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

IMG_1581

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.

graduation

Brand new Springfield High School Graduates, June 2012.

softball with Ali2

TruWomen

Mack arrived at Truman State University on August 18, 2012, to find the scholar and the writer inside of her soul. Within her first hours on campus, engaged in organized activities with students assigned with her to Grim Hall, she met her soul mate, Meagan. Neither Mack nor Meagan could exactly pinpoint or describe their first introduction, as their fast friendship was so effortless and so comfortable that it was as though they had known each other all of their lives. They initially bonded over a shared love of television, musical theater, food, sarcasm, humor, and feminism, but the depth of the connection between these two sweet girls went far and away beyond dorm acquaintances, college companionship, and coed mischief. This was a friendship that quieted insecurities and doubts. This was a friendship that inspired dreams. This was a friendship that empowered the women within them.

During their first semester at Truman, Mack and Meagan settled into college life together with exuberance and with humor. Both had an abundance of each of those qualities all their own, but together they blew off the lid of tiny, old Grim Hall. As the months flew by, they also drew confidence and strength from each other as they adapted to their coursework and to life on their own. They formed the foundation of a little family of friends on campus, they embraced new freedoms and young-adult fun, and they settled into their new lives in Kirksville, a small town in bucolic northern Missouri. Very soon after arriving at Truman, Mack provided regular commentary to me through text messages and phone calls, and I was surprised but pleased about an uncharacteristic new tendency in her for chatter. While she enthusiastically shared details about her classes, laughed about getting lost or oversleeping, and relayed comical details about the dorm, the dining hall, or the golf team, most of her excitement centered on the people she met. On her new friends. On her new college family. And at the root of Mack’s happy, contented self far away from home was that girl named Meagan.

I first met Meagan when I visited campus a couple of weeks after moving Mack into the dorm, and I was smitten with her, too. She is smart and silly, just like my Mack, a skeptical liberal with the second-best giggle I have ever heard. She is feisty, a little kooky, a whole lot of witty, and she sings her sentences, lilting the syllables melodically across her full lips. She is what I like to call a good egg. Mack had a long history of collecting special friends, so I was not at all surprised she found Meagan. Mack knew a good egg when she saw one, and Meagan was a keeper. In October of her first semester at college, Mack sent me this picture…

will you be my roomie

In case you cannot tell, the candies on the partly eaten pizza spell out “ROOMMATES,” and Mack was not only thrilled with Meagan’s proposal for sophomore roommate status, but was also delighted with the panache of the delivery itself: on a pizza topped with M&Ms alongside a cheesy picture of Meagan, promising Mack a bag of her favorite Warhead sour candies.

Mack and Meagan were inseparable at Truman. During sophomore year they shared a square college apartment, and they lived together as friends, as sisters, and as confidants. Mack cooked for Meagan, and Meagan helped keep dirt and wine off of Mack’s white armchair. Meagan provided the big screen TV, and Mack taught Meagan to love Buffy the Vampire Slayer and My Cousin Vinny. Their shared academic interests in writing and in gender studies made them frequent classmates, so they frequently studied together, probably mostly while watching TV. And certainly, on more occasions than I would care to know about, Mack probably convinced Meagan to skip the studying altogether and watch more episodes of Parks and Recreation instead. Meagan brought out the talker in Mack, and the two of them shared ideas, always finding ways to connect their gender-studies readings to their unique observations about the women in their favorite shows. Over two magical years, they dreamed. They laughed. They watched TV. They talked about the future. Together. Always together. Even when they were home for break—Mack in St. Louis and Meagan in nearby Fenton—they were together.

Very early on in their friendship, the girls arranged a meeting for their parents, almost like an anxious engaged couple eager to put the in-laws in a room together. They were excited for all of us to hit it off; and hit it off, we did. Kevin & I and Tony & Mary had the pleasure of dining with Mack and Meagan several times, both in Kirksville and in St. Louis. Mack had adopted Meagan and her folks in a package deal, and so did we. Since losing our Mack, the three of them have provided me a great deal of comfort with their easy friendship–drinking, eating, and talking about politics–and their generous support of the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship now endowed at Truman State. I am certain they know how much Mack loved them, but I also hope they know the depth of my own connections to them, as well. Mack’s friendship with Meagan was forever, and so it will now be with me.

Recently, Meagan told me she admired the power Mackenzie possessed to ignite the passions of the people around her, to share her infectious joy for life, and to quietly demonstrate the meaning of true friendship. Meagan’s time with Mack was too short, and her memories of college will always be bittersweet; young people should not have to suffer the tragic loss of a friend. But Meagan is a wise and brave young woman, and she believes that two years with her cherished friend was a far better bargain than never having had the pleasure of knowing Mack at all. I am beyond grateful that Meagan found her way to Truman State and that she was Mack’s best friend for the wild and wonderful adventure of college. Today, as Meagan graduates with the Truman State University Class of 2016, I take some comfort in the knowledge that Mack’s spirit lives on in Meagan’s heart and in life she will live beyond college.

And so, dear Meagan, go out in that world and make your dreams come true. As Mack would say, “you’re a grown-ass woman now,” but don’t forget to laugh and to stop to be silly along the way.

Project Mack

Mack was a joyous and inspirational presence in the lives of her family members and her friends, and each one of us who loved her struggles to cope with the reality of life without her. To keep Mack with us, her family members, her friends, and I have set up a scholarship in her name, blogged about her life, published her writing, written touching eulogies, used social media to share photos and memories, gotten tattoos, and kept Mack alive in our hearts as we each strive in our own way to carry on with as much grace, hope, and Mack humor as we can possibly muster. The outpouring of love for Mack has buoyed me in my sea of sorrow, and the brilliant and beautiful ways that people pay tribute to the memory of my darling girl gives me strength to keep my head above the water.

Mack’s spirit lives in every beat of our hearts, and to observe her birthday this month I want to recognize one particularly extraordinary effort to share Mack’s spirit and to take her heart out into the world. Founded by Mack’s best friend Justice, Project Mack is based on the principle that individual people can make a difference in the lives of their friends, can influence the character of their communities, and can have an impact on the world. Through this very human project, Justice pays tribute to her friendship with Mack and draws inspiration from Mack’s personal philosophy. Because Mack loved life, was a devoted friend, always kept an open mind, maintained a cool and calm demeanor, and giggled every single day of her life, Project Mack wants to inspire others to “Enjoy Life. Be a Good Friend. Try Something New. Relax. Laugh.” And, most importantly, to “Live a Life of Impact.”

Project Mack

Through inspirational messages, multimedia, and monthly Big Mack Challenges, Project Mack is getting started in Kansas City, where Justice attends the University of Missouri, KC. Whether it’s delivering lunches to a homeless shelter, presenting flowers to nurses, passing out treat bags to students on campus, hanging out with young children at a community center, or hosting a bake sale to raise money for a friend who was facing a serious surgery, Project Mack is taking random acts of kindness to a whole new level. Justice not only channels Mack’s spirit in the effort, but she shares her own gentle nature, her own kind heart, and her energy and enthusiasm to make an impact in the world, as well. I am, simply, in awe.

Mack Madness

At Project Mack, this month is March Mackness and here are Justice’s three new Big Mack Challenges (taken from www.projectmack.com):

  1. Celebrate Mack Day! Out of every #BIGMACKCHALLENGE thus far, this probably is my favorite. Mackenzie, who is the heart and soul of #PROJECTMACK, would have turned 22 this year on St. Patrick’s Day. Mackenzie loved to have a good time and loved the fact she was born on St. Patty’s. It just wouldn’t be right not to celebrate her birthday, so that’s just what we want everyone to do! This #BIGMACKCHALLENGE is simple, go out and celebrate St. Patty’s day and more important Mack’s birthday. Even if you didn’t know Mack, go out and have a great time in her memory. Since she can’t celebrate her birthday, we should do it for her. Then post a picture and tag us in it! #projectmack.
  1. Big Trash Clean up: Our environment is something we really need to start taking better care of. So with this #BIGMACKCHALLENGE we want you to go out and pick up trash and litter. Try and get your teams, family, and classmates, involved! You can even make a community service event out of it. Pollution is something we take way too lightly and we need to take more responsibility for how we treat the earth. We need to be the change we want to see in the world. Don’t forget to post your stories and tag us in it!
  1. Treats for Teachers: Teachers are the back bone of our education system. I don’t think people realize how important they really are. And on top of that, they don’t get even half of the appreciation they honestly deserve. So with this month’s #BIGMACKCHALLENGE we want you to in some way say thank you to those who teach. There are tons of ways to say thank you, so don’t be afraid to get creative. And those college students who are home on Spring Break, maybe stop by and say hi to an old teacher. There are endless possibilities!

Project Mack is pretty freaking amazing, right?!! So, here and now, I am taking up that first Big Mack Challenge by encouraging you all to celebrate Mack’s birthday and March Mackness by connecting with Project Mack. Joining this big and bold movement to embrace our humanity, to be grateful for the people in our communities, and to be a source of positive light and energy in the world is a perfect way to celebrate Mack’s birthday. It’s better than a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.” More original than chocolate cake with buttercream frosting and sprinkles. And way grander than a mug of green beer. There is no better way to party on Mack Day than to support Project Mack and one remarkable young woman’s effort to cherish the memory of her best friend by living “a life of impact” and inspiring others to do the same.

Please visit Project Mack at: http://www.projectmack.com/. Don’t miss the entertaining monthly videos that shows Project Mack at work.

Like Project Mack on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/projectmackk/?fref=ts

Stay connected on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Project_Mack?lang=en (#Projectmack)

And if you need to be reminded about why Mack cherished her friendship with Justice, check out this blog from January:  https://macksmommabear.com/2015/12/03/macks-best-friends-justice/

Mack and JC 2