, mom, why are you all up in my bizness?” I smiled and asked her the question again. She started to say something, but she stopped and, instead, she took a long pause. Then, in a slightly serious tone that took me aback, she said something like: “You know, I started to tell you that I was thinking about how much candy I will be able to eat once I am in college and you aren’t around to tell me to stop. But the truth is, I was thinking about how now that I am a grown-ass woman, I get to take the classes I want to take and read the books I want to read and learn the stuff I want to learn.” And then my smart girl poked her head a few times with her forefinger and said: “the next four years is all about this brain, and that, Momma Bear, is pretty fuckin’ cool.”

When Mack went to college, she shed her jovial jock image, almost overnight; and I think it was partly a deliberate act. She was finally ready to share her brain with the world; she was ready to release the intellectual in her that had been there all along. She maintained her self-effacing sense of humor, she remained true to her belief that boasting and bragging and being a know-it-all served no useful purpose, and, thank goodness, she never abandoned her wit and sense of silly fun. I think it is an absolute fact that the people who knew Mackenzie McDermott at Truman State University would have used the adjectives “smart” and “funny,” in that order, to describe her. And I know that this fact would have painted a permanent smile upon her heart.

Smart and funny is a winning combination in life, and my Mack was a natural at both.

Mack’s Beautiful Brain at Work:

In 1999 and 2000, we put an addition on our house and did a lot of remodeling, painting, etc. I was surprised but delighted at the interest that Mack took in the project. She stood in the yard and watched the carpenters construct the frame of the second-story addition, she convinced her dad to let her help with painting and hammering trim, she asked questions about the tools and the building materials, and she was transfixed when her dad assembled and installed the spiral staircase to the loft. Here she is, just a shrimpy little kid, perched on the newly constructed steps, thinking about the construction going on in the family room below or, perhaps, considering the new view from the reconfigured stairs…

reflective 4

Of all of her sports, Mack probably had the most fun playing softball. She always said that it was her “recreational” sport, even though she played it very well. Yet for all of the fun she had in the dugout, laughing with her teammates, it was actually while playing softball that I saw her engaged in the most thoughtful reflection. In this photo, I think she had trained her attention on the opposing pitcher, perhaps developing a strategy for her next at-bat…


Mack-Lazy Days

While growing up, Mack was an extremely active kid, and she sacrificed an enormous amount of her personal time and freedom participating in competitive sports. She enthusiastically and willingly made that sacrifice, but it made her a very practiced and determined lover of her infrequent lazy days. Mack took her limited free time very seriously. She redefined what it meant to relax, she took literally her declarations to “do nuttin,’” and she really did know how to let it all hang out. Mack earned her leisure time and, mostly, I was content to let her waste away much of her quiet down time. But it is absolutely true that sometimes the greatness of her sloth terrified me.

Let me paint a typical scene in Mack’s room on one of her famous Mack-lazy days: The curtains are drawn, and the room is dark. Mack is wearing baggy sweatpants (likely without underwear), and she is flat on her back on a bed crowded with clothes, her book bag, a sweaty basketball jersey, and maybe even a pair of her favorite cheap flip-flops. There is a dog stretched out next to her. On a pillow, which she is partly sharing with the dog, her head is propped up just enough so that she can chew and swallow without choking and can see the screen of her laptop, which sits across her pelvis. Warhead sour candies and Miss Vickie’s jalapeño chips or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are scattered about, and an open 32-oz bottle of blue Gatorade is balanced precariously at her waist. Her lips are blue, and there are crumbs on her face and her fingers. She is watching Fresh Prince of Bel Air, or Sponge Bob, or Parks and Recreation. She is chewing and chortling and texting with two or three friends. When I interrupt Mack’s blissful laziness to ask a question or to say hello, she answers with a belch or a grunt; and then she cheerfully shoos me out the door by waving her hand in my face.Mack eating chips

I was outwardly horrified by these Mack-lazy scenes that I witnessed so frequently over the years, but I secretly wished that I was capable of achieving such nirvana in my own life. For sure, Mack knew how to power lounge like nobody’s business. It was as if she was making up for all of the leisure time she sacrificed along the way. It was like she supposed that in order to be productive in life one also has to know what it feels like to accomplish absolutely nothing at all.

I think that excessive inertia (if that is even a thing), junk food eaten in bed, and mindless television was Mack’s not-so-secret recipe for refueling her soul on the lazy days so she could better face the busy days. Since Mack had way more busy days than lazy ones, I was content to let her practice her particular brand of recuperative medicine. And, who knows, maybe it was exactly those Mack-lazy days that made my girl ever content and ever cheerful, so well-balanced and calm, always patient and sweet. Maybe if we each practiced a little of Mack’s crazy-lazy medicine, we could all be as easy and gentle as she was.

Mack’s Best Friends

Mack always had a diverse and interesting array of friends. Due to her involvement in several competitive sports over the years and her participation on so many teams, she met a lot of different people, and she developed friendships within each of her different peer groups. She had her growing-up friends, her school chums, her basketball pals, her fellow golfers, and her softball girls, among others. She always opened her heart and her arms (for her famous hugs) to people with whom she interacted. Mack truly enjoyed popping in and out of her seasonal teams, and she did it with such ease and with a beautiful grace; but she also collected a very special group of remarkable people on whom she relied for deep and lasting friendship and true love and acceptance. And now I find that Mack’s amazing collection of best friends have become a crucial element of my own survival.

When Mack was growing up, she was so busy all of the time with her sports that her small amount of private time at home became very precious to her. As she got older, she guarded that time pretty fiercely, so I understood that the friends who spent time at our house were the people she held most dear. Mack always was a great judge of character, and the friends who spent family time with us were unique and extraordinary people. I enjoyed talking with them, getting to know them, laughing with them, and teasing them. When Mack had these friends at the house, I would occasionally plop down on the couch with them while they were watching their TV shows, sit on the kitchen counter for a spell when they were making cookies and an epic mess, or plop on the end of Mack’s bed while they were playing a video game. Right now, I could ramble on for days about how fun it was for me to play chauffeur for them before they could drive themselves. I loved listening to Mack and her friends laugh and sing together, and I never tired of hearing their chatter late into the night (even though I sometimes yelled at them to quiet it down). Mack never complained about my active interest in her friends; and, in fact, I believe she appreciated my wholehearted approval of the ones she chose to hold so close. She loved them, and she was glad that her Momma Bear loved them, too.

Every day I grieve the loss of my daughter, but my heart also breaks for those who called Mack “best friend.” In losing her, these remarkable young people she loved so well have lost not only a cherished friend, but a beloved sister. They have lost a non-judgmental confidant, a fierce and funny champion, and a bridesmaid. I have an overwhelming need to know that Mack’s best friends are safe and well, to keep in touch with them, to hear their memories and their stories about our lost girl, and to comfort them if I can. Facebook and email and text messages offer periodic and important connections that I cherish, but I have also found strength in seeing Mack’s best friends in person. Giving them one of Mack’s famous hugs brings me some solace. Over the past months, I have cherished a brief conversation with Justice after her college basketball game at Eastern Illinois University; I have had the pleasure of catching up with Maggie over drinks in Springfield and sharing a meal with Meagan before she left for Scotland; and I was the very grateful beneficiary of Ali and Jackie’s trip to St. Louis to see me.

Recently, I traveled to Chapel Hill for some research, and I shared some quality time with Kailey on the campus of the University of North Carolina, where she is a student. Kailey was studying abroad in France the same semester that Mack was in Spain; and these close childhood friends, softball buddies, and Glee aficionados had big plans for some European sightseeing together. But making new life memories abroad with a cherished hometown friend was not to be. Instead, Kailey had to grieve for Mack in France, without her family and Springfield friends around her; and missing Mack’s memorial service was heartbreaking for her. I hope that spending a little time with me helped her at least half as much as it helped me, because seeing her face and sharing a long walk, a hearty meal, and some sweet memories of Mack did me a whole hell of a lot of good.

There is something comforting, I suppose, in being in the presence of people who loved and respected Mack so very completely. But it is also true, I believe, that Mack would want me to keep her special and very best of friends close. They were inestimably important to her. They had her heart. She would want me to give them my heart as well. I can say with complete sincerity that holding them snug in my heart is going to be one of the easiest things I do as I move forward without Mack. Keeping them close will bring me much solace. And I hope that in knowing I hold them so dear, Mack’s best friends will have a little solace as well.

Here are some of my favorite photos of Mack and Kailey…

IPad 2014 406 Kailey 2 hug 7 powder puff

and a Facebook exchange from 2010…

homecoming with Kailey

Kailey’s beautiful tribute to her lost friend:

And, of couse, stay tuned for future blogs about Mack’s amazing best friends.