Mack Day Pledge

Just three months after losing Mack, I made a pledge to honor her by being more Mack-like. I made that pledge, in the form of a New Year’s resolution, in the early fog of my grief; and it proved far too ambitious for someone struggling just to breathe. But today, I am a stronger, less devoured by my sorrows, more resilient against the anxiety and hopelessness and self-pity that settle deep within the bones of a grieving mother. I am not now, nor will I ever be, whole again without my Mack, but I am a million miles away from the place I was in January 2015.

Therefore, today, March 17, 2017, on what would have been Mack’s 23rd birthday, my third Mack Day without her, I am renewing that pledge to be more like her, to emulate her best qualities, and to honor her life by living a better life. Happy Birthday, Mack. You are missed. You are loved. You are an inspiration.

The Be-More-Mack-Like Pledge:

Enjoy life: Mack possessed a happy and joyous spirit. She lived in the moment, never letting worries or doubts interfere with living. She cherished time with her friends, saw humor in the darkest corners, and always experienced her favorite pastimes with the enthusiasm and wide eyes of a young child. She delighted in life’s simple joys like food, for which she was always appreciative, paying her special kind of homage with a perfect, memorable last bite. Her philosophy was to slow down and breathe in what you love, never wasting a moment that might turn out to be your very last one.

Be a good friend: Mack did not just make acquaintances and good friends, she collected amazing people who became best friends. I think that people were, in part, drawn to Mack because she exuded a quiet, unpretentious confidence, but I think they held on tight to her because she accepted people for who they were. Once you were in Mack’s heart, you were in there forever, and she never judged, second-guessed, or questioned your worthiness to be there. She made good use of her beautiful open mind, her tender and open heart, and her capacity for a whole lot of unconditional love.

Try something new: Mack was fearless, and she either hid all evidence of her doubts or she never harbored them in the first place. At six, she played tackle football with boys. She signed up for discus in middle school track unconcerned that her noodle arms might fail her. And in a final act of courage, she moved all by herself to remote Burgos, Spain, where she knew no people and absolutely no Spanish. Mack was brave and bold, unafraid to put that fresh, freckled face out into the world.

Relax: No one who ever took a nap in the history of the world was better at relaxation than Mackenzie. She wrote the book on kicking back and taking it easy, and she suffered no serious. Why worry when you could lay flat on your back, eat junk food, and watch Sponge Bob? Mack was calm, cool, and collected by nature; and she passed out prescriptions for her own medicine like candy. Her presence in a room kept the nervous and restless demons at bay for everyone. Mack always told me to “simmer down and chill out” and frequently reminded me that it is hard as hell to enjoy spicy Thai food if your insides are riddled with ulcers.

Laugh: Mack laughed, chortled, snorted, chuckled, cackled, tittered, hee-hee-ed, and guffawed constantly. She was a professional giggler who understood that laughter is nature’s tonic for almost anything that ails the human heart. She was a master of the bad joke, she saw humor where most might only find tears, and her goofy wit was an important quality of her charm. Her laughter cured the world around her, medicine to all who had the privilege to hear it. I believe that laughter, more than any other gift that she left us, is the one she would most want us to keep.

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I have survived to take another stab at my pledge to be more Mack-like because I have my sweet Savannah to give me peace, perspective, and perseverance. I have my supportive husband and family to give me love and strength. I have my dear friends to nurture me, my puppy dogs to calm me, my writing to ease my suffering, and the scholarship at Truman State to carry Mack’s legacy far, far, far into the future. As well, thanks to Mack’s best friend Justice, I also have the gift of Project Mack, which makes being Mack-like look so damn easy…and fun. Just like Mack.

Mack would call me lucky. So on that good note, you good people, I am celebrating this year’s Mack Day by renewing my pledge to be more Mack-like. I am asking all of you to be more Mack-like, too. Go ahead, now; make a pledge to enjoy life, to be a good friend, to try something new, to relax, and to laugh. Concentrate on one or two of those plays out of Mack’s own good-life playbook or dive right in and tackle them all. Mack would call this an easy-peasy request, and Project Mack would agree. And if you find being more Mack-like makes you feel too good to keep it all to yourself, free to make a donation to Project Mack to spread the love.

For my Springfield, Illinois, friends, there is also an opportunity to combine your own Mack Day pledge with a special “2K17 Mack Day Celebration.” On March 25, from 2-4 p.m., Project Mack is hosting a party at Southeast High School to recognize thirty high school students in District 186 who are making a difference and living a life of impact. There will be music, cake, and a memorial balloon launch. I will be there to honor my girl, soak up the health-giving love of Project Mack, and publicly acknowledge the pride I have for my Mackenzie Kathleen—my joyful, impish, dancing, Irish leprechaun—and the breathtaking imprint she left on the world.

Mack Day Celebration

Silly Songs and Funny Faces

Mack loved eating, spending time with animals, and watching her favorite television shows, but I believe her favorite activity was making people laugh. For my funny girl, laughter was the essential ingredient for a good life; and I can say with certainty that Mack laughed every single day of her wonderful life. Laughter soothed Mack’s soul, and she developed a passion to evoke laughter in the people around her. She loved to be the cause of a good giggle, to bring on a big belly laugh, or to start a contagious chuckle; and she was particularly delighted if she could cause you to blow soda out of your nose.

Mack employed various strategies for unleashing an outbreak of laughter around her, and her methods reflected the sensibilities of her own inner child. She made up silly songs and sang them in ridiculous voices, and she performed her own unique renditions of popular songs. In a squeaky register, for example, Mack would sing: “And I’m on tonight, you know my hips don’t lie, and I’m starting to feel it’s right,” mimicking the singer Shakira but also adding a Mack-silly twist by singing out of the side of her pursed lips. Mack danced like a fool, could talk right through a belch or a yawn, told stories in a horrendous cockney accent, and always ratcheted up the teen slang with a heavy dose of nerd. Mack relished her repertoire of really, really bad jokes (many straight off of Laffy Taffy wrappers), and she made up her own dumb jokes as well. Of her Mack originals, one of my personal favorites was: “Why did the squirrel cross the road?” There were many that started with this question (and others that started with a chicken), but every time Mack began a joke in this way, she would lean in with an expectant look on her face and pause as she waited for her victim to nod, and then she would shout out the nonsensical answer: “Because there was bacon on the other side!” Mack would usually start giggling before she could offer the entire punchline, and people were laughing before they even knew just how bad the joke was going to be.

But while silly singing, crazy voices, and lousy jokes were useful tools of her laughter-seeking occupation, it was probably the art of the funny face that drew the most laughter. Mack could suck in her lips or bug out her eyes and make us all laugh without saying a single word. Mack’s humor was mostly of the low-brow variety, was usually self-deprecating, and was always fair and good-natured; and since she liked to use herself as the target for most of her humor, she rarely engaged in excessive teasing or orchestrated practical jokes at the expense of others. But there was one practical joke that Mack deemed particularly successful for the laughter it produced; and because it is a personal favorite Mack-story of “Stapes,” Mack’s beloved high school golf and softball coach,” I offer it here in his words:

“One evening after a golf match, the girls were getting brand new golf bags. Their old bags were going to the junior varsity boy’s golf team. Mack asked if her and fellow teammate Becca Ramirez could be the ones to give the bags to the younger guys. She and the rest of the team started laughing, so I knew something was up. After some conversations back and forth, I convinced her to let me in on the joke, because with Mack, she was always up to something. Mack said that her and Becca purchased 10 boxes of feminine products and planned to stuff every pocket in the bags with them. Now image, with me, if you can, 14-year-old boys getting ready to practice with their new Springfield High bags only to find them loaded with tampons. So, of course, I looked at Mack and told her to go ahead and proceed.”

With the approval of her coach, Mack then carried out her humorous plot. She giggled throughout the plans, she laughed long and loud with her teammates as they stuffed the golf bags with tampons, and she chuckled every time she told people that “Stapes” had joined in the laughter, too. But the belly laughs of those boy golfers were the laughs Mack enjoyed the most. They were a new audience for her, and it tickled her pink to learn that she was capable of sharing a good laugh with people outside of her own circle of friends and teammates.

Oh Mack, you were a natural, my dear. We enjoyed the giggles we shared with you, we treasure the laughter you brought us, and we know that every day you made us laugh was a day worth living.

sisters babies  nerd caffeing and yellow nailscheesin with kaitlin

no lips  dancing with a potato eye balls

Benji the Jeep

When her sister moved to Spain in July 2010, Mack inherited our 1997 Jeep Wrangler. Mack had been driving since March, sharing my boxy blue (and very uncool) Honda Element, so she was very happy that her sissy decided to leave the country. That soft-top, gun-metal blue, noisy, old Jeep and my Macko were a match made in highway heaven. That spunky car befitted Mack’s personality, matching her casual, no-frills style and providing endless material for her unique brand of self-deprecating humor. The Jeep ran pretty well and, for an old guy, was still very reliable, yet it sported a few rusty spots and some tattered upholstery, rattled and roared over bumps, idled raucously at stop lights, and sometimes sputtered between second and third gears. But Mack, as she did with every person and possession in her life, accepted that old Jeep for what it was; and she was grateful to have it all to herself.

When we presented to Mack her own set of keys to the Jeep, she announced her undying devotion to her new four-wheeled friend, and she frequently reminded her sister via Skype that the Jeep was ALL hers now and forever. She named it Benji, talked to it like it was an old friend who needed extra love and encouragement, and made it famous at Springfield High School. When Mack sped into the gravel overflow parking lot at school each morning, Benji announced their arrival in a cloud of dust and a noisy shimmy and shake as Mack cut the engine; but classmates standing around the high school’s south entrance already knew that they were coming before they hit the parking lot, as Mack’s quick and forceful gear shifting and Benji’s creaky old bones could be heard at least a block away. I think Mack got a kick out of her arrival at school each morning. She was proud of Benji’s good effort to deliver her to school before the bell (at least most of the time), and she was glad that her classmates knew that she drove a classic old car with genuine character.

Back Camera license plate

Shortly after adopting the Jeep, Mack got a “Life is Good” tire cover, and we ordered vanity plates to help her make the car her own. The floor of the backseat almost immediately became a large garbage heap, littered with Laffy Taffy wrappers and Gatorade bottles. Usually, there was also a softball glove or bat, a basketball, or golf shoes hanging around back there as well, so there was really no good place for passengers to put their feet. If Mack ever wiped down the dashboard or washed the outside of that car, I certainly never witnessed it. She could not even be bothered to scrub off the silly string caked onto the driver’s side door, the dash, and the steering wheel after she suffered a “hit” by a few softball teammates. I suppose Mack viewed Benji as an extension of her own messy bedroom. That Jeep may have been old and noisy and dirty, but Mack loved that car and driving it was a joy to her. A neighbor of ours remembered: “I recall seeing Mackenzie jump in her Jeep and head off with a smile on her face and a whole bunch of energy.”

Mack also loved sharing Benji with her friends, although she demanded that they, too, accept the old guy for what he was (rattles, backseat litter, and all!). Mack was so happy to chauffeur underclass teammates to practices, games, or the golf course in Benji. She enjoyed teaching a few friends how to drive a stick-shift behind the wheel of her car. And she was always willing to take down the Jeep’s top if her favorite passengers wanted to joyride with the wind in their hair. One time, after riding around Springfield in Benji with the top down, it began to rain. Mack had to quickly pull over to put up the Jeep’s rag top. As the kids all struggled to secure the top in the rain, Mack’s friend Patrick’s cellphone rang. In the rain and in the ruckus, Pat answered the phone and yelled: “I can’t talk now, Dad, I’m helping Mack put on her top!” Oh, how Mack and her friends laughed and laughed, as Pat then attempted to explain to his father what he had really meant by that provocative statement! That story remained one of Mack’s favorite Jeep stories, it always made her chuckle, and she frequently repeated it over the years.

When Mack left for Spain in September of last year, we parked Benji in an open parking lot just a couple of blocks from our loft in downtown St. Louis. Once in a Skype conversation, Mack asked about Benji’s welfare, and once at her request, I sent her a picture of the Jeep resting peacefully awaiting her return. Since losing Mack, seeing Benji parked in that lot all alone without his favorite driver has haunted Mack’s father and me, as it is a bitter reminder of our loss. But keeping the Jeep has been something of a comfort as well, because Benji is also a reminder of the joy Mack experienced behind the silly-stringed-caked wheel, with the wind in her hair, with a crooked grin on her freckled face, and the whole world in front of her. I am also reminded of one particular conversation I had with Mack about Benji’s future. I had suggested at some point that when she went away to college that we might sell the Jeep and give her my Honda. Mack was horrified at that suggestion. “Benji is my bad-ass buddy!” she exclaimed. “Benji CANNOT be sold!

Now Mack would be so happy to know that Benji will become her sister’s car once again. Savannah has returned from Europe and will settle in Chicago with her boyfriend Levi and Benji the Jeep. I think Mack’s spirit will ride shotgun in that Jeep, as her sister tools around Chicago. Savannah will be able to close her eyes and see Mack’s crooked smile every time the engine starts. She will hear Mack coax Benji into third gear and listen to her sweet little chuckle whenever the Jeep rattles over a giant Chicago pothole. Yep, Benji will remain an honored member of the McDermott family now and forever. He was a special friend to our special girl, and he possesses some magical power now to transport us away…at least for a little while…with our happy-go-lucky Mackenzie in the passenger seat right next to us.

In these photos, Mack proudly displays her driver’s license, you can see for yourself the silly string baked into the Jeep’s paint, and Mack is saying goodbye to her parents after a visit to Truman State to see her…

Jeep 4 jeep-silly string Jeep

Mack rarely complained about her car, but on long drives, the noise-level of the Jeep annoyed her. She tweeted her annoyance once, after returning to college after a weekend visit home in December 2012…

tweet--my car

Mack’s dad loved to take videos to annoy Mack, and here are two related to driving Jeeps…

https://youtu.be/JoWvFkEEAXU

https://youtu.be/yAf-Wmn4x0c

Balloon Hats Are Art

Walking around in downtown St. Louis this Independence Day weekend, I saw a couple of kids, about 10-years-old, skipping next to their parents. The entire family was decked out in Cardinals gear, they were all a little sunburned, and they were laden with stadium souvenirs. Most noticeably, however, this brother and sister duo were laughing and acting nuts, enjoying life while wearing balloon hats. When I saw those silly red, white, and blue balloon hats, Mack’s freckled face popped into my vision and my memory time machine took me straight back to New Orleans, December 2004.

Mack was 10. She had just hopped into the back seat of our boxy and blue Honda Element, and just before closing the wide-open suicide doors, I snapped a classic photograph of her. She was laughing and acting nuts. She was over-the-moon, because she had won an important argument with her dad, and she was proudly sporting her championship trophy atop her little head. We had just spent several hours wandering the streets of the French Quarter and Jackson Square, listening to music, eating beignets, and enjoying the performance artists. Mack had been fascinated by a flamboyant man making balloon animals and hats. She set her sights on a hat. Her dad said “no, no, no,” arguing that it was an overpriced and impractical souvenir. “No, no, no, Daddy-O,” she argued. “It is art, and I need it.” Of course, he caved in, like he always did. And Mack chose a red and orange monstrosity with antenna-like balloons sticking straight up in the air. Mack beamed in that hat, just like those two kids beamed in their patriot variety. For Mack, those contorted balloons were the perfect end to a great day.

balloon hat

It was simple things like balloon hats that lit up Mack’s world, and I am so glad her dad and I frequently indulged her in her child-like pleasures. It did not take much to make that kid happy, and although that damn balloon hat blocked the rear-view mirror, drove her sister crazy, and deflated long before we made it home to Springfield, Illinois, it was a highlight of the trip for Mack. It also left us with the cherished balloon-hat photo that now so beautifully captures the spirit of my lost girl.

When I saw those happy kids proudly sporting their patriotic balloon hats, my heart had smiled for three reasons. I remembered my Mack in her own balloon hat when she was just the same age. I was happy that those two little kids knew how to fully enjoy a simple and silly pleasure. And I was so glad that those parents had purchased ridiculous air-filled hats in spite of the fact that they were likely way overpriced and stood little chance of making it home. I just hope at some point in the day, one of those parents captured a photograph of balloon-hat bliss on the faces of their kids, like I was so lucky to capture on the face of my sweet girl.

Maybe those kids had not used the same balloon-hats-are-art argument that Mack had used back in 2004 to claim hers, but those kids (and likely their parents as well), understand the value of a few cheap balloons fashioned into a glorious and artful hat. Balloon hats are art, people. Pure and simple and true.

Be More Mack-Like

Of course, Mackenzie was always special to me; she was my funny little imp who daily filled my life with laughter and joy. Early on in her childhood, I recognized that she enjoyed the company of a small circle of adoring friends; I knew that the parents of her friends were crazy about her; and it was clear she was well-liked by many of her classmates, teammates, coaches and teachers. Yet until I lost her, I failed to fully comprehend the deep and lasting influence she made upon those who were lucky enough to know her. Watching nearly 600 people arrive at the memorial service in the Springfield High School gymnasium on October 12, 2014, I was overwhelmed by the number of mourners and comforted by the tremendous outpouring of love for my little girl. Despite living just twenty years, Mack made a lasting and deep imprint on more human hearts than most of us will with four times as many years to live.

Jack Stapleton, Mack’s high school golf coach and favorite teacher, closed his remarks at her memorial service by appealing to everyone assembled in that gym to be more “‘Mack-like,” by bringing joy to everything you do and becoming friends with everyone you meet in life.” There is no doubt in my aching heart that Mack lived life with the gusto of an exuberant ten-year-old, and her joyful approach to everything she did was infectious. There is also no doubt that even though Mack was somewhat shy around strangers, as soon as introductions were behind her, she scooped up people in those long arms and treated them with the same love and respect she would a long-lost friend.

Over the past three months, Jake’s entreaty has stuck with me; and I have thought quite a lot about what I can do in my own life to be more “Mack-like.” I do not generally make New Year’s resolutions, but as I face 2015 without Mack—one of my most important inspirations—I believe attempting to adopt for myself some of her best qualities will bring me some comfort. As well, emulating her will honor her life and help me to be a better person.

And so, in 2015, I promise to:

  1. Enjoy life: Mack set the bar very high on joy, but I am going to try my damnedest to make her proud. Mack lived in the moment, she did not let worries or the future interfere with the people, events or food staring her right in her freckled face. With Mack as my inspiration and the practice of some yoga, I am going to learn to delight in simple, silly pleasures, like a plate of piping-hot fried rice, a quiet conversation with a friend or an episode of a stupid sit-com.
  2. Be a good friend: I am likely incapable of competing with Mack for number of “best” friends, but I am going to be a better friend. I am going to work to be kinder, more patient and less judgmental; and I am going to look for opportunities to make new friends.
  3. Try something new: Mack was adventurous, always setting fear and doubt aside. When she decided to throw the discus and compete in high jump in middle school track, I was in awe of her willingness to take on two such new and foreign activities, both well outside of her team-sport comfort zone. This year I am going to try something new and foreign that will force me to step outside of my own comfort zone.
  4. Relax: Mack frequently scolded me for being too serious, so I am going to try to relax and see humor in things that previously would have angered or annoyed me. One time in our kitchen in Springfield, Mack knocked a carton of eggs off the counter. Two of the eggs were intact, but the others were annihilated on the ceramic tile floor. Both of us gasped, so our reactions started out the same way. However, at the very second that I started screaming that she should have been more careful, she began laughing, uncontrollably, commenting on how funny it was that the eggs on the floor looked like eggs cooked three ways: hard-boiled, fried and scrambled. I’ll need both Mack and the yoga for this one; but I assure you, the next time eggs fall off my counter, I’m going to laugh instead of yell.
  5. Laugh: Mack was so much fun; she laughed, chortled, snorted, giggled and guffawed constantly. She knew better than most that laughter is a wise tonic. I am dedicated most singularly to this final “resolution.” I will find humor wherever I can. I will laugh as often as I am capable.

In other words, I promise to be more “Mack-like.”

In life, Mack was an inspiration to me, and facing all of 2015 without her is going to be a monumental struggle. But I was one of the lucky people in the world upon whose heart she made a lasting and deep imprint. Mack will forever live in my heart, memories of her will always occupy my mind, and I am going to keep her perched upon my shoulder. From that vantage point, she will continue to inspire me every day to be more “Mack-like.” To enjoy life’s simple pleasures with the enthusiasm of a child. To be a good friend. To set fear aside and try new things. To be unflappable. And most of all, to laugh. Laugh. Laugh. And laugh some more.

on my shoulder

Enjoy life…

enjoy

Be a being a good friend…

being a friend

Try something new…

discus

Relax…

relaxed

And, laugh…

laugh