Mack-Day Mood

Today would have been, should be, Mack’s twenty-sixth birthday. Maybe twenty-six would have been the age when she finally admitted she was a “grown-ass woman.” Oh, probably not. Who am I kidding? It was a status she was never eager to attain. When she was ten she declared to me her intention to remain ten forever, and I could see in her dirty, freckled face that she was speaking her truth. I never doubted the veracity of her assertion, either, because even when she became a serious student in college she never let go of the child she was at ten. Both of her parents are old souls, but a youthful heart was in Mack’s DNA. She inherited my father’s Peter-Pan gene, the gene that sits between the goofball gene and the I’m-gonna-eat-junk-food-and-sit-on-the-couch-in-front-of-the-TV-all-day gene. She inherited both of those other genes from Frisky Pratt, too.

As Mack’s inner circle of close friends are each making their own way in the world now as grown-ass women, I have been passing many melancholy minutes lately wondering where Mack might be living and what career she might be pursuing if she was still here. So deeply pulled into these wonderings, or daydreams I guess you might call them, I sometimes wake up and fifteen minutes are lost and a vivid scenario of Mack’s could’ve-been life is flashing like an illustrated storybook in my brain. Mack dreamed of a writing career in television, and that is my favorite daydream for her. She’s a writer for a sit-com in Hollywood. She’s working with Joss Whedon to bring back Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’s pitching Mack’s Makin’ Bacon, her own comedy cooking show for the Food Network. Or she’s living in my guest bedroom writing a screenplay. Goodness but do I yearn for that latter daydream. But daydreams are not terribly productive, I’m afraid, and Mack’s old-soul Momma Bear usually awakens from those daydreams emotionally bruised, sadness giving way to anger at all that Mack missed out on and all the things that have happened that I have been denied sharing with her. Like her twenty-sixth birthday.

Milestones like birthdays are trigger points for grief. The day will be rough. There isn’t enough candy in the world to sugar coat that truth. The paradox of my grief is that every day I must live in a world without my daughter, I get another day of practice living in a world without my daughter. The pain is no less keen, but the callouses of long-time sorrow limit the blood loss when the sharpness of a milestone, or a bad day, break open the heart. Again. And again.

I will no doubt pass a few melancholy minutes. However, I won’t be wondering what Mack would be doing on her twenty-sixth birthday, because I’ll know exactly what she would be doing if she was here. She would be embracing social distancing, happy for an excuse to be alone on her couch in front of the TV, eating junk food. She’d settle in for a birthday-binge-watching bonanza, surrounded by Funyons, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, sour candies, two giant cans of Arizona Iced Tea, and the best looking Italian sub, wrapped in plastic, that was available in the deli case of the convenience store where she shopped for her birthday feast. She would get comfy with her two dogs, one an Irish wolfhound and the other a pug, and both named for characters on television (maybe Leslie and Ann, but who knows with that kid?). She would spend the day watching shows she’d already seen a hundred times, consume her food in cozy sweatpants and reclined repose, text her besties and her momma and her sissy, giggle to herself, and tweet about the upsides of quarantines and restaurant closings and how she wished her school had been cancelled for a month when she was a kiddo.

Mack would not be mad that COVID-19 ruined her birthday, cancelling dinner plans or drinks with friends. She wouldn’t see it that way at all. She would look at the down time as a chance to relax, be alone with her own thoughts, and do absolutely fucking nothing. Every day I miss Mack, and today I’ll miss her more. Every day I talk to her, and today will be no different. She’s heard a lot of swearing lately, because I frequently dial her in for my dialogue with the morning and evening news. She’ll laugh as I let the f-bombs fly, and she’ll shake her head at me because she thinks I let the orange moron and his clown-car of a government get too much under my skin. “Sure, Momma Bear, he’s a genuine ass,” she’ll say, “but don’t let him push all of your buttons.”

As soon as my eyes pop open I’ll miss kissing Mack on that big freckle on her left cheek. I’ll shed some tears into my morning coffee. I’ll take Mack with me to vote in the Illinois Democratic Primary, let her pick which old codger I vote for, and I’ll tell her how furious I am that I didn’t get to vote for Elizabeth Warren. I’ll try not to swear at NPR, protect one or two of my buttons, and take Mack’s lead and relax. It’s her birthday, after all, so we all should let her make the plan. I’ll probably need Mack’s spirit to stick around for the entire day, and maybe she’ll bring her grandpa with her. I trust Mack will chill me out when I get upset that COVID-19 is keeping me from the draught Guinness I traditionally enjoy on her birthday. I trust she will keep me grounded in the present, holding my hand as I take the day as it is and give myself up to the cool breeze of life, hitting my cheeks and reminding me to live and to breathe and to refrain from counting the calories and the dairy content of the Mac-n-Cheese my sister is planning for dinner.

Leprechaun 2

Mack Day 2020 will be a rough day. That is no lie, and certainly no joke. But when it’s over, I will put my head down on my pillow next to gratitude. Gratitude for Mack and her presence in my life. Gratitude for the vibes of a Mack-Day mood. For twenty-six years, first in person and now in spirit, my daughter has been teaching me about life. I am not always a quick study in Mack’s be-chill school, but old souls always at least try to be at the head of the class. I am a work in progress, and Mack knows it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion she hangs around not only to tease me and to teach me, but to make sure I don’t beat myself up for not getting straight “A”s.

Mackenzie Kathleen is (Still) Here

I woke up early on St. Patrick’s Day in 1994. Oh, about 5 a.m., I believe. Kevin was still asleep. Savannah was still asleep, no doubt cuddled under her covers with her teddy bear Pickles. Whiskers, our striped orange cat, was still curled up next to my head on the pillow. But my big belly was wide awake, and as I drew a deep breath through that first contraction, I smiled. My second baby girl was on her way, and she was going to be a little Irish lass. I positioned myself comfortably upon all of my extra pillows and stayed quiet and still for the next hour, resting my eyes, breathing deeply, and remaining calm. Second babies were easier, and this one was going to arrive with a minimum of fuss, I just knew it. I spent that precious time alone thinking of this new little girl that I would soon meet. There was such love and joy in my heart for her already and there were so many beautiful mysteries in front of me about how she would look, what would be the character of her heart and the quality of her mind, and how her life would unfold.

When the alarm clock signaled the real beginning of the day, I set in motion my plan for a normal weekday morning, at least until Savannah was delivered to her kindergarten classroom and I was on my way to the hospital. Still calm, but increasingly excited, I showered and dressed, helped Savannah prepare for her school day, alerted my obstetrician, and called my mother to begin her journey to Springfield. When we deposited a nervous little Savannah at Dubois Elementary, ensuring her we that would call the school just as soon as her sister arrived, I viewed within the sparkle of my firstborn’s hazel eyes the love already overflowing for her long-awaited little sister. By ten that morning, I was settled in at St. John’s Hospital, and after a visit from the most popular anesthesiologist in the maternity ward (epidurals are the way to go, my friends) and a relatively easy delivery, we announced to the world: Mackenzie Kathleen is here!

brand new Macko

On that first day of my new baby’s life, I knew nothing of who she was in her heart, what talents she might possess, or how special her spirit was to be. I could not then divine that she was charming, funny, and athletic. I did not then know that her palate was awaiting sour candies and spicy Thai food. I had no inkling that she would have a passion for popular culture, for lazy afternoons, and for writing. I was, as yet, unaware that her heart was bursting to make its mark on a bevy of best friends. I did not even yet know that she was Mack. On that first day of her life, she was Mackenzie Kathleen, our lucky little leprechaun, the final piece of our McDermott family puzzle. On that first day, she was just a sweet and perfect baby daughter and an eagerly awaited and immediately beloved little sister; and our hearts were full of unconditional love no matter what the future would hold for her or for us.

Now, of course, twenty-two years later, I know exactly the heart, mind, and character of Mackenzie Kathleen, our Irish girl who jigged and giggled her way through our twenty years together. I am so thankful for those years, immeasurably grateful for my time with her. It was an honor to call her my daughter, and it was the greatest of joys to be her Momma Bear. I am proud of the kid she was and of the young woman she became. She enriched my life in so many ways, some of which I have been able to articulate within the essays of this blog and others for which there is no earthy way to adequately measure or to appropriately define.

Now, on this day, twenty-two years later, I am bitter in the loss of Mack’s beautiful life. I understand all too well that melancholy milestones like a birthday have the power to subdue all of the strength within me. I have sadly accepted the eternal existence of a mother’s grief. But I have also learned that there is help for me through the hours of these cruel landmarks of life without Mack. Help grown from a tiny baby girl born on March 17, 1994. Help in the form of a tall and leggy, freckled, Irish lass with the light of a million stars around her and the laughter of an angel within her. Because Mack is with me in my heart. She occupies my memories. Her spirit and good cheer is ever in the air that I breathe. Because Mackenzie Kathleen is still here. Mack is still here. And I am all the better for it.

Lá breithe shona duit, Mackenzie Kathleen. Happy Birthday, Mack. You continue to be an exquisite force of nature in the lives of us all.

Mack Day

Twenty-one years ago today, a leprechaun came dancing into our little family, bringing Irish magic, charm, and shenanigans to our lives. Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott loudly introduced herself at 3:05 in the afternoon on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1994. She was wearing a full head of dark hair, weighed in at 7 pounds, 14 ounces, and was 21¼ ̎ long. She had perfect skin, sparkling dark brown eyes, a sturdy frame, and a strong little grip. It was the capacity of her lungs, however, that was most impressive to me. As I wrote in her baby book: “she has a lusty cry…temper, temper! Alert from birth, looking around.” I took one look at her little Irish face, all scrunched up in a powerful yell, and I immediately knew that I was in big, fat trouble.

After Mack arrived, St. Patrick’s Day for us was never the same, and I suppose we should credit to some extent the magical day of her arrival in the world with her zest for life and the mischievous quality of her zany personality. The more Mack grew and the more freckles that emerged on her face, the more we all knew that she was a force of nature as vigorous as the Irish surf crashing on the Cliffs of Moher. She was a terrible toddler who engaged with gusto in constant mischief. She was an active and exuberant kid, always running and roaring and making a mess. And throughout her teens, she was a one-girl comedy act, always successful in making everyone who knew her laugh and laugh and laugh some more. Mack played hard, lived loud, and was impossible to ignore. From infancy to toddlerhood and from elementary school to college, she was a bundle of energy, she was a spirited sprite, and she watched for folly and fun around every corner. She was, indeed, our family’s Irish mascot, our own little leprechaun, our jolly little elf.

My Irish imp was ever a handful of trouble, but her sense of humor was infectious and her giggles had the power to melt her momma bear’s heart. Mack learned early on that she could make as much mischief as she wanted to as long as she finished it off with an Irish jig, or a silly joke, or a dimpled grin. Mack was always quick to remind me that she was an Irish daughter who came by her mischief naturally. She embraced her Irish heritage, and she gleefully used it as an excuse for any trouble she caused. She loved the Irish cadence of her full name, wore her freckles with pride, and always believed that having a St. Patrick’s Day birthday was the coolest personal detail of her life.Leprechaun

Throughout the year, Mack was always happy and ready to play the role of our family leprechaun. One year for Halloween she even dressed herself for the part. After school, she went into her bedroom to prepare for trick-or-treating, disappearing with a tub of holiday props I kept underneath my bed. When she emerged, she was wearing what I think is the best Halloween costume she ever had. It was so damn good, in fact, that I was not even mad that she had cut up a perfectly good shirt to make the vest. That night, she skipped and jigged through our neighborhood, collecting her candy and having a blast.

At Barrelhead, our favorite neighborhood bar and grill, where Kevin and I raised our girls on whole, deep-fried catfish and burgers and fries, there was a sign just inside the entrance that counted down the days until St. Patrick’s Day. The sign had chunky wood block numbers that sat in a frame, and the staff religiously updated the numbers each day. We ate at Barrelhead about once a week for something like fifteen years, and every time we entered the bar, Mack would go over to that countdown sign, turn around with a big grin, and shout “275 days until my birthday!” or whatever the magic number was that week. Mack never tired of this ritual; and I always laughed at her, so I guess I never tired of it either. Mack owned St. Patrick’s Day. It was uniquely hers. It was more than a birthday for her. It was a celebration of her Irish self, her inner child, and her devotion to all things silly.

For everyone who knew her, St. Patrick’s Day became Mack’s day. Mack made sure of it; and everyone seemed willing to oblige her. I miss my leprechaun oh so very much. I miss her every…single…day. And my sorrow today, on this first birthday without her, is overwhelming. But I find some solace in knowing that for all of us who loved her so much, St. Patrick’s Day will always be Mack Day.

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