Bug and Us

A tiny Chihuahua came to live with us back in August, and since then she has romped, cuddled, and squeaked her way into our hearts. We are beyond charmed by her awkward eagerness to be a special buddy to me, to Kevin, and to Pepper, our reluctant Pomeranian. We call her Bug, although her growing importance in our lives suggests a more respectful moniker…perhaps Miss Bug? Everyone who meets her is immediately enchanted by her quirky personality, her sweet spirit, and her gentle nature. One minute she is a bouncing little goofball, acting wild, and the next minute she is power napping atop the back of the old leather chair in my office. She is a whole lot of funny and a little bit of weird and oh so very delightful…just like Mack; and sometimes I wonder if Mack handpicked Bug herself and sent her to us.IMG_5288

Adopting Bug turned our house a little upside down at first with house training, fur-sibling rivalries, and life adjustments by and to our new little family member. But upside down was a good thing. It was exactly what we needed. We had become too sheltered. Too comfortable with our seclusion. Too exhausted by grief to seek out new happiness in the world. Kevin needed a project; I had become too reliant on Pepper to calm my anxieties; and Pepper needed a furry companion, even though she is still not convinced that Bug should stay. Bug arrived at our house with the energy and intensity of a puppy, her need for training dramatically altered our only-dog complacency and pushed us into the previously avoided neighborhood dog park where we have met new people and new dogs. Bug arrived at our house, claiming her spot as the baby in the family and demanding the constant attention of all three of us. Yet most importantly, I think, Bug arrived at our house to save us.

Grief is a lonely and bitter journey, but at times external forces make you stop to share the road; and when you do, little comforts are frequently your reward. I have learned that those comforts that come along the way are frequently unexpected and often arrive in small packages. In August, one of those unexpected and small comforts had arrived in the form of a tiny Chihuahua. But as my difficult 2015 is drawing to a close, I now realize that Bug is so much more than just an unexpected comfort. In recent days, I have realized that this silly, six-pound doggie has become my special friend; but she has become a sort of spirit animal to me as well. Bug’s dorky lovability, her goofy personality, and her kind spirit daily remind me of the qualities in Mack I always admired and promised to emulate a year ago as I faced my first New Year without her. The year 2015 has been a struggle, and it is a constant battle to survive my loss with grace. Bug reveals to me that I still have the capacity to love, to find new joys in unexpected places, and to embrace the future with a little hope. She can provide some grace with me on this journey.

Bug’s cute little face both connects me to Mack and gives me some strength to face 2016 without Mack. I know in my bones and in my soul that Mack would be so pleased that her dad and I have let this sweet little animal into our hearts. She believed that animals held the power to lighten many sorrows, and it would be no surprise to her that Bug could melt her Momma Bear’s heart. Of course, Mack would remain skeptical about the impact that Bug might have on our reluctant Pomeranian, but she would wholeheartedly approve of our new little friend and the magic of her little heart full of love for us all.

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And because I cannot pass a blog without an image of my Macko, here she is loving up on Pepper…

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Mack on Trumpet

When I registered Mack for sixth grade at Franklin Middle School, I insisted that she give the school band a try. It would be an understatement to say that she was not very keen on the idea, but she accepted my suggestion and mumbled that it would probably be better than choir. She made a typically dramatic Mack pitch for the percussion section, but just the thought of that kid with drums or cymbals sent shivers down my spine and made my ears bleed. Besides, we still had Savannah’s school trumpet in the house, and I knew Mack’s heart was not in the band so why spend any money? Always respectful of parental money arguments, Mack accepted the trumpet and said she would probably kick her sister’s trumpet talents in the butt, so perhaps the trumpet was the best instrument choice anyway.

Band was a scheduled class at Franklin Middle School, so a little practice time at home and a handful of evening concerts did not interfere with Mack’s involvement with sports. Mack loved the very cool and youthful band director, Mr. Keys (isn’t that a hoot?), and several of her best friends were in band, so Mack never complained about it. She made some pretty horrible honking sounds during the first few weeks of school, but after that I barely noticed Mack on trumpet anymore, so she must have gotten the hang of it. Besides, Mack was a three-sport athlete, so I had no expectations that I was raising a musical prodigy, nor did I hold any real hopes for trumpet solos or the jazz band. But since she never moaned about band, kept an A in band class, and participated in the first couple of concerts, I believed she was learning to read a little music and broadening her musical and intellectual horizons. And when my friend Alica reported that she had come home one day after work to find her daughter Maggie (one of Mack’s best friends) and Mack on their front porch playing their band instruments, I was like, wow, maybe this band thing was having an influence on my hyperkinetic child and would become a happy habit.

At the Christmas concert that year, the sixth grade band sounded so much better than it had sounded during their first concert at the beginning of the year, and I figured Mack on trumpet had at least a little something to do with the band’s overall progress. But then, sometime in the spring towards the end of the school year, when I was sitting in a camp chair in the grass at a track meet waiting to watch Mack high jump and run a slow 800 meters, I noticed all of the band instrument cases piled up with all the book bags near where the Franklin track team members were hanging out and waiting for their events. I wondered to myself if Mack had her trumpet over there, and it put in my head the idea to ask her on the way home if she still liked the band. Mack, who did not, by the way, get into the car with a trumpet case, skipped not a beat when I put the question to her. She said something like, “yes, it’s ahright. I’m not first or second chair or anything, but I’m pretty boss.” She said it without a hint of sarcasm or fear in the eye or facial tick that belied the words, but at that moment I knew damn well it was a Mack-happy answer and had absolutely nothing to do with the truth. The past months of school flashed across my brain. I realized that I had never checked to see if Mack was practicing her trumpet. I had no memories of hearing Mack on trumpet in her room after those first few days of honking. I had not a single memory of seeing her schlep to the corner of our street with that trumpet to meet the school bus in the morning. I could not, in fact, remember any time other than during the previous band concert when Mack was in the company of that trumpet.

I had a momma bear fit, accused Mack of being a band slacker, and told her she had better practice and be ready for the spring concert. She was unfazed, refused to make any practice promises, and said she would do just fine at the final band concert of the school year, which would also be the final band concert of her life. She had no intention whatsoever of participating in the seventh-grade band, and she informed me quite sternly that I just needed to get over it. I was not heartbroken about the band necessarily, but I was frustrated by Mack’s lack of effort on trumpet and I was mad at myself for failing to notice that lack of effort for an entire school year. At that final spring concert, I settled into my seat and trained my eyes on Mack on trumpet. As the band played, Mack pressed the keys of her trumpet, but it was absolutely clear that she blew no air into the instrument. And, it turns out, she had never played a single note at any of the previous band concerts either. She had faked her way through the entire school year of band. Mack on trumpet was, it turns out, never a thing. Mack on trumpet was a lie. And Mack deemed the farce one of her favorite Momma Bear scams.

Mack on trumpet 2Many years later, when we were packing up our Springfield house to move to St. Louis, Mack found the old school trumpet in the back of her bedroom closet. She opened up the dusty case, wiped off the mouthpiece, and played a “tune” (which I captured on my IPhone). Pepper, our Pomeranian, was, according to Mack, entertained by this impromptu concert; I am not so certain. But the concert definitely took us back to Mack’s great band hoax, which sent us into fits of laughter, and then we put that trumpet in the “keep” pile and packed it for St. Louis. Mack thought that even though she never really played the damn trumpet, it was a funny memento of her childhood, a reminder of the Mack on trumpet that never really was.

And for your listening pleasure, I introduce to you, Mack on trumpet: https://youtu.be/lYPal2JX1fc

Mack’s Best Friends: Justice

By the time Mack was ten and fully immersed in competitive basketball, she knew every player her own age and she was very aware of all of the best older players in the region. At tournaments, she enjoyed watching elite older players, and on the drive home she talked about them, analyzing their shooting styles, ball-handling skills, and prospects for playing at the college level. But after one tournament in the summer of 2006, in Bloomington, Illinois, it was a younger player who caught Mack’s attention; and all the way home she could not stop talking about her. Mack was in awe of this younger player partly because her approach to the game was so different. Mack was a pure point guard, a methodical executor of an offensive game plan and a skilled passer, who was more tickled by a slick assist than by hitting her own deep, three-point shot. In contrast, this younger player demanded the ball, relied on her athletic instincts, and was fast and fearless; and Mack respected her athleticism and full-throttle style. But mostly, Mack connected with this player’s joyful exuberance, as she saw a kid who shared her own passion for basketball and for life. Mack not only wanted to play ball with this player, but she wanted to make her a friend, too.

That player’s name was Justice; and little did she know in the summer of 2006 that she was in Mack’s sights, hand-picked for Mack’s impressive collection of best friends. But when Justice arrived at Franklin Middle School as a seventh grader in the fall of 2007, Mack—the big, confident eighth grader—immediately scooped up the new kid in her long arms and “collected” her right away. Justice probably did not know what had hit her; and it took about two minutes before those crazy girls became two peas in a pod. Mack made friends effortlessly, but I never saw such a fast and easy friendship as the one between Mack and Justice. They were soul sisters from the start and had more fun than any two girls in the history of American middle school. Together they were loud and joyful, took advantage of every second to breathe in and experience the world around them, and left a trail of mischief and merriment in their wake. Some of my favorite life moments were spent driving between our house and Justice’s house on the opposite side of Springfield with those high-spirited and noisy girls in my backseat.

In that first magical year as friends, Mack and Justice were still very different basketball players, but that was about the only real difference between them. They were both confident and mentally tough, cheerful, unfazed by popularity and preteen drama, smart but lazy students, witty and sarcastic. In the hallways at school, on the volleyball, basketball, and track teams, and after school and on weekends, Mack and Justice were joined at the hip. Justice became a part of Mack’s eighth-grade friend circle, and Mack spent time with Justice’s group of seventh grade friends as well. And, finally, those girls got to play some basketball together—at Franklin basketball practices (although Coach Bitner would not let them guard one another because they giggled way too much) and on a winning Gus Macker team one summer.

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Mack, Mariah, Corrine, and Justice

But most of the growing-up memories Mack and Justice made together had absolutely nothing to do with sports. They teased and pushed one another, looked out for each other, and accepted each other unconditionally. They were just kids together, acting like fools, making messes, and laughing…so much laughing…loud, hysterical laughing. I could fill a dozen or more blogs with Mack-and-Justice stories, but I will now offer three that reveal something of the nature of the relationship between these special kids.

Good-natured teasing: One weekday evening as I was preparing dinner, Mack came rumbling down the stairs and into the kitchen. She called for my attention, turned around, and bent over slightly, sticking out her rear end. She pointed to her butt, wrinkled up her brow, and asked: “Is my butt big?” I chuckled and told her that she had inherited some booty from my side of the family. Mack smiled and said, “Dang, I guess Justice is right. Today she was behind me going up the stairs between classes and super loud she yelled ‘Mack! You got some cakes!!’” Mack and I then laughed our big asses off; and Mack forever acknowledged that she did, indeed, have some cakes. It was a favorite expression she employed whenever she was shopping for a new pair of American Eagle jeans. Mack and Justice were always able to engage in such teasing, and I always admired that about them.

Well-placed loyalties: After just one year of attending school together at Franklin, Mack went to Springfield High School; and a year later, Justice went to rival Southeast High School across town. They competed against each other in basketball, and they each embraced the ferocious spirit of their respective schools. Mack was a true Senator. Justice was a true Spartan. And those girls talked a whole lot of smack to each other. But even though they were competitors and lived their school rivalries, they remained fierce supporters of one another, often cheering for each other from the bleachers when they were not in direct competition. They had only been school chums for one year, but their friendship not only survived the school separation, it grew stronger during their high school years. One year at the boys’ basketball City Tournament (which is a huge deal for school spirit and town sports’ rivalries in Springfield, just so you know), Mack made a “dangerous” decision to sit in the Southeast section with her friend. When I questioned her intent, Mack said something like: “City is so much fun, and I just gotta do one with J.C.” Justice provided a Spartan blue t-shirt and Mack joined the Blue Crew on one of the three nights of the tourney, only to be caught “blue” handed yuckin’ it up with Justice in a photo that was posted on the school district website. Some people were appalled that Mack would cross that line, and her basketball coach was horrified by the photo, but when Mack saw it, she shrugged her shoulders and without any tone of apology at all, she said: “oops.”traitor

Friends for Life: Mack and Justice worked hard to spend as much time together as they could over the years. Justice was a frequent weekend guest in our home, Mack hung out in Justice’s basement during the summer, and they included each other in various outings with their own friend groups.  Yet sometimes their busy teenager lives interfered, and weeks might pass between face-to-face visits; and then Mack would get lonely for Justice (or vice versa) and say, “I need me some Justice time.” What always amazed me about those girls is that no matter the distance, no matter the time, together they were always at ease. It was as if no time had ever passed at all. Even after Mack went off to Truman State, we moved to St. Louis, and Justice went to college in Kansas City, the girls enjoyed an easy and comfortable friendship that never faded. They really were two peas in a pod. They were life friends. They were sisters.

Many people we meet in life pass by us with little notice. Others play an important role for a time and then fade away. If we are lucky, we will know a few that grab onto our hearts and stay forever. Justice was one of those friends for Mack. Mack was one of those friends for Justice. And that is a beautiful thing.

p.s. I am so very grateful that Justice was a part of Mack’s life, and, in some ways, I now believe that Mack collected Justice not only for herself but for me as well. Justice’s spirit and strength at Mack’s memorial service brought me some solace in those terrible first days without Mack. Her random text messages over the past year have been precious to me, providing humor and support. And the way that she has chosen to honor her best friend by living a good and joyful life is an inspiration to me and should be an inspiration for us all.

Justice’s beautiful and funny eulogy to Mack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9e2NIGnbww

#Projectmack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKd5NWQm9ss

And some social media exchanges that make me smile:

justice bad grammarbest friendsIPad 2014 818 (2)justice calling out of the blue 1