Mack’s Angry Momma Bear

I am on a rough patch of the road on my journey without Mack. Since mid-December, the absence of her laughter is a loud and painful silence in my ears. My yearning for her wise commentary on our upside-down world is beating out of my chest. I am furious with the universe for stealing her away so soon. Too soon. Holiday blues, which fester into the January cold and gloom, sit heavy upon bones, intensifying the pain of all grief. I accept this truth, because I have seen it with my own brown eyes for four holiday seasons past. But this rough patch is different than the others. It is angrier and sharper, and it is palpable and relentless.

This time the road is not so much a sharp and treacherous s-curve through the loneliness of my loss, but rather it is a stretch of road bumpy with injustice. This rough patch is not only personal, but also political. It is a consequence of my grief for Mack, aggravated by my grief for the evil in the world. It is fueled by my anger at men who abuse their power over women, who use their authority to inflict harm upon women, and who disrespect the humanity of women. You see, Mack’s dream was to write TV shows with purpose. She was planning to create strong female characters, craft stories and dialogue that empowered women, depict the intelligence, dignity, and hearts of women, and demonstrate the beauty and strength of equality, diversity, and justice for all of us. Mack wanted to use her voice to celebrate women. And it really pisses me off that the universe gave despicable men like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and Larry Nassar so much time to degrade and to terrorize women and denied my sweet baby her chance to raise her voice in behalf of women.

Most of the tears of a mother’s grief fall for a bright future denied a promising child. Every single day I breathe, I miss Mack’s presence in my life, but I also mourn all of the years she is missing, all of the experiences she will never have, and all of the beauty she would have spread out into the world if she would have had more time. It is bitterly unfair that such a heart as hers is gone. Mack missing from the world enrages me. As anyone who has ever endured the loss of a child knows, much of the struggle is keeping yourself from becoming adrift in a sea of anger. Sometimes, however, our strength fails us and we wade out too far into the dangerous water.

This particular patch of angry grief sits at the intersection of personal and political grief. Or, in other words, it sits in juxtaposition with my anger over the ongoing stories of sexual assault and harassment these past weeks and, specifically, the horrendous story of abuse of girls at USA Gymnastics. The abuse, injustice, and inequality that women continue to experience in our supposed enlightened society has incensed the liberal feminist human in me as I know it would have incensed the liberal feminist human in my Macko. But late this week, my grief and anger overwhelmed me, as I read about the evil that Dr. Nassar perpetrated against the female gymnasts whose bodies and wellbeing were entrusted to his care. I wept as I listened to the courageous testimony of the survivors, whom so many grownups had failed to protect. In my grief for them, my grief for Mack bubbled over and beyond the bounds of my strength to endure it.

It is hard for me to explain this complicated emotion and to characterize the ways in which grief intensifies the force of all other feelings. But I think it is just simply this: that a broken heart forever breaks more easily. Since I have chosen to feel the pain of my grief, instead of to bury and deny it, I must feel the full force of every other emotion that comes over me. I accept the reality that the full force can be cruel and that my response to it is not always courageous. My knees buckled under the strain of it all on Friday evening, relentless tears and anxiety bearing down upon me. Therefore, I spent the weekend cleaning up the debris of this particularly violent collision between my grief for Mack and my grief for humanity. It was not a pleasant two days, I assure you. Yet the weekend culminated, finally and thank goodness, with a particularly therapeutic session of what writing coach Natalie Goldberg calls “writing down the bones.”

I am still angry and sad and probably vulnerable, too. But, oh my, I do feel a lot better. For me, writing releases the negative energy that threatens my wherewithal and zaps all of the resources of my survival. Thank goodness I can let it go out of me along with the emotions pouring out of my heart, through my fingertips, and onto the page. The sharing is good, too; so thank you for listening. And don’t you worry about me, because Mack is here. She never liked it when her Momma Bear was angry, so she’s with me now, helping me breathe. She also promises that tonight will bring a good sleep, and that tomorrow morning will bring…

Peace.

Or else…

angry

Bundling Up

It is cold this Christmas day, and I am passing it curled up in a cozy chair with my dogs and my writing. I do not keep Christmas anymore, so this is just an everyday Monday. Still, my head is filled up with memories of Mack, and my heart is particularly lonely for Mack’s good cheer during this fourth holiday season without her. The air outside is bitter, but the sky is bright and sunny; and since I rather like the feeling of the sun on my face, I am contemplating the therapeutic value of some fresh air and a brisk walk, with Mack along for company, of course.

Yet I strongly consider (have always considered) the bundling up required for cold winter weather to be a most unpleasant task and a very uncomfortable condition. All of that suffocating fleece and wool and goose down make me claustrophobic, sweaty, breathless, and annoyed. Along with inheriting my deep brown eyes, my freckles, and my love of books, Mack also inherited my displeasure of bundling. Heavy coats, scarves, and warm woolen mittens were not a few of Mack’s favorite things. Winter never tucked away her flip-flops and oversized basketball shorts, even as they might expose her toes and ever-bruised knees to frigid winter weather. Throughout high school, Mack never wore a winter coat; and I gave up buying them for her. Even still, every winter day that Mack left for school, I would issue warnings of pneumonia. And every winter day that Mack left for school, she would ignore my “absurd” Momma-Bear advice, content to take her chances with the cold, and leaving the house in just a thick hooded sweatshirt.

When Mack went to Truman State University in way-northern Missouri, I started laying the groundwork in early August for the purchase of a winter coat. Mack balked at the bulk of an appropriate parka, but ultimately admitted that the bone-cold and snowy winters of Kirksville would require something more than a sweatshirt. She settled on a thin puffy jacket, not really a coat, and she also, with surprisingly good humor, took to covering her head and her ears. Gloves tended to fall out of Mack’s pockets, and I never quite convinced her that her shearling-lined Ugg loafers were no match for the snow. But at least she learned that some ­winter-morning walks across a blustery northern campus in sub-zero temperatures and in snowstorms required at least a little more than a thick cotton sweatshirt. Sometimes, in fact, you also needed to pair that hoodie with a jacket, some sweatpants, a pair of borrowed boots, and a wonderfully ridiculous winter hat.

bundled up

Mack Memo #6: Eat Until It Hurts

Sometime between Mack’s I’m-on-kiddie-speed-get-outa-my-way phase and her tenth year, we went to an oyster bar for a family dinner. It was in Florida or southern Louisiana, I think, during one of our family escapes from a cold, Midwestern holiday. The restaurant was a cheesy, corporate-shack kind of a place with fish nets hanging from the ceiling and long communal tables covered with crisp white paper, fat paper towel rolls on metal spindles, and silver buckets for discarded seafood bodies. That is about all of the detail I remember about the time and the place, and I have no photos from the meal; but this seafood joint somewhere in the deep South was the setting for one of my most vivid (and horrible) Mack food memories.

This particular restaurant sold all varieties of seafood, but we had come for the oysters. Despite the numerous pounds of crab legs consumed on birthday dinners at Red Lobster and the crappy fried shrimp platters at Barrelhead, the Springfield bar and grill that helped raised my girls, Mack and her sister had never had oysters before that night. We ordered copious quantities of Rockefeller (the “gateway” oyster) and steamed and raw oysters on the half-shell. While Savannah first cautiously picked around the creamy spinach and cheese of the Rockefeller oysters, Mack dove right into the hard stuff. She starting shooting those raw oysters like a drunk springbreaker trying to win a round of free drinks for her friends. In between slurping down those little suckers, she made funny little food-satisfaction noises and praised the existence of oysters in the sea. We all laughed, congratulated Mack on her courage, enjoyed her delight in the feasting, and nibbled, mostly on those wimpy Rockefellers. I do not remember advising Mack to slow down and, in fact, I think we ordered another round.

And then Mack turned green.

Her brow was wrinkled up and her thin white lips were pursed together in a disheartened grimace. She sadly looked across the table at me and expelled a little whimper before abruptly pushing her chair away from the table and bolting across the dining room to the restrooms at the back of the restaurant. Savannah made some crack about how she knew that was gonna happen, and I went to check on the oyster queen. Mack was, of course, puking out her guts when I announced my arrival in the bathroom. Between heaves, Mack kept saying, “I’m ok, I’m ok. I’m ok.” When she emerged from the stall, her big brown eyes were bulging but she was no longer green. She washed her hands and splashed cold water on her face, and we returned to our table.

And then Mack took a big slurp of her coke and recommenced the eating of the oysters.

Undaunted. Seemingly impervious to the ghastly events of the previous ten minutes. Unwilling, I suppose, to let a little vomit come between her and good food. Determined as well, she later reflected, to make a good food memory out of those first-time oysters, to remember the deliciousness and not her rookie mistake.

Mack Memo #6: Eat Until It Hurts, baby! And then go back and eat some more.

Ergo, from Mack to me, and from me to you, this is Thanksgiving message 2017: Eat until it hurts, people. Let it out if you have to. And then drink some coke and go back in for some more. Enjoy the gorge and savor the delicious. Be brave. Try something new. And don’t you dare miss out on any oysters that might be hiding in your stuffing.

Oh, and at the end of the feast, don’t forget to construct that Mack-style perfect last bite.

finish your milk

Is this baby Mack eating crayons and drinking beer?

Mack Saying Hello

My sister’s cell phone crashed this week; and she lost everything on it. She was particularly sad to have lost a special Mack album of photos that would sometimes randomly pop up when Tracy was least expecting it. Like Mack finding a way to be present. Like Mack saying hello.

Well, tonight when Tracy was setting up her new phone, that Mack album showed up, the only files to successfully transfer from her old phone. No contacts, selfies, or other photos; just that Mack album. Tracy was certain it hadn’t been there before, but there it was, nonetheless, welcomed and cherished. It was like Mack finding a way to be present. Like Mack saying hello.

It’s Weird. It’s Wonderful. And it’s little bit of Mack magic that neither my sister nor I care to question. Because sometimes we really need Mack to be present. And we love it when she pops in to say hello…

Where Hope Lives

Three years ago this day, Mack slipped away from us, quietly, unexpectedly, and so very far away in Spain. She was a towering, colossal presence in the lives of her family and her friends, and the holes in our hearts from her absence are deep and wide and Mackenduring.

Recently, my dear friend Bridgett, who is both a writer and a gifted listener for wisdom on every breeze, wrote a blog about hope and an Emily Dickinson poem I once loved but had long forgotten: “Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.” Deconstructing the image of hope as a delicate bird, my friend wrote: “hope is dogged and rough and resilient. Hope resides in the dimmest doorways and the darkest corners of our lives. Hope grows up from the disaster and the dirt, the fertile floor of grief.”

That passage got me thinking about the residence of my hope, along the path of my grief. Perhaps once…before…hope was “a thing with feathers” that perched in my soul. But when a soul is grieving, there is no room for the perching; and along the way these past three years, hope’s song has sometimes gone silent. In missing Mack’s giant presence in my life, in longing for her love and her laughter, and in lamenting all that a short life denied her, I have spent thirty-six months reflecting on loss, on life, and on learning the human balance of both. What I have been chasing all along, I now understand, is hope. Hope is the fire of our expectations, aspirations, desires, simple plans, and grand ambitions. Hope resides in that space between loss and living. Hope is food for a life worth living; and like all food, Mack would want us all to consume it, to take delight from it, and to appreciate the nourishment it offers.

In those bitter first days in early October 2014, I witnessed the flight of hope from my soul. Yet in the early fog of my grief I somehow knew, wondrously and thankfully, to reach out and grab it. When such a force of nature as Mack takes her leave, hope flies away with her. Hope was no longer within me, but I instinctively knew that I needed to keep it within sight. Hope came first in the face of my daughter Savannah, for hope resides, for mothers at least, in precious children. But since my mother’s hope for Mack could no longer reside in her body, I needed to find a way for hope to reside in her spirit, instead. The establishment of the Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship at Truman State University, where Mack learned to fly, provided a residence for my lost hope for her. Now hope resides in that scholarship. It resides on a pretty little campus in northern Missouri. It resides in the students who have benefited already and will continue to benefit in the future. It resides in an enduring legacy of Mack’s passion for writing. Even though I will sometimes fail in my grief to see it, hope will always reside there, waiting for me to reclaim it.

Today, as we mark the third anniversary of Mack’s passing, I am so proud…and bursting with hope…to announce that the scholarship that bears her name has its third recipient, a small town, Missouri girl named Athena Geldbach. The scholarship will help this studious, serious-minded young woman minimize her college debt and play a small role in her hopes of writing books and pursuing a career in publishing so that she can also help other hopeful writers. Athena has some charming characteristics that remind me of Mack. She has a passion for books, a devotion to pets, and is a liberal arts dreamer who is also, oddly, a math whiz (Mack did calculus just for fun; Athena is a math tutor at Truman). Mack always said she had a super-powered, two-sided brain; and, apparently, Athena has one of those, too.

Today, while you are all, like me, grieving for Mack a little more tearfully, missing her a little more terribly, and feeling the hole she left in your hearts a little more keenly, I send you love and a big-Mack hug. And I send you hope. Because in loving Mack and keeping her spirit always with you, some of my hope resides in you. I have learned that it really doesn’t matter where hope resides; it simply matters that it lives.

four-leaf-clover

The Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship Fund (for creative writing students)
Truman State University Foundation
205 McClain Hall, Kirksville, MO 63501
800-452-6678
http://www.truman.edu/giving/ways-of-giving/

To read more about the scholarship and the hope it has brought me, see:
Honoring Mack, 2014 (Endowment of the Scholarship)
Magical Medicine, 2015 (First Scholarship Recipient)
The Happiest and Most Enduring of Memorials, 2016 (Second Scholarship Recipient

To learn about why Mack chose Truman State, see:
A Purple Bulldog

true-bulldog-5

Yeahhh, It’s Brrroken

A couple of weeks ago on my lunchtime walk, it was hot, my bare shoulders burned in the direct sun, and I was a little sweaty. However, the stunning architectural view looking east up Market Street toward the steely Gateway Arch, glistening in the afternoon sun, negated any physical discomfort. The sky was brilliant blue, my brain was taking a much-needed break, and my eyeballs were relieved to see something other than my computer screen. My cellphone buzzed in my brown and black Coach satchel, strapped across my shoulder, and shattered my serene respite from the workday. I stopped walking and dutifully pulled the phone out of the bag and squinted at it in the bright sunshine. Nothing important. Of course. Just a junk email. As I began to replace the phone into the usually convenient side pouch of the satchel, it slipped from my sweaty fingers and crash landed, face down, on the smoldering sidewalk. It was one of those times when a few seconds unfold in slow motion right in front of your eyes, but you are paralyzed, unable to intervene, powerless to prevent the unfortunate consequences you know are coming.

I stared down at my poor little IPhone, Snoopy on the back of the phone case starring back up at me, beaming cuteness that belied the shattered glass beneath it. I cringed as I replayed the sound of the cracking the phone had made when it smacked down so hard on the pavement. I just looked at that damn phone, unable to face the truth, unable to rescue it from its pathetic position at my feet. And then I heard Mack giggle. And then I heard Mack quote Monalisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny as she was finally admitting to her fiancé that the drippy faucet in their crappy hotel room was not functioning within normal parameters. I heard Mack’s voice loud and clear, cutting through my stunned silence, mocking my failure to keep my cellphone safe from the cruel world on a hot and sweaty day in St. Louis. I closed my eyes, I shook my head from side to side, and Mack, in her best, oft practiced, nasally Brooklyn accent, said: “yeahhh, it’s brrroken.” And then she giggled at me once more.

In 20 years or whatever it’s been since I have been using a cellular device, I have NEVER, before now, lost or broken a cellphone. Mack was the lucky beneficiary of my good cellphone record; because that kid had more broken and lost phones than working and found ones. Mack was the kid whose cellphones were always cracked, scratched, disfigured, missing parts, or on the fritz. Mack was the kid who dropped a cellphone off the railing of our front porch into the late summer foliage below, where while preparing the yard for spring plantings months later, I found it, crusted with soil, rusting, and wedged into the dirt among the Hosta sprouts. Mack was the kid whose friends provided backup phones because she had lost or broken yet another of her own. Mack was the kid who used every single one of my cellphone upgrades and her dad’s cellphone upgrades (as well as her own) for nearly a decade. I mean, seriously, during Mack’s reign of terror on her cellular devices, I used one flip phone for SIX years!

For those of you who did not know Mack and may suspect that I am engaging in gross hyperbole or perhaps even slandering my dear sweet girl, just read the following series of Facebook posts from one year in the life of “Mack with a Cellphone”…

February 11

March 22

August 22

October 17

As you can guess, in 2009 (and every other year, really), I yelled and screamed and carried on about Mack’s irresponsible cellphone ownership. I also frequently set myself up as a model example of responsible cellphone ownership, bragging about my perfect record and flashing a pristine cellphone screen and a shiny cellphone casing with all of its corner’s and its back intact. Yet Mack was never impressed. In fact, she thought it was absolutely ridiculous that I was so careful and so perfect and so smug. And do you know what? I think maybe that little imp nudged my phone from my sweaty and precarious grip that day on a St. Louis sidewalk when I so spectacularly shattered my phone as well as so spectacularly shattered my superhuman streak of responsible cellphone ownership. But, whatever and no matter. By the time I had found the strength to pick up my phone and to inspect the carnage, I fully understood why Mack was giggling at me; and I had to giggle at me, too.

Here is my phone and my girl. Don’t you think she at least looks a little guilty?

 

Mack, Me, and Dorothy Parker

For nearly twenty years, I have had this funny set of four coasters. White ceramic. Annoyingly useless for absorbing condensation formed and dripping from tumblers full of icy beverages. No matter, though, because I did not keep them for their utility. Rather, I kept them for the quatrain printed neatly upon them, one line of the punchy verse per coaster. Since I received the set, a gift from a close friend, I have kept them stacked, in order of the verse, easily accessible on prominent tables in my home for the enjoyment of any visitor who dares to use or to inspect them. Over the years, I have often been delightfully rewarded for my brazen display of these coasters; because so hilarious have been the scenes of unwitting visitors, especially innocent teenagers, who have picked up the stack and shuffled through each coaster, reading each one out loud:

I’d like to have a martini.
Two at the very most.
At three I’m under the table.
At four I’m under the host.—Dorothy Parker

While I always enjoyed the shocked, wide-eyed and gaping-mouthed horror of teenagers who walked right into this little trap, Mack enjoyed it even more. For surely we were the me and mackonly house with children that kept such scandalous literature out for all to see. As soon as a friend would pick up the stack of coasters or take hold of the top coaster to employ it, Mack would issue a deep “heh-heh-heh-heh” and wait for that friend to start reading. If necessary, she would encourage the visitor to inspect the verse, and then she stood back and let the magic happen. I was witness to several such encounters in which innocent teens read the verse loudly and dramatically, belting out each line; the rhyme taking hold of their good sense and rendering them powerless to stop the punch line from passing across their lips. These scenes sent Mack into fits of giggles, and she and I shared knowing glances. That stack of coasters was a shared prop of plotted good humor in our old Springfield house. An inside joke with Mack, me, and Dorothy Parker.

Today for me that stack of under-performing but delightful coasters is a humorous artifact of my life with Mack; and that erroneously attributed ditty printed upon them has become something of a little legend in my mind. A legend of Mack. A legend of Dorothy Parker. A legend of a couple of smart and witty dames who made me laugh…who make me laugh. You see, when Mack and I enjoyed our coasters and used them as a prop for evil, we believed that Dorothy Parker wrote those delicious lines. We had no reason to doubt. It certainly sounded like something she would have written or said. Besides, Dorothy Parker’s name lent credibility and elevated the brow of the joke, which made it all the funnier to us both. We were not pushing dirty limericks. We were dealing in fine literature. And that made us laugh all the louder.

A couple of months ago, I picked up a musty old first edition of the Viking Portable Library’s Dorothy Parker, published in 1944. I paid $1.95, and I’ve certainly gotten my money’s worth, as I have been toting it everywhere I go. It’s about four inches wide and six inches tall, the faded brown, hardcover binding is pliable from wear, and the pages when flipped fill the air with the pungent yet pleasing fragrance of a used book store. I’ve been carrying around this little book, reading the poems and prose within it, laughing and crying, imagining Parker holding court at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, and imagining Mack holding court in our Springfield living room with our coasters. In the reading and through my emotions in that reading, I have been feeling connected not only to Dorothy Parker, but also to Mack. Because I don’t think Mack read much if any of Dorothy Parker, and I am so very sorry about that.  I think Mack would have loved Dorothy Parker. Mack would have understood the quiet reflection and hint of sadness under the brash style and sharp wit. Mack would have marveled at the melody and tone of a charming and imperfect woman who lived life. She would have appreciated Parker’s ability to cut to the heart of a matter and not waste a person’s time with frivolous details.

I think Mack was a little bit like Dorothy Parker, who was intelligent and wise, an astute observer of humanity and the wonder and absurdity of life. I have been hearing Mack’s voice within Parker’s words on the page. Spending time with my worn little volume of Parker’s work (and learning that Parker did not write that quatrain on our coasters!), has made me see that I have actually been reading as much for Mack as I have been for me. Sometimes the life experiences we have—in this case my discovery of Dorothy Parker’s poems—can, indeed, be shared with the dear people whom we are missing. So if you’ve wondered where we’ve been, Mack and I have been away together on a little journey with Dorothy Parker, drinking martinis and talking about life.

And here is a little Dorothy Parker for you:

My favorite for Mack…
Inventory
Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.

My favorite for Dorothy…
Unfortunate Coincidence
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying—
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

My favorite for me…
On Being a Woman
Why is it, when I am in Rome,
I’d give an eye to be at home,
But when on native earth, I be,
My soul is sick for Italy?
And why with you, my love, my lord,
Am I spectacularly bored,
Yet do you up and leave me—then
I scream to have you back again?

And, while Dorothy did not pen the verse on my coasters, she did, in fact, pen this:

News Item
Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

coasters

Our delightful coasters!