Fiction and Truth

I started reading Pasty, a novel by Nicole Dennis-Benn, for a book club I have just joined. As I read and floated into the book on the soft clarity of the writing, I tried to understand the title character, who in the very early pages of the book abandoned her five-year-old daughter Tru in Jamaica to move to the United States. Patsy wasn’t rich in Jamaica and she lived in a depressed, struggling town; but she had a decent secretarial job and a family, food on her table, and a lovely and smart little girl. Unlike so many immigrants who leave their homes to better the lives of their families, Patsy was not going to America to make a better life for her daughter. She was going for her own selfish reasons; she was leaving her daughter to be with her best childhood friend. When Patsy left Jamaica, she lied to her daughter in her sweet little face that she was coming home. Patsy boarded a a plane to New York, leaving her daughter to live with a father she barely knew, and she had no intention of ever returning to retrieve her.

My tolerance for Patsy decreased as I turned every page, the prose quickly incapable of overcoming the pain the narrative delivered to my heart. In the early pages, as Patsy settled in with her friend’s family in New York, while she learned how to navigate her new city, and when she applied for jobs as a nanny, Patsy gave me no reason to understand her. She offered no righteous explanation for the abandonment of her daughter. She was shallow and cruel, and I did not wish to know her.

I have a hard and fast rule about the books I read for leisure. I give them twenty-five pages to draw me in; twenty-five pages should be enough to make me love them or at least want to keep reading to see if I can love them. There are too many good books in the world that have the potential for making my heart sing to spend time reading even one that makes me miserable. But in this case, I turned page 25 and kept reading, no matter how much the story was breaking my heart and making me angry. I read for the sake of the book club. I did not want to attend my first book club with some people who have not yet met me without having read the book in its entirety. Without having given the author a fair trial. Without having given Patsy time to make me know her, to want to know her. 

On p. 115, Patsy decided to call home. Finally. After weeks in the United States—while poor Tru cried and cried every day and desperately yearned for her mother—Patsy finally picked up the phone to call her daughter. Just as she heard the child excitedly rushing to the phone to talk to her mom, Patsy put down the receiver. A coward, she hung up on her baby, and abandoned her all over again.

I could read no more after that.

If this book was memoir instead of fiction, I would have tried harder to empathize with Patsy’s choices and her motives. I would have given her time to explain why she gave up her precious child. But does a fictional character deserve the same effort, the same time, the same compassion? Does a fictional bad mother deserve the same human consideration? The old me might have said yes for the sake of good prose. Fiction is supposed to stretch the boundaries of what you think you know and understand. It can reveal what the truth cannot. Maybe the old me would have been more patient, as the story of Patsy unfolded. But the present me was failing to sympathize with a fictional mother who turned her back on her child. The present me has no time for untrue horror stories with which I possess no responsibility to grapple.

In my new realm of existence, I have no tolerance for despicable or shallow fictional characters with whom I cannot relate. I see no compelling reason to read a novel about a fictional woman who chose to abandon her daughter when I am a real woman forced to live without one of mine. Reading past page 25 was my own damned fault. I should not have let the author who dreamed up this character to punch me in my heart for ninety pages after I knew better than to keep reading. Yet I cannot help but feel like it might be partly the author’s fault, too, that I feel so aggrieved, that Patsy throws such sharp elbows against the bonds of real mothers and daughters.

Maybe Patsy turned out okay for all of the characters in the end. If it were memoir and I had stopped reading, I would have checked in on Tru and made sure she was okay, at least. But because it was fiction, I can let it all go now that I have written my peace about it. Good writing alone just doesn’t cut it for me these days. Good writing cannot atone for characters with whom I could never connect on a human level. I don’t want to spend time with fictional characters I would not wish to know in real life. Not anymore. Life is hard enough without letting a work of fiction beat me upside my heart. Life is too short to read books that poke my grief with a stick.

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Writing Peace

Writing a memoir walks a fine line between therapy and self-destruction. I know it, because that is what I have been doing since February 2019. I have been writing a memoir and walking  a delicately fine line between healing my shattered spirit and endangering any healing progress I have made since losing my sweet Mackenzie in October 2014. Honest reflection is tricky business, and my honest report is that peering into your soul is both perilous and breathlessly rewarding. Finding the words to explain and to understand the difficult and winding path of my journey through grief has been a balancing act, indeed. But the reward for finding the words and striking that balance, through the very process of the writing itself, is peace.

When my daughter died, writing was the weapon I selected to battle my grief and to repair the many damages it inflicted upon my body and my being. Writing became my assertion of agency against the frailty of my humanity. The process of writing became a search for peace and the practice of writing its own kind of solace. Five years of steady writing—137 blog posts here at Being Mack’s Momma Bear and a nearly 200-page memoir of my experiences with grief redefined for me the meaning of peace and showed me how to find it.

When I started writing for my life, I did not understand that peace is not a destination; it is not a paradise at the end of a long journey or a utopia you win after a hard struggle. Rather peace is a state of mind you achieve for yourself at the precise moment, any moment along your way, when you find your balance within the disorienting storm of living. Every time you breathe in joy and exhale pain in the same breath, or level your achievements with your disappointments, or bank love against loss, or successfully walk the fine line between your therapy and your self-destruction, peace is your gift. Peace is not the absence of pain and sorrow; it is the acceptance of the hardships of living along with the precious gifts of being human. Peace is not a reward for traveling, it is your traveling companion.

Some people learn this truth far earlier in their lives than I did. Some people are born with this wisdom. Mack was. I think for most of us, however, real peace only comes after a great deal of eyes-wide-open, whole-hearted effort. For me, it was revealed through difficult, personal writing and honest evaluation of my experience with grief. My writing began as a personal journal but quickly became my therapy, and it was, ultimately, also a companion, a witness, and a great teacher. As I stand here at the doorway of a brand new decade, I am healthier for having spent half of the last decade writing my grief. I credit the personal writing I published on Being Mack’s Momma Bear for leading me toward peace and the memoir writing for revealing to me my capacity for finding it.

For the rest of my life, surviving the loss of my daughter will require eyes-wide-open, whole-hearted effort. A mother’s grief does not fade. I know there will be times when I will fail to maintain my equilibrium and to walk peacefully with all of my love for Mack and with all of the pain of losing her. Mack is still with me, I converse with her each and every day, and she will be with me for the coming decade, just as she was in the previous two. I am not done writing about my daughter. I am not done writing about my grief. I have just finally arrived at a place in my journey of grief that requires less therapy.

Castle 7

Mack in Monsaraz, Portugal, 2011.

Going forward, Being Mack’s Momma Bear will remain a space for me to share my memories of Mack and continue to process my grief when the need for it arises. Writing will always be the therapy I choose first for healing. But Being Mack’s Momma Bear will also be a space for me to write about books and writing, dogs, walking and yoga, friends, food, flowers and birds, history, politics, and peace. No matter the headspace I inhabit— mom, friend, professional historian, dog lover, bad poet, angry liberal voter, or middle-aged, single woman trying to understand our crazy and beautiful world—I am still Mack’s Momma Bear. I will always be Mack’s Momma Bear.

And so I keep the name Mack herself gave me, Momma Bear, to honor her; and I retain the blog title Being Mack’s Momma Bear to memorialize the continued presence in my life of Mack’s inspirational spirit. Hopefully, with a lot of grit, a little grace, and a dash of Mack-style humor, I will offer some insights about history and life along the way, share some honest reflections that might be of use, and serve up some simple truths about the loving, grieving, thrilling, terrifying, lonely, joyful nature of being human. 

Peace, and Happy New Year to you all.

Back Camera

Me in Monsaraz, Portugal, 2011.

P.S. Wish me luck with the memoir. I spent half of one decade doing the personal work and writing it required, and editing and publishing the manuscript is my first goal for the new decade. 

 

Permanent Pain and Bright Beginnings

Five years ago today, the beautiful world fell into darkness when the light of our lives left us. Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott was a beaming smile of sunshine, a giggling goof of joy, and a bulldozing force of nature. Her absence left holes in the hearts of everyone who loved her, holes that can never be refilled.

Five years have filled no holes. Five years have healed no pain. Five years have not made me miss her less nor feel her a absence less keenly. In fact, some days–days like today–I miss her more than ever.

Balance is the lesson I have learned in the deepest grief of a mother’s broken heart. Every day I must balance my love for Mack and my permanent pain from the loss of her. Every day is a struggle, but on the good days, sprinkled in between the bad and the okay and the barely breathing, I can find that balance. I can take hold of some peace and find some solace. I have that scar upon my heart, yes, but joy and beauty and light are possible.

Today, Savannah is starting an exciting new job. Today, I am moving into a charming old house in a new town. Today, Kevin starts looking for his own path, too. Today is going to be one of those days when balance is vital, as our little family carries all of our pain and all of our love forward into the next five years without Mack.

Today I walk with sorrow, but I also walk with hope and the real prospect of peace. I walk onward into the sunshine of this bright beginning.

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.

Writing for My Life

Writing saved my life. No joke. No lie. No hyperbole here.

I’ve been a writer my entire life—poetry and short stories in high school, creative writing minor in college, a few years as a journalist, an unsuccessful cookbook and children’s book author in adulthood, and twenty-six years as a historian, publishing two books and dozens of articles and essays. BUT, when Mack died in October 2014, I started writing for my life. I invested my Being Mack’s Momma Bear blog with the purpose of a life-preserver. The early days of writing helped keep my head above the water in the dark and stormy sea that was my grief. The writing helped me examine my experience with sorrow in real-time. It was a hard, ugly, messy business, but I felt the power of writing’s balm upon my shattered body and spirit. Turning the twisted knots of my grief into words and sentences that made sense in black and white was constructive and therapeutic and cathartic. Writing was a remedy for all the ways my grief ailed me. It saw me through the darkest tunnel and into the light. And it continues to fill my lungs with air, with life, and with courage.

Last year, I decided I wanted to make writing a bigger and bolder part of my life. I have a dream to purchase a large historic home and to create a serene writer’s retreat within it. I want to establish a place where all types of writers can come for quiet reflection and work, where authors visit to share their books with others, where poets practice, where creativity thrives, and where writing classes embrace the writing dreams of children, college-bound students, and adults who want to explore writing in their own lives. I can’t make this dream a reality tomorrow, or likely even soon, but I will someday make Mack’s Manor a reality in some form or another. The writing and the dream give me hope, push me onward, and are such good friends for my life’s journey, no matter what happens in the end.

While I save money and formulate plans for my writing retreat, I decided I wanted to teach some writing classes, to learn more about the process of writing and how different people approach it, and to share my enthusiasm for its healing power. I wanted to practice, if you will, what my writing retreat might be able to do. I created a Write Your Life class for an adult education program in St. Charles, MO, and I have spent the last six weeks as an excited newbie writing instructor working with a patient, kind, and creative group of students. Poor guinea pigs that they are, my first writing students will occupy a corner of my heart forever. Tonight will be my final class. Endings make me weepy, always have, and this ending will be no different. I do feel a happy sense of accomplishment for doing something scary, but I am sad it went by so quickly that I barely had time to breathe in all of the joy of it.

This little Write Your Life class of mine has been another important step on my road back to the core of my old self, and it marks good progress along my journey forward to a new life, to a new place, where there is peace and joy and grace. My first seven students have been a treat, and it has been my pleasure to inspire them to stretch the muscles of their creative spirits. Last week, one of those students—a delightful retired woman named Gloria who is finding a poet within her—gave me a thank-you box of chocolates and a little owl with solar-powered, light-up eyes. The owl was a perfect sentiment, because from this first class I was seeking wisdom to inform the future of the writer’s life I want to live. I think I found a little wisdom, at least I certainly learned a lot about the life in front of me. And in the eyes of my wise little mascot, the future looks bright (and happy?), indeed.

I am Well and Reading

I stopped reading. For three and a half years, I stopped reading. For forty-two interminable months, I had no mental or emotional capacity for books. I lost the fiction and poetry and historical writing that had for a lifetime filled my mind and my spirit with the beauty and challenges of the world. I lost the loveliness of words shining off a page with the power to transport me into a new landscape, to take me back into a mysterious historical past, or to let me see through the eyes of a stranger who becomes by the end of a narrative a familiar and beloved friend. I lost the ability to appreciate the power of brilliantly constructed sentences and paragraphs to reach out to ears and eyes open wide to knowledge and the emotions and experiences of all kinds of people, real and imagined. I lost the joy of curling up with a book and a cup of Earl Grey on a cold night in winter. I lost the desire to lose myself in someone else’s story.

I stopped reading, and I understand now that the desire to lose myself in someone else’s story was the reason I stopped reading. It was why I no longer wanted to read. Why I had no mental or emotional capacity for books. Why I abandoned a love and how grief stole from me an activity that had since the age of four enriched my life. I lost reading and love of books because I was lost in my own story. Lost in my own experiences, my own emotions, my own self pity, my own inner voice reflecting my own bitter struggles. Grief is cruel that way, because it is not merely a heavy crown of sorrows upon your head. Grief also chips away at you, piece by piece, bit by bit, joy by joy. Then, it takes individual human time, glacial time it seems, to realize the damage grief has inflicted upon your spirit. And then, I think, it takes a lifetime to be restored. Or rather, it takes a lifetime to restore for yourself what grief claims from you, piece by piece, bit by bit, joy by joy.

From October 2014 through February 2018, I managed by necessity to make my way through historical works related to my current research on Abraham Lincoln and women and vital to my new professional work on Jane Addams and the Progressive Era. I read with great difficulty a couple of beautiful memoirs, tiptoed through some books on grief and healing and life, and even slogged through a few volumes of poetry and fiction. But all of that reading was a struggle, and I have not retained most of it. Nor did I love any of it with the passion of previous, joyous reading. Reading did not consume me as it had always done before; it did not possess the power to transport me to the distant worlds of other people’s stories. My own story was still too much a central focus, and I was not ready, I suppose, to give it up as the singular narrative in my brain and on my heart. These desolate forty-two months I lived without books would have made my Mack very sad, more sad even than it made myself. For I knew all along what I was missing, what I had lost, and I feared the bits of myself I fortified with reading might be lost, indeed, forever.

But in March, I started writing poetry and doing some other creative writing. I was just ready, I suppose, to start examining something of the world around me, outside of myself. This writing was a balm, a restoration of an old teenage joy reborn, partly at least, out of the anguish of losing my daughter, and partly because I needed to give birth to a new me out of ashes and charred bits of my past selves. This restored bit of myself, this creative writer within me, also miraculously restored my joy of reading. Or maybe the creative writing in my bones conspired with the love of books in my bones and restored themselves together, like a joint gift to a better me. I emerged that spring a little stronger, a little brighter, a little lighter, and a hell of a lot more hopeful, too. Grief is a process. Life is a process. And my restoration to life is a process, too.

In July I wrote that I had arrived at a place somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow, a place that was not a paradise in which pain and sorrow is vanquished, but a place were I am becoming comfortable walking in love and grief and acceptance of life as an existence of beauty and pain. I wrote 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.”

Here at the close of the year, 2018, during my fourth holiday season without my special and spirited girl, I am still all of those things I believed I was in July and, perhaps, a little more. Now I am maybe two or three speed bumps away from that straight-jacket, even more better and, without a doubt, even more vibrant, in a big way because I am reading again. I have books in my life again, and I have the Amazon.com receipts to prove it. In no way is it more clear that I am a little more like the Momma Bear Mack left behind than in my grateful return to voracious reading. Returned to me is my indefatigable love of the written word, of books, of writing that lifts the soul into the clouds and propels the reader on the wings of eagles. The greatest gifts I gave my girls were my unconditional love and the love of books and the joy of reading. Mack would be so very glad I found my way back to books once again, although like always, she would tease me for the dense and scholarly ones I tend to select to occupy the most precious of my leisurely hours.

I say thank goodness and release a noisy, breathy sigh of relief. Mack would say hallefuckinglujah! My mental and emotional capacity for books is restored to me like a gift from angels, and I have forty-two months of lost time to recover. Since March, I’ve read a dozen or so historical works for my personal research and professional work with a renewed clarity of purpose. I can now fully concentrate on their historiographical significance and also let them take me away to mysterious historical pasts. As well, I have read or listened to twenty-eight novels and works of poetry for pure pleasure. Reading is easy and joyous and freeing once again. Reading is again as vital to me as breathe in my lungs, and I am over Mack’s rainbow with love and gratitude for its return to me. I am reading so much these days, feeding an appetite that for too long grief suppressed, that it has encroached a bit upon my writing. But that is OK. It feels good to let reading and books occupy the best of my free time for now. For a little while, at least, while I get reacquainted with the power of good writing to make life more joyous, more precious, more human.

So for now, dear friends, know that I am well and reading. And reading and reading and reading.

Mackenzies Rainbow

Books are vehicles to transport our minds, lift our spirits, and save our souls…here, there, or somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow.

 

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