Mack Memo #1: Make a Face

I just spent the weekend with my first baby, the splendid and sassy Savannah. We walked all over the Missouri Botanical Garden in nearly identical Birkenstock sandals. We drank giant steins of Heffewiezen under a 95-degree, afternoon sun, and we ate too many tortilla chips and not all of our tacos at a late dinner in historic Soulard. We laughed, we caught up on the details of each other’s daily lives, and we giggled a lot and cried a little when we reminisced about Mack. It was as close to happy as I have been since my last weekend visit with Savannah. And then her car disappeared down Washington Avenue, and the Illinois license plate faded away from my view. Then the sorrow moved back in, pushing out the sunshine and snapping me back to my lonely and gloomy, missing-Mack mood. The kind of mood that hangs on sometimes for hours after a weekend guest departs or after I return home from a trip to see family or friends. The mood that reminds me how desperately I miss my second baby.

This is the life of a grieving mother. This is the emotional truth of losing a child. For me, successful living in the moment comes with a price at the end that is frequently difficult to pay. Time does not heal this wound, no matter what they say; and so I must breathe in as deeply as possible during my live-in-the-moment successes and endure as best as I can the painful aftermath that always follows. Mack’s absence is the reason for my sorrow, but Mack is also the one who guides me through these terrible transitions, as well. Drawing strength from her humor through most all of my missing-Mack moods has been the key to my survival, and it is especially true after the positive effects of a magical diversion, like a visit with Savannah, fade away. To help alleviate my sorrow at these times, I always look at pictures of my funny girl. Mack’s face making faces has a curious power. I used to badger her to smile for pictures rather than to make a goofy face, but now it is those goofy faces that provide me strength to find my way to the next live-in-the-moment opportunity.

those eyeballs

Oh, that face! How can that face ever fail to make me smile?

Mack’s continuing power to soothe my heart, to bring a smile to my lips, and to make me laugh when I am at the lowest of low is a guiding force in my life. Mack speaks to me through her goofy grin and silly faces in photos. She whispers love and advice in my ear and plants happy memories and thoughts in my brain. She tugs at my arm to be strong, and she continually reminds me to laugh. I have come to think of these moments when Mack touches my spirit as memos from Mack. The contents of my Mack memos have become a sort of life mantra for me. Sometimes they come in the form of humorous one-liners, and sometimes they are lengthier essays with depth and with heart. Mack’s great character, her unflappable good cheer, her unique wit, and her incomparable wisdom for a person who had so little time give substance and style to all of her memos. Mack’s memos connect with my heart all the way across the great physical divide that now exists between us. Mack’s memos inspire and instruct me, and only recently have I come to fully understand their purpose and their power. Now I want to bundle up my precious memos and periodically share them in the pages of this blog. There is sound advice, much inspirational grace, and innumerable funny messages for good living within them.

And here to get it started is…

Mack Memo #1: Make a face. Make a silly face, people. Stick out your tongue. Cross your eyes. Wrinkle your nose. Suck in your lips. Use your face to make yourself or somebody else laugh. Making a face will make all the serious go away. It will make you feel better…at least for a while. Trust me. It will. And a goofy face might also save a life.

Black Eye

As a toddler, Mack had uncommon hand-eye coordination and a very good arm. By the time she was three, we made throwing balls in the house a class-one, McDermott-family felony, because if she aimed and fired at a lamp, for example, down it crashed, thoroughly battered and broken, lying on the floor. Mack’s mad throwing skills served her well in her early commitments to football and to baseball, and she loved to practice at home. As the sporty parent, it fell to me in those early years to play catch with her. I enjoyed this interaction with my cute little athletic daughter at first, but then practices became painful. And dangerous. Especially with the baseball. Even a catcher’s mitt failed to provide adequate cushioning for my delicate hand, and missed catches often left me crying and bruised.

When I started doctoral work at the University of Illinois in the fall of 2000, I passed off the baseball-catching responsibilities to Kevin. I did this partly because working a full-time job and working on a Ph.D. left me with little spare time. But, mostly, I just used that as an excuse. I could no longer handle the heat that the six-year-old Mack could put on a baseball thrown across the front lawn. Kevin was happy to pick up the slack, purchased his own mitt, and took over this duty with the good sport of a naïve angel sent down from the baseball heavens above. Every night after dinner, he dutifully stood on our driveway in the front lawn. Mack stood on the neighbor’s driveway on the other side of the lawn. And as if staging a Norman Rockwell painting, father and daughter played catch until dark, while I studied history in my attic loft.

Just behind my built-in desk in the loft, there was an adorable little window that overlooked the front yard. Many evenings, I would take a break and gaze down upon my sweet husband and my athletically gifted daughter playing catch in the twilight. The window was small, but if I wiggled a little, I could stick out my head and interact with them for a few minutes and give my brain a brief respite from my studies. Sometimes I would critique Mack’s pitching arm or comment on Kevin’s white athletic socks pulled up to the middle of his calves. Sometimes I would just watch quietly, feeling grateful that they were having this time together. Feeling happy to be with them for a bit, but grateful to be safely two stories away from the danger.

One night when Mack and Kevin were playing catch, I positioned my body in the window, called Kevin’s name loudly, and lifted my shirt to flash him. To this day, I am still not certain why I did such a thing, because I’m generally a modest sort of person. Perhaps I was punch-drunk from my graduate school reading list in American legal history. Perhaps I had one too many beers (yes, I have been known to drink while writing). Perhaps I wanted to give Kevin a little gift for keeping me out of the line of baseball fire. Whatever possessed me, I did it, and my timing could not have been more terrible. Mack had already started to deliver a throw across the lawn to her dad. When he heard me call, Kevin looked up to the little window, taking his eyes off that speeding sphere flying across the lawn. The baseball hit him square in the face, sending his glasses flying and his knees buckling. Down his body crashed, thoroughly battered and broken, lying on the ground.

I did not see the impact of the ball, because my chest covered the entirety of my little window. But I heard a girly scream from Mack and a painful man-grunt from Kevin as the baseball struck. By the time I was able to stick my head out of the window, Kevin was a heap of bones on the grass, and little Mack was standing over him. I think Kevin yelled a swear up at me and then called for ice. When I arrived in the yard, Kevin and Mack were laughing about how boobs and baseball are a bad match, and a black eye was already in evidence.

playing catch

Mack and Kevin playing catch, Field of Dreams, Iowa.