Chance Meetings and the Connection of Spirits

It was cold for late April in central Illinois, and the sun was reticent behind dense gray clouds resolved to keep the blue sky far away from Saturday. The day was drizzly and windy and raw to match my mood, and the chill nipped my bare ankles when I stepped from the car. But as the four of us walked up towards Mack’s gravestone, the breeze blew a little lighter on our cheeks. The rain clouds offered amnesty to mourners, and I would have bet a hundred bucks if I had had it in my pocket that the temperature ticked up a bit on our behalf, too. The painted landscape of spring lifted my spirits, and the white and pink petals of the dogwoods were luminous in the gloomy shadows on the first day of their full bloom. The colors were perhaps emboldened against the backdrop of Oak Ridge Cemetery just bursting into the opulent shades of spring green. Mack-greens, I thought. Beautiful like her. Brilliant like her. Dazzling color worthy of her true spirit.

Alicia, Maureen, Sandra, and I had gathered together for a Springfield-ladies reunion of dinner, drinks, and deliberations on books, politics, and life. Before dinner, we wanted to spend a little time with Mack. It was my first visit to Mack’s grave in four months, and I was grateful for the company of dear friends. The more time that passes the harder I find it is to return. One might think it should get easier. I once thought it would get easier. But it didn’t, and it won’t, and I guess it never should be comfortable to visit your child in a graveyard. I visit Mack because of the tangible feeling of peace it offers, although I never relish the pain it also touches upon my heart. Such is the experience of grief that one thing can be good and bad and situate you in all of the complicated spaces in between. Some visits to Mack’s grave are therapeutic. Some are devastating. Each has a character all their own, but this would be the first one I would characterize as weird as well as wonderful.

Sandra, who lives in Springfield, brought the flowers, a sunshiny mixture of daisies, chrysanthemums, and carnations, and she placed them in the urn she had stuck into the ground on a previous visit. There were no tears that gloomy yet colorful Saturday, but they were at first on the edges of our actions and on the surface of our stories. I swept the dust from Mack’s marker while Maureen rearranged the Irish felt hat and green beads she and my husband had brought to the grave the weekend of Mack’s birthday in March. Alicia, who had been away from Springfield longer than me, was quiet even for her. She located the Lincoln Tomb up the hill, framed by the dogwoods, and we all sighed at the exquisite landscape of Mack’s resting place. I pointed out one of my favorite trees near her gravestone. Just twenty or so paces to the south is a gnarly giant pine growing two wild limbs at the top. Situated as they are at wacky angles, and each with their own shades of green, they look like two entirely separate trees haphazardly attached to the top of the gnarly pine below. “Mack was as unique as that crazy old pine,” I said, and we all laughed with memories of our silly and funny girl.

At a break in our whispery conversation, I heard some music in the breeze and turned in the direction of the sound. Five men bundled in jackets stood around a headstone a few rows east of Mack’s grave, just by the road on the other side of the lot. There were pretty liquor bottles lined up on the top of the headstone. The quiet laughter of the men floated across the grass toward us, and the barely discernible decibel of classic rock rolled out of a car parked at the curb. Five friends they were. I knew it in an instant, their body language giving them away. They were five friends communing with another they had lost, celebrating a life that mattered to them, and toasting the fragile beauty of their human connections. The five of them and the four of us were the only living souls I could see in the cemetery. Even on warm sunny Saturdays these days, few people tend gravestones. The five of them and the four of us shared a common purpose and possessed a common need to commune with spirits. Nine people we were, drawn to that place because we had loved and lost, because we accepted the tether of life with death, and because there is in a communal pilgrimage great comfort for the human soul.

Several minutes passed after our notice of and whispered appreciation for the five men across the lot, when one of them stepped over to greet us. Geoff introduced himself, begged apology for the intrusion, and invited us to join him and his friends for a shot of fine tequila. So novel is such an invitation in a cemetery that we could never have declined it, even if we had not been delighted to receive and to accept it. We happily joined their group, and we introduced ourselves while the first shots of tequila were poured into tiny red cups. Geoff, Bill, Harv, Kevin, and Rick come together in Oak Ridge Cemetery every year on the birthday of their departed friend Mike. It’s a ritual now in its fifteenth year. They showed us pictures and told us about Mike, who was a joyous man and the life of every party, a man who appreciated a good bottle of tequila, enjoyed traveling, and adored his family and friends. In turn, we told them about Mack, who was a happy-go-lucky kid with a delightful wit, a girl who was a star athlete who knew no strangers but preferred quiet lazy time with best friends. Upon sharing our stories, we all agreed that Mike Henry and Mackenzie McDermott were special spirits on the earth who inspired friendships powerful enough to transcend death.

We toasted Mike, full of life, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of forty-six in 2004. We toasted Mack, full of life, who died suddenly of Addison’s disease at the age of twenty in 2014. We toasted precious lives gone too soon. We toasted love and friendship.  We toasted life and the joys and human connections that come to us along the way.

Life is weird and wonderful, isn’t it really? I am frequently overwhelmed by the human connections Mack keeps bringing to me. How fortunate I feel to have been in the cemetery with my dear friends honoring Mack, when Mike’s dear friends were in the cemetery honoring him. Mack would have chuckled with delight at the sight of her Momma Bear and three of her adopted moms shooting tequila in the cemetery with strange men. Mike’s friend Kevin, who had also been his business partner, told me that Mike would be happy to know he still had the magic of bringing people together.

It may be odd, but in a way, it feels a little bit like Mack’s spirit has a friend in Oak Ridge Cemetery. She’s not alone, and neither is Mike. Mack and Mike brought nine people together that chilly Saturday. Now through the people who loved them, they are connected, too. You can call it odd all you want to, and it may even be weird, but to me it is perfectly wonderful to know that Mack’s sweet spirit is in such good company with Mike’s sweet spirit out there among those glorious old trees in the majestic shadow of the Lincoln Tomb.

 

 

 

P.S. Harv sent me the photo of Mack’s marker. After we left, the guys went over to pay respects to Mack. I know from now on, I’ll always stop over to see Mike, too.

Mack Day for ProjectMack

Human life is short, and it is precious. Yet precious few of us live our lives like the breath might leave our lungs tomorrow, and many of us who learn the lesson, learn it much too late. Mack was one of those precious few, living each day like it might be her last. She lived in the moment, present for all of the simple joys many of us miss in the frenetic pace of our daily lives. Mack breathed life fully into her lungs, found humor in all the dark corners, inspired laughter and fun for every circumstance, and cherished family and friends with the simple, remarkable gift of her time. Mack was true to herself, and she let people be true to themselves, too, loving them unconditionally, never criticizing or judging them. Her sense of humor, her fearlessness, her devotion to good fun and endless leisure, and her fierce sense of loyalty and social justice inspired a close-knit circle of friends who were her everything.

To those of us who loved her, Mack’s absence is a void as expansive as the universe. But like the universe, brilliant with billions of stars, Mack’s spirit shines on. She is still here. She lives on in the hearts of the people who were lucky to love her. She continues to be an inspirational presence in the lives of her family and friends. The creative writing scholarship in her name at Truman State University, where Mack found the writer inside of her heart, will spread Mack’s love of words to students for decades to come. And ProjectMack shares Mack’s philosophy of living with people who never had the privilege of knowing her: Enjoy Life, Be a Good Friend, Try Something New, Relax More, and Laugh More. I have found precious little peace since losing Mack, but much of it has come by the way of her best friend Justice and the work of ProjectMack, making a difference in the name of my girl.

The mission of ProjectMack “is to inspire those around us to live a positive impactful life. We have this idea that if one person can make the conscious effort to change the world, it can inspire others to do the same. ProjectMack isn’t something we do, it’s how we live our lives every single day. Through projects big and small we try to inspire positivity and good vibes in our communities by our words and actions.” The organization—now established in Kansas City, MO; Springfield, IL; Rantoul, IL; and Cincinnati, OH—has created music and sporting events to raise awareness about gun violence, held bake sales for cancer patients, organized sing-a-longs at nursing homes, passed out donuts, goodie bags, and care packages. It also uses its website and social media to inspire monthly Big-Mack challenges for people to initiate in their own communities.

Mack would have turned twenty-five this St. Patrick’s Day, and to celebrate her life, her legacy, and her birthday—Mack Day 2019—I want everyone to visit the ProjectMack website and consider making a $25 donation. It’s a beautiful thing—it’s a Mack thing—to live a life of impact.

And now a special statement from ProjectMack founder and CEO:

“If I have learned anything in my twenty-three years of life, it’s that death gives you perspective. When Mackenzie passed away four years ago, my biggest fear was that one day, eventually, people would find Project Mack 3their new sense of routine, and they would forget about her. I thought ultimately life would go on and everyone would get to a point where they wouldn’t even remember what life with Mackenzie was like. People ask me all the time why I created ProjectMack, and if I’m completely honest, it was to keep Mackenzie alive. I refused to accept a world without her in it, even if she technically wasn’t here anymore.

“I look back at where ProjectMack started and where we are today, and I am genuinely humbled because every single day I get to share my best friend with the world. I think I am fortunate, because at twenty-three I know what I want to do with the rest of my life. I see the difference and impact ProjectMack is making, and it motivates me more than anything. I see how Mackenzie’s spirit has changed hearts and affected lives; and I think she’s exactly what this world needs. Mack understood you could change the world just by how you treat other people. I miss her more than anything, but ProjectMack is my way to make sure her legacy and memory never die. Mackenzie might not be here anymore, but her spirit and legacy will forever live on with ProjectMack.”

Justice Collins, Kansas City, March 2019.

 

 

Mackenzie’s Rainbow

I find myself standing in a curious landscape. My travels through grief have brought me here. For much of the journey, the weather was foggy and misty and so much of the traveling progressed during the darkest of nights. A return to wherever it is I was before is impracticable; and besides, to this unexpected new topography I find myself profoundly drawn. The contours of the land are as yet unknown to me, and the lightness of the atmosphere in this new country unfamiliar. Yet I recognize the historical landmarks and the precious human faces of this peculiar place. The breeze here rings bells in my memories. The sunlight stirs in me warming hope. The fresh air gives buoyancy to aspirations I now feel strong enough to embrace. And, strangely, I am not a stranger here. I am home.

I have finally, thankfully, perhaps evenly blessedly, arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow.

I am relatively certain that I have not been in this new place for very long, and I have only just noticed my arrival on this bold frontier. Last week at home after a therapeutic four-day weekend with old and dear friends in Minnesota, I cried. And cried. And cried. Every day the tears falling like rain in the springtime. I hadn’t cried like that in many weeks, and I had become very worried that my tears had dried up forever. I had been feeling cracked and hardened by their absence, but now the clouds had opened up and these tears poured down, refreshingly different, less bitter, more cleansing. It was through these new tears that I first saw the beauty of the very different landscape in which I now find myself. What is most curious, and wonderfully unexpected, is that this fresh landscape of my life is a whole new place under the sun, created and settled by all of the people, living and dead, who are critical to my survival in this world. It is a landscape planted with all of my tangible and emotional needs for a livable, breathable environment that is not only healthy and whole but also full of possibilities I thought gone forever.

This place somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow is not a paradise in which my pain and sorrow have vanished or where I possess total clarity and feel no fear. Instead, it is a place where I can walk hand-in-hand with grief and with happiness, in security and in uncertainty, and through all of the pain and the joy of being human. It is a place that allows me, simultaneously, to inhabit two separate pasts, to define a new and brave present focused only on the things that bring me peace, and to curate a future of my own making. Innumerable, varied, and terrifying uncertainties remain, but I have some pretty good ideas about what life here will look like and, most importantly, I know I have the strength to face whatever experiences life might bring me and to go wherever life might call me. Mack will continue to guide me and my sweet and sassy Savannah is here to keep my feet upon the earth, but as terrifying as life still is and as hard as I know it will continue to be, I feel like I have emerged from a fog.

In life somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow I have:

  1. Family members and friends who have traveled with me on this journey, people who knew and loved Mack, who each share with me the agony of her absence but also carry the light of her beautiful life within them. Last week while I was crying my eyes out I was reminded once again of how Mack’s spirit shines out into the world. Mack’s best friend Justice (with the help of another best friend Elyse) and Project Mack hosted an inspiring gathering of community in hometown Springfield, Illinois. The two-day Take Back the City event, featured a concert and all-star basketball game, raised awareness about gun violence, supported scholarships for city high school students, and directed a positive spotlight on local talent and an incredible group of young people making a difference in the world. In these people that Mack collected, I am incredibly proud, and I am so grateful that Mack brought them into my life. All of Mack’s best friends are as important in my world as my family and my cherished Springfield friends who helped me raise my daughters. All together, these people represent my past with Mack, they are of my life with her, and they are now and forever, collectively, my family.
  1. I can be the Stacy I was before Mack and the Stacy I was with Mack and the Stacy I am now without Mack. This might seem very obvious, but I assure you it escaped me, and I cannot express how liberating it is for me now to know that it is true. After Mack died, I could only conceive of life and memories with her; to my mind there was no past, no present, and no future without her. But six beautiful and beloved growing-up friends—three from high school and three from college—wrapped me up so tight that they have, finally, squeezed this ridiculous misconception out of me. It took me too long to get it, but I get it now, even if I only just figured it out last week in Minnesota with two of these friends at my side. None of these women knew Mack, but they reached out and were willing to bear witness to my grief, to be old friends who knew me happy, and to be new friends willing to know me sad and dramatically different. They turned out to be life preservers and guides—Bridgett, an immediate and enthusiastic cheerleader of my blog, encouraging my writing and helping me find my way back to reading; Kathy, a keen observer of what my intellect needed to stay alive during some very dark days; Carol, an earth mother who gave me her heart, her family, and a dog; Michelle, who always cheerfully offers unconditional love, no matter what; Julie, a delightful imp who dared me to laugh and lets me laugh through my tears if that is what is required; and Diane, who faced cancer at the precise moment I faced the loss of Mack and whose quietly brave, matter-of-fact, ass-kicking of the disease was an inspiration to me when I thought all inspiration was lost. These women represent my past before Mack, and vital as they were to my formative development, they are ever so more vital to me now.
  2. My life in the present is up to me to define and to narrate. A mother’s grief is bone-shattering, life-altering, and permanent. I am coming to grips with this reality, and I am learning, as well, that I can bear no people or circumstances that make me feel my grief must pass. Part of my recovery is wearing the badge of that truth on my forehead and refusing to apologize for it. As well, I need to do a much better job of surrounding myself with the people and the things that bring me peace. I deserve peace wherever I can claim it, and in this new landscape I can see more clearly the roads I need to take to claim some of that peace.
  3. I am strong, but that does not mean I don’t sometimes need a little help. During the past nearly four years of life without Mack, there have been countless days when I was the only person who made me get out of bed. I had Savannah and good work to draw my broken spirit out from under the covers sometimes, but I have come to rely mostly on own my stubbornness to live. Throughout my grief, my mom kept telling me that I was strong, and I’m sorry to say, it made me angry. I didn’t want to be strong. I wanted to curl up into the fetal position and let somebody or something else be strong for me, to bear the weight for me, to fix me. But now I understand that it is OK to be strong, because I am, actually, really strong. But mostly, I understand that being strong does not mean that Mack’s absence somehow matters less or is easier for me to bear. This realization in the learning curve of grief is, perhaps, the most significant lesson I have learned. Just because I get out of bed every morning and function and dare myself to be productive does not mean I don’t miss Mack and struggle to breathe without her. It simply means that I am strong enough to survive it with a little grace and enough of myself intact that Mack might still recognize me. In this weird and wonderful new place in which I now find myself, I no longer feel guilty for being strong. But I am also no longer afraid to lean a little bit on people who will prop me up if I need to renew my energy, to regain my own strength.
  4. My brain is still alive, thank goddess, although its resuscitation has been a terrible trial. When Mack died, I quit reading books, I stopped taking online classes, and I abandoned my Pimsleur Spanish and French lessons, too. I gutted out the reading and research for my job, but my former life of the mind, my voracious reading, and my personal scholarship were casualties of my grief. Because you know what no one tells you? Grief is a monstrous, devastating destroyer that shatters so much more than the heart. I could no longer concentrate and for better than three years I faded as my eyes stared blankly at Netflix. My brain went offline, and I did not expect it to return to active duty. But thanks to all of the brilliant book-loving women in my life, I am a reader again. Thanks to an amazing new editing job, I am a scholar again. Thanks the lifting of the fog that smothered my brain, I have taken one online class and am in the middle of another. My brain is coming back, and that means in one really big way, I am coming back, too. And as I stand here in this bright new landscape, I’m smiling because Mack would be so damned happy and very relieved to know that my brain is not dead after all.
  5. Today, along with being Savannah’s mom, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a professional historian, I am a creative writer. Since attending a two-week creative writing camp at Indiana State University with my dear Bridgett in 1984, I have been a creative writer. But while I enjoyed a successful career of historical writing, life often intervened and my creative pen was idle. In October 2014 I started this blog, a desperate attempt to capture in words my memories of Mack, to celebrate her life, and to work through my sorrow. This blog was the first non-scholarly writing I had done in years, and it sustained me through many dark and very lonely stretches of depression. In March 2018, the urge to be creative again bubbled up anew, and I purchased a thick blue notebook with a wide green strap, and I became a creative writer again. Every single day in my notebook, I jot down thoughts and observations about the world, copy a paragraph of beautiful writing from the latest book I am reading, compose a poem, or frame dialogue gleaned from eavesdropping on conversations in restaurants. Since March, I’ve been writing a lot of poetry, and in my less lucid moments sharing that poetry with poor people who have no choice but to accept it. I’ve also written character sketches and short pieces of prose; I’ve conjured up ideas and taken copious notes for a book of essays and two novels, and I’ve written nearly 100,000 words for a memoir about grief. At some point I will explore the publication of some of this writing, but publication is not the end game. In my new life it is the process of the writing that matters, it is the good therapy it does me, it is the solace it brings me, it is the journey of curiosity and exploration and the rediscovery of me.
  6. BKS=01

    Me with Bridgett and Kathy, present for my epiphany in Minnesota.

This blog entry is a meandering mess, but my strict rule of raw, vulnerable, quick release forbids editing and, thus, I apologize for the density and the disorder. But, I hope, it is clear enough, dear reader, that a mist has cleared for me or I have emerged through a portal into the light or come to some proverbial crossroads. Or, perhaps, I really have arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow. Still grieving. Still a speed bump away from a straight-jacket. But better. More vibrant. Less afraid about where life will lead me in the coming year. And, I think, looking a little more like the Momma Bear Mack knew and loved for twenty precious years of my life.

Mackenzies Rainbow

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.

kindergarten bio
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.

Mack’s Pack

When my Mack collected a best friend, she spread out those long arms of hers, enveloped the lucky new person in a Big-Mack hug, and adopted her as a sister. Mack’s individual relationships with each member of what I have come to think of as Mack’s Pack were, of course, special and unique unto themselves. Yet for Mack, this group of amazing young women was more than just a random circle of her closest female friends. Almost as if she saw herself as Momma Mack, she created a little family out of those best friends. For her it was important…no, it was essential…that her hand-picked collection of best friends be friends with one another and that they feel the bonds for one another that she felt for them. I have come to believe that deep in Mack’s soul was the sweet knowledge of the good those best friends of hers might one day be able to do for each other.

The night before Mack’s memorial service in Springfield, her family of best friends assembled to grieve together, to draw strength from one another, and to share their memories of Mack with each other. Mack’s happy spirit was with them that night, and I know in my heart she would now be profoundly grateful that two years later the lifelong bonds of Mack’s Pack continue. Two of those women— Maggie, a childhood best friend, and Meagan, a college best friend—were recently together in Columbia, Missouri. During their brief but happy reunion, in the town where Mack first introduced them, a friendship between them has blossomed and the happy chances of life, realized through our human connections in the world, are on full, beautiful display.

Just a couple of months ago, Maggie, who has lived in Columbia since arriving there as a college freshman, was working at an internet ad agency, her first post-college job. Meagan had just moved to Columbia to take her first job, working on the Democratic campaign of senatorial candidate Jason Kander. Because they had Mack in common, they got together. They shared meals, beers, and funny stories about their lost friend. Maggie and Meagan also discovered that Mack was not their only common bond. Although not surprisingly, given that Mack had collected them as best friends, Maggie and Meagan also learned that they had similar world views, shared many interests, and enjoyed the cultivation and practice of very quirky senses of humor. As if those common bonds were not enough, they are also both fun-loving but serious-minded woman, and as feminists and politically astute new college graduates, both are enthralled with this season’s fascinating politics and the exciting election year of 2016.

Just weeks after arriving in Columbia, Meagan had the opportunity to take a job on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Maggie was there to counsel and encourage Meagan to make the move, even after so short a time in her first job; and Meagan was there to convince Maggie, who studied political science at Mizzou and interned with a Democratic Missouri legislator, to follow her political passions, as well. Meagan lobbied her boss at the Kander campaign to hire Maggie as her replacement, and Maggie accepted the new job just as Meagan was preparing to move to her new job in Omaha, Nebraska.

Today, Meagan is settled in Omaha. Maggie has begun her new job back in Columbia. And both women have a new best friend. It is absolutely natural and happy and good that Mack’s Maggie and Mack’s Meagan would come together at a perfect time in their new lives as adult woman. It is a beautiful testament to their personal friendships with Mack that they would so easily forge a friendship with each other. It does honor to Mack’s good work in the creation and sweet maintenance of her special pack of best friends. And it is amazing and such a blessing to me that Mack’s spirit was once again party to all of the good her best friends can, and will forever do, for each other.

14 August 2016 198

Maggie and Meagan in Columbia

14 August 2016 204

I had the pleasure of sharing drinks and a meal with Meagan and Maggie in Columbia before Meagan moved to Nebraska.

The serious and silly sides of the Mack-Maggie friendship (https://macksmommabear.com/2016/02/21/macks-best-friends-m-maggie-margaret/):

The serious and silly sides of the Mack-Meagan friendship (https://macksmommabear.com/2016/05/07/truwomen/)

Epilogue: Yet another Mack best friend, Ali, helped Meagan pack up her belongings in Columbia! (https://macksmommabear.com/2016/05/19/the-ali-mack-frouple/)

 

Penguin Pete

If Mack had conducted interviews for potential best friends, Jackie would have aced a Mack-best-friend compatibility exam:

Mack: Do you giggle easily and often?
Jackie: Yes, and I squeal, too.

Mack: If you could, would you eat sushi every single day of your life?
Jackie: Yeah. Duh.

Mack: Is watching TV more important than doing homework?
Jackie: What’s homework?

Mack: Do you love playing sports?
Jackie: Yes, soccer is my life.

Mack: Do you live in sports shorts and t-shirts with writing on them?
Jackie: Yes. And dresses suck.

Mack: Do you own at least five pairs of Nike athletic shoes?
Jackie: More like ten. Or maybe fifteen.

Mack: Does your mom buy Choco Pies, and will you bring them to me at school?
Jackie: Yes, she buys the good Korean brand. And yes, I will keep you supplied.

Mack: Do you love penguins?
Jackie: Penguins are the love of my life.

Jackie—or “Yackie” as Mack frequently called her—was a fast friend and a permanent presence in Mack’s life since the very beginning of sixth grade at Franklin Middle School. They were both unapologetic tomboys who could the rock basketball shorts in a sea of girls in summer dresses. Basketball teammates and after-school TV buddies, those girls giggled more than they talked, likely consumed more junk food than any other two athletes on the planet, and were in constant competition for the title of “Most Accomplished Procrastinator” in the history of Springfield High School. Mack would always claim the title for herself, but she was very quick to give Jackie her props for being a “terrible Asian” because homework was such a low priority. Being called a “terrible Asian” would send Jackie into a fit of giggles; and then she and Mack would watch TV or goof off instead of doing their homework…again.

Mack and Jackie had a lot of goofy in common, but I observed pretty early on in their relationship that they had a bond based to a large extent on their individual comfort in defining femininity in their own damn way. Neither had any personal qualms about balancing her inner girl with her inner boy, but I believe that having each other to walk that unique girly-tomboy path emboldened their individual spirits and gave them extra strength to navigate the gendered dramas of junior high and high school. With Mack in her basketball shorts, Jackie in her soccer shorts, and both of them in sports t-shirts and over-sized sunglasses, they faced the world on their own terms. And, together, they always had a blast doing it.

The hijinks never stopped with Mack and Jackie, but the story of a Penguin named Pete takes the prize. Senior year of high school, Mack took a glass-works class, and for an early project in the course, she created a tiled mosaic of an adorable cartoon penguin. She was wide-grin proud of that penguin she named Pete, showed it to all of her friends, gave it personality traits, told stories about its life, and kept it in her locker all year. From the moment Jackie laid eyes on that penguin, she wanted it for herself. She asked Mack if she could have it. Mack said no. Jackie, however, was a determined young woman. And a somewhat sinister one, as well. Repeatedly, throughout the school year, Jackie stole Penguin Pete from Mack’s locker. Repeatedly, Mack would hunt him down and reclaim him, always dramatizing the emotional scars wrought by the separation. The girls laughed and fussed over that penguin all year long, turning their senior year into an entrenched battle for the love a hand-made, tile penguin. Mack finally brought Penguin Pete home in order to keep it safe from Jackie’s frequent heists, but that child even tried to steal Pete from Mack’s room, too, during her graduation party!

For whatever reason, maybe just because Mack had made it, Jackie loved Penguin Pete. In a lot of ways, Jackie was Mack’s little penguin. Not at all in a condescending way, but in a loving and endearing way that perhaps only Mack could have expressed. In Mack’s mind, it was simple. Jackie loved Penguin Pete. Mack loved Jackie. And so in June 2012, Mack presented Penguin Pete to Jackie for her birthday with this note: “Me giving you my dear friend Penguin Pete is a true test of our friendship. It hurts to part w/ my buddy, but I know you’ll take good care of him. Treat him well & make sure he remembers me fondly. Love, your bestest friend EVER, Mackenzie.”

I love this Mack-best-friend story because it reveals the multi-layered aspects of one special friendship. This story represents shared interests, silly fun, cherished memories, and the tangible and priceless mementos of life. The tale of Penguin Pete should also serve as reminder to all of us all how important it is to tell the people who are central in our lives how much they matter to us.

Penguin Pete gift

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The birthday presentation of Penguin Pete (Mack, Ali, Jackie, and Sierra)

 

The Ali-Mack Frouple

Mack once said that of her best friends, she knew Ali “the weirdest.” Although they were never elementary-school classmates, the girls first met all the way back in kindergarten at Dubois Elementary. After a few years, Ali moved to a new house and a new school and disappeared for a spell. A year or so later, Ali was assigned to Mack’s summer softball team. Those girls were reunited as giggling teammates on the Izzles and as friends over the course of several summers, although Mack teasingly disapproved of Ali’s affinity for the Cubs. But when summer faded, so did their friendship, as they lived in different neighborhoods and attended different schools. Yet during their preteen years, these two social butterflies had so many friends in common that they frequently ended up at the same birthday parties and sleepovers. Summer softball always reunited them. And an easiness between them ever fostered a quick resumption of their friendship after time spent mostly apart.

In August 2008, Mack and Ali were reunited for good at Springfield High School, and their friendship flourished. They were still leading somewhat separate lives due to involvement in different extracurricular activities and sports; Mack was so very annoyed that Ali chose soccer over softball! But for the first time, they were classmates. For the first time, they were reading and learning together. For the first time, they had a steady connection to each other. For Mack, Ali was one of those easy friends that luckily kept bouncing in and out of her life; and each time they bounced into each other, Mack became more attached. By the end of sophomore year, Mack bounced Ali into a Big-Mack, forever hug and “collected” Ali for keeps.

The British television show Skins, intellectual late-night discussions about television and books in Ali’s basement, and heart-to-heart talks about friend drama, travel abroad, and the future elevated the Mack and Ali friendship from high school buddies to best friends. Ali called them a frouple—two inseparable friends who completed each other’s sentences, accepted and adopted each other’s quirks, and married each other’s families. High school friends are the friends that help shape the adult underneath your awkward and uncertain teenaged skin. Ali and Mack bounced into each other for good at the perfect time; and they were so very perfect for each other. They accepted and loved each other unconditionally, but they opened their hearts and minds to learning from each other, as well. They served as each other’s best role models. Ali was a studious and goal-oriented model for Mack’s far too leisurely and haphazard approach to school work and to life in general. Mack was carefree and an unapologetic goofball model for Ali’s serious nature and more circumspect interactions with the world. By the end of junior year, I noticed a bond between Mack and Ali that had the character of a lifelong friendship. And I am certain that by then, Mack already understood that she and Ali would be silly old ladies together.

Since losing our Mack, I have mourned for my sweet girl, for myself, and for my family, but I have also mourned for Mack’s best friends. Life has dealt them a cruel and painful blow, and I feel such sorrow for them all. But where the best friends are concerned, I have shed the most tears for Mack’s dear Ali, and I have long searched for some understanding for the depth of my emotion in this regard. Over these past months, reflecting on my grief and grappling with the meaning of Mack’s death for all of us, a story of Ali’s personal loss continually pangs my heart. When Ali boldly applied for an adventurous study-abroad program in Budapest, Hungary, Mack was the only person she told; and when Ali learned of her acceptance into the program, Mack was gone. This story haunts me. It is a bitter reminder that life as we know it can change in an instant, and it illustrates the high stakes of our human connections. But it also reveals to me the significance of Mack’s life in the lives of the people who loved her.

Just weeks after losing her best friend, Ali bravely accepted the challenge of that daring study abroad. She knew it would be hard to leave family and friends during such an emotionally difficult time for her, but she went to Budapest for herself, and she went to Budapest for Mack. She embraced the experience with courage, with humor, and with Mack in her heart. I have no doubt that Mack’s spirit provided Ali with important emotional support during those months abroad, and I am absolutely certain that Mack was a constant, giggling whisper in Ali’s ear, reminding her to laugh too loud, drink too much, and have way too much fun.

So once again we see that Mack collected the best and the bravest of best friends. We can see how Mack enriched the lives of her best friends, too. And, perhaps equally important, we can see and pay homage to the magical power of friendships in life and for an eternity. Just ask Ali, she’ll be bouncing to the beat of the Ali-Mack Frouple many, many moons from now when she’s a silly old lady remembering a cherished best friend.

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Brand new Springfield High School Graduates, June 2012.

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