March

I accomplished my two greatest human endeavors in the month of March, bringing into the world two amazing girls with Irish fire in their bellies, adventure in their bones, and big and beautiful brains in their sweet little heads. In my fifty years on this planet, I have had some academic and professional success, collected an amazing group of life-long friends, and done a pretty respectable job of staying out of trouble. But raising my two March babies is the life achievement of which I will always be most proud; and March not only always belonged to Savannah and Mackenzie, it always belonged to me, as well.

shared birthday pizza

Shared Birthday Pizza, 1997

But this will be my third March without Mack, the third March that is as chilly upon my heart as it is upon my skin. The first sight of determined daffodils poking their brave petals up into the brisk air of the coming spring is no longer my happy tidings of March’s arrival. Now those damn daffodils remind me of all I have lost. Selfish and regrettable is the feeling of self-pity, but these milestones of life are treachery against my heart, and some days there is simply no hope for even one hour of solace.

This morning as I sat down at my desk to work and to begin day eight of my weary journey through March, an email lifted my spirit from the shadows and smacked my self-pity Megan Matheneyupside its head. It was Megan Matheney checking in; it was the first recipient of Mack’s scholarship sending happy tidings in March that the daffodils had failed to bring me. She wanted me to know that she is graduating from Truman State this spring and will attend graduate school in the fall to further her study of writing. She wanted me to know that the scholarship afforded her the opportunity to study abroad in Italy. She wanted me to know that she is getting married after graduation to a math major named Jeff, who proposed to her in Italy and will graduate with her this spring. She wanted me to know that I. That we. That Mack helped her to achieve her dreams.

Life marches forward even as we shield our eyes to its promise. March is here, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. Mack’s birthday will come no matter my mood to face it. But March is proof that Mack was here. Megan is proof that Mack is still making a difference the world. And this day is proof that days without solace will not always be so elusive.

 

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Shared Backyard Birthday Party (Mack turning 1 and Savannah turning 7)

Missing Mack

It has been a rough month. No lies. Like amusement park rides, emotional roller coasters make me nauseous, and March has jarred my body, unsettled my mind, and bounced my spirit up, down, and sideways. I spent most of the days of this month, sometimes hours at a time, keenly missing my Mack, missing life around me, and mostly missing any level of strength to cope with my sorrow. Passing a second of Mack’s birthdays without her, giving the most important professional presentation of my life at Ford’s Theatre just two days later, making my first visit to Mack’s grave at Oak Ridge Cemetery, and then marking the fifteen-year anniversary of my father’s death on the same day as a McDermott family dinner in Mack’s honor really beat the crap out of me. March has punched me hard in the gut; and right now rainy April never looked so good.

But I am not writing today to remain submerged within my sea of sorrows. Rather, I am writing today to settle my stomach, to put March 2016 in my past, and to set my sights on a happier spring. I want to leave behind this emotionally challenging and spiritually draining month by sharing the blessing of a new family tradition of which my sweet, spicy and always hungry Mack would heartily approve. Mack’s cousin Jacquie, the eldest McDermott cousin, had the idea last year to plan a Mack Day Dinner, and so we gathered for Thai food, Mack’s favorite cuisine, on her first missed birthday, on March 17, 2015. Then, on March 26, 2016, at the King & I Thai restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, twenty-six McDermotts made the Mack Day Dinner an annual tradition. From the belly of our sorrows, a beautiful new family tradition is born. A tradition in which we can all miss Mack together. A tradition that will keep us connected to Mack’s spirit. A tradition that will keep us connected to each other. And a tradition that tethers the past, the present, and the future.

Missing my Mack…

Mack

gravesite

March 26, 2016

Missing my dad (here with Mack)…baby Mack and Dad

But thankful for a new tradition…

 

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

More Hugs

Today is National Hug Day, and although these ubiquitous national days often make my eyes roll, this one is perfectly Mack appropriate. Mack hugged her people with rib-breaking enthusiasm, and there was no escape when her long arms gathered you in for a squeeze. So in honor of Mack on this National Hug Day, I want to encourage you all to offer up your best Big Mack hug to someone you love; and to celebrate the day and to honor my world champion hugger, I offer this repost of a blog I wrote back in November 2014…

Hugs

If you were a person in Mack’s life, you knew that you were going to get hugs. Lots of hugs. From big bear hugs to hand hugs,* Mack hugged not only her own family members and her closest friends, but also her teachers, her coaches, and even some people she was just getting to know. She hugged you for pictures, she snuck up on you to hug you, and there was no escape from her strong grip if she decided you needed one of her famous Big Mack squeezes. Mack was not a big talker, and she was never verbally effusive with her emotions. Instead, she chose to love people by physically embracing them. Mack was full of love and delight for the people who were special to her. But Mack’s hugs were more about her wish to make those she hugged feel unconditionally loved and accepted than they were about showing her own affection.

Mack’s hugs became legendary, especially among all of her various adopted moms. At Mack’s memorial service, one of those special women (Sonya, a basketball mom and good friend) told me that she always looked forward to getting settled in at the basketball games, because she knew that even if she had just seen her the night before, Mack would run up the bleachers and give her a huge hug as if she hadn’t seen her in months. Another adopted mom (Ellen, who raised one of Mack’s oldest friends) wrote to me about how much she loved those hugs, referring to Mack as “the human Great Dane who thought she was a lap puppy.”

Mack was, indeed, a bit like a big happy puppy dog. So many photographs of her with friends reveal her inner marshmallow. She loved people hard, and she hugged them harder. Sometimes she hugged me so hard, she squeezed the air right out of my lungs. If I had a bad day, a bear hug from my Mack could make all of my worries melt away. Often, she would wrap her long arms around my shoulders, pull my head onto her chest, rest her chin on the top of my head, pat my back and say, “momma knows, momma knows.” She was being goofy and ridiculous, but she was also showing love and tenderness in her own unique way…with a Big Mack hug. God, I just loved those hugs. I cannot imagine how I will get through the rest of my life without them; and I would sell my soul to the devil for just one more.

 *Mack invented hand hugs sometime in high school. Basically, a hand hug is when two people press their palms together and wrap their own thumbs around the other person’s hand. It was just one of many silly rituals that Mack created to bond with teammates, be close with friends without being too gushy about it, and to give people around her an excuse to smile, laugh, and to be close to one another.

The hugging starting early with my Macko…

Hugs 11

Mack in pink is scooping up a couple of kindergarten friends here and Elyse (in the middle) was a life-long victim of Mack’s bear hugs.

Teammates were easy targets for Mack’s hugs. Mack offered her hugs in celebration of big wins and in consolation when the losses came hard…

Mack loved to wrap her arms around her “big” Sissy…

And she loved her Papa Bear…

Hugs 4

And here Mack is huggin’ on a football opponent…

Hugs 9

ha ha…just kidding (but what an awesome tackle, right?)

Mack was particularly fond of hugging those she called her “small, huggable people” and here she is with two of her favorites…

Kimber, Mack’s friend and special teammate (Mack and Kimber formed the battery of the SHS softball team), offered this lovely “hand hug” tribute to Mack on Mack’s birthday last year…

Hugs 12

Check out the previous Hugs blog for more photos of Mack squeezing the puddin’ out of the people she loved: https://macksmommabear.com/2014/11/24/hugs/

But when you’re done, go hug someone to pieces. That would be the best way to honor Mack on National Hug Day!

Mack at Rest with Mr. Lincoln

On Friday, January 8, 2016, Mack went home to Springfield, and we laid her to rest in Oak Ridge Cemetery. There is some comfort and peace knowing that she will sleep easy in her hometown and that the people who loved her will have a beautiful place to commune with her spirit. It was a difficult day, but I was enveloped in the loving arms of family; and I found the strength to read the following eulogy I had written for the occasion…

We should not be here today. It is not right that we are laying to rest our sweet and silly girl. It is not fair that Mack had just twenty years on this earth. She deserved more time. We deserved more time. The world deserved more time. Here among these graves, under these old oaks, and in the shadow of Mr. Lincoln’s tomb, I am stricken by the cruel and bitter reality of my loss. Of our loss. Of the world’s loss. But as is our human condition, our lives are fragile. We cannot escape tragedy. We cannot keep sorrow away. We cannot choose all that falls upon our shoulders. And, indeed, the weight of the world has fallen upon our shoulders. So here we now stand in this historic and beautiful and peaceful cemetery, placing our Mack in the arms of eternity.

It feels right that Mack should return to Springfield. It was her hometown. It was the setting for her cheerful childhood, her spirited teens, and her assorted and amazing athletic accomplishments. It was the environment in which she learned about herself and the world. It was the context of her intellectual growth and of the development of her extraordinary character. It was the place in which she crafted that zany personality, honed her comedic skills, devoured uncountable plates of Pad Thai, and made so many cherished best friends.

Since the very first time that I visited this cemetery more than twenty-five years ago, I have been in awe of this special place. I have always felt calm and at peace in the presence of the Lincoln Tomb. Lincoln’s spirit whispers on every breeze here, and the history of Springfield rests here. It is a graceful and serene place, but it is a powerful and hallowed place as well. Mack deserves to rest in this special garden of Springfield spirits and historic whisperers. It is altogether fitting that Mack should stay here at Oak Ridge with Mr. Lincoln. She will be safe here. Her spirit will rest easy here. She will belong to the ages here.

Oak Ridge 02

Grandma Marie and Grandma Dianne drew strength from each other and sported their memorial t-shirts.

Locating Mack at Oak Ridge:

Oak Ridge Map 1

Oak Ridge 06

Mack’s marker is eight rows back from the road, just beyond these cylindrical markers.

Oak Ridge 04

Looking northwest from Mack’s marker is the majestic Lincoln Tomb.

Oak Ridge 03

Permanent Mack

Even though she is physically gone, Mack’s spirit lives on in the hearts of those whose lives she touched. She really did make a permanent mark upon many of us, and we are better people for having known her and loved her. Mack was an extraordinary person, and she made an enduring impact on my life and on my soul. She is in my daily thoughts. She continues to inspire me. And I am still, always and forever, her momma bear.  mack and momma bear

Since losing Mack, I have searched for ways to honor her, to celebrate her life, to keep alive her memory, and to emulate her spirit. I am writing this blog to share stories of my life with her. Her father and I have put in place a memorial scholarship in her name at Truman State University so that she can continue to make a difference in people’s lives. And I am striving each and every day (with varying degrees of success) to be more Mack-like—to be more gentle and less judgmental, to be more patient and less persnickety, and to take some joy each day in at least one of life’s simple pleasures (like gummy candies, a conversation with a friend, or a silly television show). All of these efforts—big and small—have brought me varying degrees of solace.

Yet there is one simple act that lifts my own spirits as much as it gives wings to Mack’s spirit as well. Talking about Mack—sharing a memory, relating a Mack-antic or a Mackism, or chatting about my love and respect for her—helps me breathe, helps me smile, helps me survive in the world without her. Remembering her is key to my mental health, and putting voice to my memories is a soothing elixir to my grieving soul. Of course it is easiest to talk about Mack with my family and my close inner-circle of friends. Most of them are eager to share their own stories or to reminisce with me about “our” lost girl. I love to talk about Mack with people who knew her best of all, but I also want to talk about Mack with people I will encounter in the world for the rest of my life. I want people who will never know Mack to know she was here and to know that she was a significant inspiration in my life. I want them to know that to know me is know that I was her momma bear.

For several months, I have toyed with the idea of getting a tattoo that Mack herself never had the opportunity to get. She often talked of a small, simple shamrock on her foot or ankle to celebrate her Irish heritage and her St. Patrick’s Day birth. Yet the more I considered it, the more I moved away from choosing for myself a small, discrete tattoo that most people would never notice. I began to think that an honorary tattoo in a visible place would not only be my own personal memorial to Mack, but it would also serve as a conversation starter. It would provide opportunities for me to tell the world that I loved and raised and lost my younger daughter.

So, I have done it! There is now a memorial inked on my right wrist. It is a permanent homage to my indelible Mack. It is a conversation piece, inviting people I meet to ask me about my wacky and wonderful daughter. Like Mack’s spirit, it is bright and bold, a stylized Celtic clover made up of four leaves, for luck, in the shape of hearts, for love. The rich greens represent Mack’s Irish heritage and charm, the purple shadows pay homage to her favorite color, and the fierce “M” in her name above the clover reflects her confidence and her courage. I am delighted with my personalized memorial to Mack. It promises to provide me with many random opportunities to tell people I meet that Mack was here in the world and that she mattered to me. It will offer me many chances to share an apt or funny story about my girl. And, most importantly, it will give voice to her memory and lift my spirits in the bargain.

tattoo 2