Peace, Luck, and Chipmunks

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the Missouri Botanical Garden opens at 7 a.m. for seekers of tranquil walking upon deserted, dewy paths and among the early birds singing in quiet and fresh morning air. As a rule, I am not a disciple of mornings, as most img_1528of my nights are late and disrupted, but I make happy exception for daybreak in the garden. The gentle solitude of an early morning spent walking with memories, lost and found among the trees and the flowers, wraps up my broken heart and brittle bones like a heavy, handmade quilt on a lonely night in winter. For most of these quiet morning walks, I take Mack with me. Like me, she was not enamored of wakefulness at god-awful hours, nor was she a devotee of strolling or of flowers or of birdsong before coffee. Yet I think it is precisely the unlikelihood of this path forward with grief that would lead me and my lost girl into a garden in morning that renders such productive peace upon my soul. These morning walks are when I feel most grateful and lucky and human.

Recently, after a particularly difficult two days, my large umbrella and an overwhelming need to commune with the garden gave me the resolve necessary to venture out on a dark and rainy Wednesday morning. By the time I arrived at the garden, the rain had mostly cleared, although the southern skies still threatened. I stood at the car debating the inconvenience of carrying an unneeded umbrella for my morning therapy stroll in the garden, and I closed the car door and left the umbrella on the passenger seat. I walked away from the car and toward the garden and the dark clouds. Yet although I could feel the warming presence of the sun lurking just beyond the dissipating thunderhead, I stopped walking, sighed deeply, and then returned to the car to retrieve my umbrella. It was to be just my first curious and fortunate volte-face of the morning.

My umbrella tucked uncomfortably under my arm, I entered the visitor center, scanned my garden-member card and collected my ticket, and ascended the stairs to the garden entry. I stopped before the fountain on the main plaza, like I always do, and weighed the options of taking a clockwise or counter-clockwise path. Remembering that my most recent morning walking had taken me left around the Linnean House and toward the Ottoman Garden, I stepped right, thinking I would walk toward the Climatron first and spend a little time in the rock garden. As I reached the tram shelter along the clockwise path I had selected, I abruptly turned back toward the fountain and headed toward the Linnean House after all. I do not know why. I just did. Sometimes simple life choices simply make themselves, I guess. I looped the handle of my umbrella on my right arm, knowing now that the day was free and clear of the rain, and I walked briskly toward the Ottoman Garden. Curious and fortunate volte-face number two.

The Ottoman Garden is tucked away in the northeast corner of the Missouri Botanical Garden on a short spur off of the main circuitous path around the entire perimeter of the garden. It is a small, square, wall-lined garden with a lovely pool and fountain in the center and lined with graveled paths trimmed with Turkish plantings. At the back of this quiet little garden, which is never crowded even on busy afternoons, there is a wooden arbor in front of a stucco wall and topped with a Moorish dome. Under the tiled roof sits a glorious, regally decorated wooden throne that sits up upon a slightly raised portico offering royal views over the fountain and the flowers. Whenever I take a female visitor to the garden, I always snap a picture of her sitting upon that throne being a sultan, if only for the duration of a minute or two. However, I do not always visit the Ottoman Garden on my early morning walks, but I suppose on this particular morning I needed to feel like a sultan in control of my life and the world. Or maybe this was my third curious and fortunate volte-face of the morning.

I walked over to the throne, and of course, it was wet with rain. Too wet for a sit, I thought, but then I brushed off the biggest puddle and struck a pose for a selfie, documenting that royal feeling with a photo I could pull out later as a reminder of yet another productively therapeutic trip to the garden in morning. After I snapped the picture, I noticed movement in the fountain. A small animal was frantically swimming and making repeated attempts to scale the deep lip around the edges of the pool. I kneeled down to see a chipmunk, desperately keeping her little head above the water, legs rapidly paddling. I put down my bag and my umbrella upon the wet stone and watched the chipmunk through eyes welling up with tears, and I wondered how in the world I might manage to catch the soaked and scared little chipmunk with my bare hands, fish her out of the pool, and bring her to safety. Almost before I could even rationalize or consider it, I grabbed the handle of my umbrella and gently dipped the thicker end of it into the pool directly in front of my desperate little swimmer. She immediately climbed aboard her unlikely life raft, and I carefully guided the umbrella away from the fountain, softly depositing its precious cargo upon the solid ground of stone.

She sat for several seconds, shivering and catching her breath, as I counted her blessings, and then she began to dry off and look noticeably stronger and more calm. As she collected herself and I cried, movement in my teary peripheral vision drew my attention. It was another chipmunk, this one much smaller, desperately swimming and barely keeping her tired head and sleepy eyes above the cold water. I picked up my “unneeded” umbrella and it performed its second heroic rescue of the day. For this second chipmunk, the cold morning swim had been more harrowing, and her breathing more labored and her body more shivery, as I gently sat her down upon the stone. She was just a baby and much more disoriented than her “sister” chipmunk, who by now was breathing normally and was drying herself off with busy little paws. I sat with those sweet little animals for about ten minutes, as their tiny bodies were warming in the humid morning air. When it was clear to my mind that they would live to see the sun burst out from behind the morning’s storm clouds, I resumed my morning walk in the garden, albeit upon shaky legs and with eyes still full of tears of sadness and joy and tender feelings for small creatures.

Mack would have rescued those chipmunks, too. And, like her Momma Bear, she would have cried with worry over the unfortunate morning circumstances of their cold and terrifying swim and fretted over their recovery long after they finally scurried along to dry and warm places under the protective branches of a flowering shrub. For the remainder of my walk that morning, Mack stayed with me, bringing to mind all of the memories of her and her tender heart for animals. You see, I do not go to the garden to escape my grief. Rather, I go to walk beside my grief, and to learn how better to live with my grief. I go to share my present life with Mack, because she is and will always be with me. And because she is with me in my memories and in my daily life, she was with me, too, for the lucky rescue of those sweet chipmunks.

I do not often feel lucky, and on many days I feel almost as unlucky as any person who has ever lived. But on one early morning in the garden, I was lucky to have an unneeded umbrella, lucky to visit the Ottoman Garden first, and lucky to happen upon two precious creatures in need of a life preserver. Most of all, it was a lucky day to be reminded of how lucky I was to have Mack, and how lucky I am that early morning walks and the rescue of chipmunks can melt my still-broken heart, can reveal to me something of the beauty in the world, and can bring me a little much appreciated and necessary peace.

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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

Time

At 6:19 a.m., Sunday, September 7, 2014, Mack left St. Louis on a plane to Spain. It was the last time I saw her. Three years later, and those last moments with her at the airport are so clear and close in my mind and yet so foggy and far away, as well. Time plays its tricks, but time has lessened neither my love for Mack nor my longing for her. If I have learned anything at all from my sorrows, it is that time is no elixir, nor do I wish it to be. Some wounds are ours to bear for a lifetime, because they are the proof that we have lived.

Time

Who says time heals all wounds
does not know time.

Time heals not
the souls of grieving mothers.
Time fills no
holes in hearts, yearning for lost daughters.
Time rests never
for weary travelers on roads of grief.

Who says time heals all wounds
does not know time.

Time plays tricks
cruel and bitter on broken hearts;
Speeding forward,
no mercy for seekers of happy pasts;
Caring nothing
that some of us need to linger.

Who says time heals all wounds
does not know time,
nor grief, nor mothers and daughters, nor love.

 

 

More Freaking Forks

This summer, Jacquie, my niece and Mack’s oldest cousin, traveled to the UK on vacation with her boyfriend Jon. One evening, in casual summer clothing—perfect for daytime wandering upon the cobbled London streets but less ideal for upscale dining—they popped into an appealing eatery for dinner. Upon escort to their table, Jacquie felt under-dressed and very uncomfortable, as she realized she found herself in a fancy restaurant. As she was seated, however, Jon noticed the decor behind her, which immediately put her at ease. Shining boldly on the wall was a giant dinner fork. Suddenly, Mack appeared to tell her to chill the fuck out, to remember that the clothing one is wearing should not dictate the quality of the food that one should eat, and to order well and enjoy it.

Jacquie Forks

Jacquie and the London Fork.

For those of you who do not remember or do not know about Mack and forks, particularly ginormous freaking forks, I point you now to an old blog entry that will enlighten and entertain: https://macksmommabear.com/2014/11/06/forks/

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Mack and a Fork at Pier One Imports.

Oh, and recently a friend of mine ran into the enormous flatware below and she paused to remember Mack fondly and share a laugh with her; and, of course, she sent me a picture to share the memory. It is heartwarming to me that people who loved Mack have these moments in their daily lives to spend with her, to keep her memory alive, and to continue reaping the benefits of her wit, her joy, and her wisdom.

Nina Forks

Nina’s Found Flatware.

Cabin Fork

Mack Memorial Fork on a wall in the McDermott family cabin in Wisconsin (that’s a picture of Mack underneath it).

First Friends

In the fall of 1993, I took my sweet Savannah to kindergarten at Dubois Elementary School in Springfield, Illinois; I signed up to be a classroom mom; and Mack “met” her first friend. Well, kind of, because Mack had not quite arrived in the world, and neither had her first friend. You see, there was a sweet boy named Ian in Savannah’s classroom who had a mom who took him to kindergarten and signed up to be a classroom mom just like me. This other classroom mom, Cynthia, was petite like me; she had long and straight brown hair like me; she was strong-willed and sassy, like me; and she was pregnant, like me. My Mack and her Elyse spent that school year in kindergarten “together” growing into the adorable babies who would be born in 1994 on March 17 and April 12, respectively, while Cynthia and I organized the hell out of all the other classroom moms.

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Mack’s kindergarten bio, in her hand, in her school memories book I made for her (and frequently had to force her to complete)

Now it turned out that Mack and Elyse ended up in the same kindergarten class at Dubois exactly six years later; and they became great friends. It was always a running joke with the two of them that they had known each other in utero and they even frequently succeeded in convincing people that they were sisters. Elyse lived with her family in our historic neighborhood north of Washington Park, coincidentally, in a work-in-progress old house full of animals just like ours; and those two girls had two funky, fun, and familiar homes to grow up in together, and they had extra parents and siblings in the bargain. After school and during the summer months, they rode their bikes and walked back and forth between each other’s houses, often stopping at the Hometown Pantry along the way for giant slushies and sour candies.

Generally speaking, Mack and Elyse were good kids and good students and steered clear of illegal activities. However, there was one time when they were supposed to be playing on the Dubois playground just up Lincoln Avenue from our house, when a Springfield police officer called to inform me that Mack was in big trouble and I should come collect her immediately. I arrived at the school to find the officer, perhaps playing the stern cop a little too seriously, standing beside a very wide-eyed Mack and a sobbing Elyse. Also standing by, looking very worried, were two male co-conspirators, twin boys who were classmates of the girls. One of them was named Chris, but I’ll be damned if can remember the name of the other one. And I really should remember it, because surely those twins were the first two boys to lead my Mack and Cynthia’s Elyse astray. Mack, Elyse, and the delinquent twin boys had climbed on top of a small maintenance building behind the school that the kids called the “smokehouse,” because it had a steam pipe that always billowed smoke into the air. Mack always adamantly swore that they were not kissing, but just hanging out on the flat roof of the two-story building when the Po-Po (Mack’s word, not mine) spotted them, assessed the situation as potentially dangerous, and then decided to scare the little criminals onto a more law-abiding path. I decided that the Po-Po’s stern warning was punishment enough for Mack, as it was the first time I had ever seen that kid rattled. Elyse’s punishment was more severe, as I recall, but all of the bad parts of this misadventure faded. No harm done, and it became one of those wonderful life-bonding moments for the girls, a forever memory of their shared wicked and fun childhood.

After elementary school, Elyse and Mack went to separate middle schools; and Mack’s heavy sports schedule reduced the time the girls had together. Yet they always stayed connected and maintained their unique “first friend,” growing-up-together bond. I guess they were really more like sisters or cousins than friends; and that is one of the reasons that Elyse is stuck with me forever. I was an extra Momma Bear to her during hundreds of hours spent in my house, on my front porch, and in my backyard and eating my food and listening to me gripe about Mack’s messy room or legendary procrastination. Elyse is simply one of those kiddos I am happy to have adopted and to whom I have pledged a lifelong commitment as an extra mom.

For her first big-girl job, Elyse recently moved to St. Louis near where I live, and we planned a little reunion. And would you believe that sweet young woman happily joined me for an early Saturday morning walk through the Missouri Botanical Garden? Of course, I bribed her a little, with Starbucks before and French pastries at my favorite patisserie afterwards. We spent three perfectly lovely hours strolling through the gardens and talking about the past, the present, and the future. She shared some worries, I offered some mom advice, we laughed over some Mack stories, including the infamous Smokehouse Incident, and posed for a Big-Mack hug in the luscious greenhouse. Most importantly, though, we allowed our kinship, the flowers and the trees, and the gentle spirit of the gardens to push aside our sorrows, to refresh our spirits, and to appreciate the bond we have because Mack was here in the world to love us.

Bye-Bye, Benji

Last week, we said bye-bye to Benji, the spirited and plucky little Jeep Wrangler that raised my two spirited and plucky little girls. He had chugged to a stop late last fall when Savannah parked him on Winnemac Avenue, in the middle of the block, just south of Winnemac Park in Chicago. He had gurgled and rattled when Savannah cut the engine, just like he always did in the waning years of his life, as he struggled to be the peppy and happy car he had been in his youth. But, sadly, it was there on that sleepy, residential street, where a dead battery, a finicky starter, a worn-out transmission, and one final Windy City winter finished off the poor, old bastard once and for all. Mack would have thought it a fitting final parking place for her beloved “Benj” on a street with her name in it and very near a softball diamond, like so many other softball diamonds, where Benji often collected a pitching mound’s worth of dust waiting for Mack to collect him after a practice or a game.

Savannah probably never should have taken that 1997 Jeep Wrangler to Chicago with her in the first place, but it was just months after losing her sister and she lacked the heart to let go. Sometimes inanimate objects hold the keys to our most cherished memories. Benji had been Savannah’s high school and college car, and then Mack’s high school and college car, and then Savannah’s car once again. The sister connection in that gun-metal blue bucket of rusty bolts was strong and the emotional attachments deep; and even though it made not a lick of sense whatsoever to keep an unreliable car with a long list of ailments in Chicago, it made absolute sense to Savannah’s heart. So for two years, in honor of her sister, Savannah held on tight, patiently weathering the inconveniences of Benji’s senior citizenship.

But when spring came this year, so too came the realities of driving and parking in Chicago, especially in a car that needed hundreds of dollars in repairs. As the daffodils bloomed and street sweeping loomed, Savannah understood that she had to either sell or at least to move Benji from his pastoral parking spot around the corner from her apartment. Savannah made the difficult decision to let Benji go. It was time. It was past time. It is true that the tangible artifacts of our lives—big and small treasures into which we place our memories for safekeeping—possess the spirits of ghosts we wish would linger. But material objects do not possess the permanence we so desperately seek when we entrust them with our memories in the first place. Savannah held on to Benji long enough to learn that her connection to her sister was bigger and deeper and far more permanent than a beat-up, old car, however well-loved the car.

Although Jeeps, even old ones that do not start, will fetch at least some pocket-money, Savannah did not wish to profit from a decision that was breaking her heart. NPR really does take old cars, it turns out, and Savannah chose this graceful exit for our old family friend. We mailed in the Jeep’s title, and last week NPR took the car away. Rephrase: took Benji away. Benji with silly string sun-baked onto the dashboard and the driver-side door, evidence of a “hit” by Mack’s softball teammates. Benji with the duct tape holding his glove compartment in place. Benji with his broken and failing mechanical systems, a flat tire, a bleached out and ripped rag top, and a “Life is Good” spare-tire cover still on the back. Benji went away with a little piece of Savannah’s heart, and a little piece of mine, as well. But Benji did not go away with his gear shift, because Savannah snagged it as a final souvenir. And he did not go away with our memories, either. We will keep those, as well.

Benji was just a base-model, 1997 Jeep Wrangler, but he was the vehicle of some very important McDermott family memories. He took us on summer night drives to watch outdoor, local theater at Lincoln’s New Salem. He delivered us, albeit uncomfortably, to the family cabin in Wisconsin after our big car broke down one summer. He taught both of my girls how to drive a stick-shift, and he suffered all of the terrifying lessons they each gave to their teenage friends. He kept Savannah safe when she rolled the Jeep over and landed upside down in a ditch on a snowy ride home from college. Benji was just a car. But he was the spirited and plucky car of my spirited and plucky girls. And that, in and of itself, is grand.

Mack loved her Jeep, and I love the memory of her loving her Jeep. I have painted this happy picture in my mind that Benji and Mack are together again, reunited like friendly old ghosts, out on the open road somewhere in the beautiful universe. Mack is driving with the top down on a warm summer day; Benji is new and shiny, engine humming. Music is blaring and Mack is singing, big sunglasses covering her sweet, freckled face. She’s grinning, driving way too fast, and breathing in the feeling of freedom that the wind bestows upon the spirit of carefree girl in a Jeep.

March

I accomplished my two greatest human endeavors in the month of March, bringing into the world two amazing girls with Irish fire in their bellies, adventure in their bones, and big and beautiful brains in their sweet little heads. In my fifty years on this planet, I have had some academic and professional success, collected an amazing group of life-long friends, and done a pretty respectable job of staying out of trouble. But raising my two March babies is the life achievement of which I will always be most proud; and March not only always belonged to Savannah and Mackenzie, it always belonged to me, as well.

shared birthday pizza

Shared Birthday Pizza, 1997

But this will be my third March without Mack, the third March that is as chilly upon my heart as it is upon my skin. The first sight of determined daffodils poking their brave petals up into the brisk air of the coming spring is no longer my happy tidings of March’s arrival. Now those damn daffodils remind me of all I have lost. Selfish and regrettable is the feeling of self-pity, but these milestones of life are treachery against my heart, and some days there is simply no hope for even one hour of solace.

This morning as I sat down at my desk to work and to begin day eight of my weary journey through March, an email lifted my spirit from the shadows and smacked my self-pity Megan Matheneyupside its head. It was Megan Matheney checking in; it was the first recipient of Mack’s scholarship sending happy tidings in March that the daffodils had failed to bring me. She wanted me to know that she is graduating from Truman State this spring and will attend graduate school in the fall to further her study of writing. She wanted me to know that the scholarship afforded her the opportunity to study abroad in Italy. She wanted me to know that she is getting married after graduation to a math major named Jeff, who proposed to her in Italy and will graduate with her this spring. She wanted me to know that I. That we. That Mack helped her to achieve her dreams.

Life marches forward even as we shield our eyes to its promise. March is here, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. Mack’s birthday will come no matter my mood to face it. But March is proof that Mack was here. Megan is proof that Mack is still making a difference the world. And this day is proof that days without solace will not always be so elusive.

 

birthday 1 and 7

Shared Backyard Birthday Party (Mack turning 1 and Savannah turning 7)