A Beautiful Life

Two years ago this day, the sky plunged down from the heavens and the truest soul that ever drew a breath left the world too soon. Two years in, and I am no less lost without my Mack. Two years in, and I am still far from well. Two years in, and I cling for dear life to my happier past all the stronger. But for me, starting today and going bravely forward, October 7 on my calendar will no longer mark Mack’s passing from this life. Rather, it will mark the significance of her life.

Two lovely, random, and unconnected human encounters inspired within me the courage to reinterpret the meaning of October 7 in my life. First was a delightful yet unexpected letter I received late this summer from Dr. Goodman, a kind man I hardly know. He is a past president of the Springfield Sunrise Rotary Club, the organization that sponsors the “This I Believe” essay contest for which Mack was a winner back in 2012. In November of 2014, this same rotary club made a generous contribution to the scholarship fund we established in Mack’s honor at Truman State University. This sweet gentleman was writing to tell me that he remembered Mack and her essay so fondly that he was planning to propose that the Rotary make another contribution to the scholarship in order to reaffirm his and the club’s “everlasting memory of Mackenzie,” adding that she was “a blessing to all.” Second was a conversation I had with Jeanne, a dear and wise woman I have gotten to know in my volunteer work at an historic home in St. Louis. She and I are fellow travelers on the road without beloved children. Having lost her young son fifty years ago and buried one of her two daughters some ten years ago, she always recognizes the sadness in my eyes. Recently, we talked about how I was feeling, we shared a few stories, and she gently reminded me that life is for the living.

Life is, indeed, for the living. Mack understood that simple truth better than anyone I have ever known, better than anyone I will probably ever know. She lived every single day like it was her last one, always laughing, always doing the things she loved first, always positive and happy, and always true to her heart. She loved every friend like she might never lay eyes upon them again, and that was the real purpose of those big-Mack hugs. Mack would not wish us to grieve on this day. She would want us to remember the laughter. She would want us to live. Mack’s good and gracious life should inspire us all to live well. To be patient and kind. To hug harder and to laugh louder. To be generous with our spirits, as Mack was. The assessment of my kind correspondent is perfectly true; our Mack was a blessing to all. And the best way to pass this October 7 and every October 7 is to reflect upon her beautiful life and to try a little harder in our own to emulate the qualities we admired in her.

Life is, indeed, for the living. To my mind and to my heart, there is no greater means to honor a beautiful life than a memorial scholarship, which supports the dreams of students who have so much living to do. Therefore, I want to establish October 7 as a day not only for spending extra time with our precious memories of Mack, but also to carry her beautiful spirit forward into the future. Establishing the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship Fund at Truman State University brought me an enormous sense of peace, and it continues to feed my spirit. I know well that Mack would be honored and humbled (“aw, shucks,” she often said when anyone paid her a compliment) to know how much people loved her and to know the high regard in which even passing acquaintances held her. And although she would no doubt be quiet and humble about it, inside she would beam that a scholarship in her name at Truman State, where she went to discover the writer within her, is helping students achieve their own writing dreams.

The scholarship is fully endowed, so it will be perpetual. Preparing for this 100th blog entry reminded me that it was the generosity and tremendous outpouring of love for Mackenzie—from friends, from family, and even from strangers—that made endowment possible in just two short months, back in December 2014. (https://macksmommabear.com/2014/12/09/honoring-mack/). There has already been one recipient (https://macksmommabear.com/2015/08/15/magical-medicine/), and the university will soon name a second. Right now the annual, endowed scholarship award is $750, but I am on a mission to increase the endowment so that it returns an annual award of at least $1,000. Truman State is still a relatively inexpensive college, but tuition is always on the rise and student needs today are ever greater. Truman—a small, public, liberal-arts college in northern Missouri—is a quality school with a quirky edge, a magnet for kooky and smart students, which should be enough to illustrate why Mack chose it in the first place (https://macksmommabear.com/2015/05/22/a-purple-bulldog/). She loved Truman, and I have come to love and respect it a great deal myself. It is a true gem, just like my Mack.

I now beg forgiveness to ask you to consider making a contribution to the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship Fund as you pause to remember how Mack’s bright light lit up the world. Perhaps while you reflect on the blessing that Mack was to you, you might also consider making October 7 the day to make an annual contribution in her honor. Might we all reinterpret the meaning of October 7, so that it will no longer mark Mack’s passing from this life, but that it will mark the significance of her beautiful life.

The Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship Fund
(for creative writing students)
Truman State University Foundation
205 McClain Hall, Kirksville, MO 63501
800-452-6678
http://www.truman.edu/giving/ways-of-giving/
(No matter the format you use, please direct your gift to The Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship Fund, and all contributions will be applied to the endowment.)

true-bulldog-5

The Essence of Our Mack

I know that if my Mack was here, she would want me to enjoy the warm, early-fall weather. She would chide me for defining this comfortable and colorful season as the beginning of winter, instead of embracing it as the beautiful end of the summer. I know that if my Mack was here, she would want me to enjoy a few pumpkin-spice lattes. She would yell at me when I looked up the nutritional info on my phone, because didn’t I know that those seasonal beverages at Starbucks are special and don’t have any fat or calories? And I know that if my Mack was here, she would insist that a 50th birthday should be a happy affair, instead of one spent counting wrinkles. She would have denied that the gray hairs at my temples existed (even as I stretched them out before her eyes), arguing that 50 is the new 30 and that I should shut up, sit down, and watch a few episodes of Sponge Bob since I was feeling so damned old.

But my Mack is not here to hold my winter at bay or to aid and abet my consumption of too many sugary coffees or to employ her goofiest humor to keep me from turning…from feeling…old. But my Mack was here, and it is this magnificent fact on which I am determined to focus. Her time spent on the Earth was short, but it was bounding with joy and bursting with meaning. I was lucky to have shared life’s journey with her, if only for twenty short years. Mack’s spirit lives on in my heart, in my soul, and in my memories. It lives on in the hearts, in the souls, and in the memories of all the people who knew and loved her. Yet while Mack’s radiant spirit is always in the air around us, this week it must be particularly present. This week her laughter must ring a little louder in our ears. This week, the heartbeat in her gentle soul must resonate more deeply within our own, as we face this dreadful two-year anniversary of our lives without her.

Mack was a force of nature in my life, and now her spirit continues to guide me. As I have gathered up my courage to face this difficult week with resolve and at least a little grace, I have drawn from more tangible reminders of Mack’s good life than just my treasured memories. I have been reading Mack’s poetry and essays, watching videos of her playing basketball, and listening to recordings of her voice. So here I offer a sampling of beautiful material evidence of the essence of our Mack: a couple of lists in her own words, two delightful videos that depict her cheerful disposition and irreverent wit, and the precious sound of her voice.

In a Facebook game in high school, Mack offered these nine things about herself:

  1. Basketball and softball are the best.
  2. I act like a five year old.
  3. I have a freckle moustache.
  4. I like being a freshman.
  5. I enjoy music.
  6. I’m putting off homework right now.
  7. I’m good at math.
  8. I try to be nice.
  9. I need to work on my language, it’s becoming a problem.

Wish to recall something that Mack said? Here is funny little list she offered on social media of thoughts that frequently crossed her mind: 

  1. Man, I could go for a corn dog.
  2. Why’d I wear this?
  3. I hate schooooool.
  4. That was a really stupid thing to do.
  5. Yep, I failed that.
  6. When’s summer?
  7. Is it almost lunch?

Remember those silly faces she always made?
Mack’s unique way of telling me she cut off her hair

Remember the way ridiculous ways she danced:
Mack dancing a jig in a prom dress and posing for one of my favorite photos, below

And…oh my god…do you remember Mack’s sweet voice:
Encouraging Pepper to jump and “speaking Spanish”

Reading her “This I Believe” essay on the radio

prom4

And now, Dear Mack, I’m on my way to collect my first pumpkin-spice latte of the season. Iced. Grande. With whipped cream. And, no, I did not look up the calories!

Short Stature and Long Memories

Yesterday, I bounced up onto the washing machine into a seated position and then pulled one leg up, lifting myself into a standing position atop the washer, so that I could then reach a box stored on the top shelf in the laundry room. I am a short and small woman, so my reach is often insufficient. Therefore, I frequently engage in this hop-sit-stand method of obtaining the things I want that are located at high altitudes. I retrieved the box and then settled into the required, intermediate, sitting-before-dismount position. But instead of hopping down straight away, I stayed seated, my legs dangling several inches above the floor. Mack, who always deemed my hop-sit-stand method ridiculous as well as delightfully entertaining, popped into my mind. Her enchanting little giggle filled my head, and so many memories of her good-natured teasing of my vertically-challenged life flooded over me.

Whenever Mack witnessed the limits of my reach, she would chuckle and snort before obtaining the object for me, making a dramatic demonstration of how so very easy it was for her to collect the object. When we stood next to each other for pictures, she would often ask me if I would like for her to kneel so I would not look like a “shrimp.” Frequently, a hug from Mack meant that her chin would dig deep into the top of my head to remind me of her six extra inches of height. And nothing sent her more quickly into a fit of giggles than my legs dangling on the bar stools at Buffalo Wild Wings. My common response to her playful joking about my short stature was: “I’ve been short all my life, and I’m getting along just fine.” “Oh, really?” she would reply. And then a fit of giggles elicited her trademark wrinkled nose, exaggerated finger point, and whispery hee-hee-heeing.

Mack is always on my mind, and I carry her spirit around with me every day no matter where I am or what I am doing. But it is so weird sometimes how that goofy girl interjects herself into my memories and makes me laugh. There I was just getting a box off of a shelf in the laundry room, and Mack bursts in just in time to make fun of me. Sitting there with my legs dangling, I closed my eyes and just let Mack’s giggle fill up the small space. I am so grateful for these random connections with my lost girl. I am beyond thankful for all of the laughter we shared during our short time together. I wish like hell she was still here to tease me about being so damn short. But thank goodness her spirit can find me, even in the laundry room on an ordinary Sunday afternoon.

heehee

Here is Mack making fun of me as I struggle to find a way off of a high wall.

Mack and Me

Here is the photo taken on the wall before the teasing began.

a favorite photo

And here is my favorite picture depicting our height difference. Note: Mack is wearing flat sandals and is leaning over, and look where her waist is compared to mine!

Mackenzie Kathleen is (Still) Here

I woke up early on St. Patrick’s Day in 1994. Oh, about 5 a.m., I believe. Kevin was still asleep. Savannah was still asleep, no doubt cuddled under her covers with her teddy bear Pickles. Whiskers, our striped orange cat, was still curled up next to my head on the pillow. But my big belly was wide awake, and as I drew a deep breath through that first contraction, I smiled. My second baby girl was on her way, and she was going to be a little Irish lass. I positioned myself comfortably upon all of my extra pillows and stayed quiet and still for the next hour, resting my eyes, breathing deeply, and remaining calm. Second babies were easier, and this one was going to arrive with a minimum of fuss, I just knew it. I spent that precious time alone thinking of this new little girl that I would soon meet. There was such love and joy in my heart for her already and there were so many beautiful mysteries in front of me about how she would look, what would be the character of her heart and the quality of her mind, and how her life would unfold.

When the alarm clock signaled the real beginning of the day, I set in motion my plan for a normal weekday morning, at least until Savannah was delivered to her kindergarten classroom and I was on my way to the hospital. Still calm, but increasingly excited, I showered and dressed, helped Savannah prepare for her school day, alerted my obstetrician, and called my mother to begin her journey to Springfield. When we deposited a nervous little Savannah at Dubois Elementary, ensuring her we that would call the school just as soon as her sister arrived, I viewed within the sparkle of my firstborn’s hazel eyes the love already overflowing for her long-awaited little sister. By ten that morning, I was settled in at St. John’s Hospital, and after a visit from the most popular anesthesiologist in the maternity ward (epidurals are the way to go, my friends) and a relatively easy delivery, we announced to the world: Mackenzie Kathleen is here!

brand new Macko

On that first day of my new baby’s life, I knew nothing of who she was in her heart, what talents she might possess, or how special her spirit was to be. I could not then divine that she was charming, funny, and athletic. I did not then know that her palate was awaiting sour candies and spicy Thai food. I had no inkling that she would have a passion for popular culture, for lazy afternoons, and for writing. I was, as yet, unaware that her heart was bursting to make its mark on a bevy of best friends. I did not even yet know that she was Mack. On that first day of her life, she was Mackenzie Kathleen, our lucky little leprechaun, the final piece of our McDermott family puzzle. On that first day, she was just a sweet and perfect baby daughter and an eagerly awaited and immediately beloved little sister; and our hearts were full of unconditional love no matter what the future would hold for her or for us.

Now, of course, twenty-two years later, I know exactly the heart, mind, and character of Mackenzie Kathleen, our Irish girl who jigged and giggled her way through our twenty years together. I am so thankful for those years, immeasurably grateful for my time with her. It was an honor to call her my daughter, and it was the greatest of joys to be her Momma Bear. I am proud of the kid she was and of the young woman she became. She enriched my life in so many ways, some of which I have been able to articulate within the essays of this blog and others for which there is no earthy way to adequately measure or to appropriately define.

Now, on this day, twenty-two years later, I am bitter in the loss of Mack’s beautiful life. I understand all too well that melancholy milestones like a birthday have the power to subdue all of the strength within me. I have sadly accepted the eternal existence of a mother’s grief. But I have also learned that there is help for me through the hours of these cruel landmarks of life without Mack. Help grown from a tiny baby girl born on March 17, 1994. Help in the form of a tall and leggy, freckled, Irish lass with the light of a million stars around her and the laughter of an angel within her. Because Mack is with me in my heart. She occupies my memories. Her spirit and good cheer is ever in the air that I breathe. Because Mackenzie Kathleen is still here. Mack is still here. And I am all the better for it.

Lá breithe shona duit, Mackenzie Kathleen. Happy Birthday, Mack. You continue to be an exquisite force of nature in the lives of us all.

Strawberry Zucchini

Mack was born with the face and body of a sweet little cherub, and I could not resist the urge to dress her in over-the-top feminine frocks to match her ruby and oh-so-chubby cheeks. Perhaps because I suspected my window for so doing was to be a short one, I frequently chose outfits that even outdid the level of froufrou I had achieved with Mack’s way more girly-girl sister. But almost as soon as Mack could walk (at 8-months-old, by the way), she started to rebel against nearly every article of clothing I put on her. Her sister and I persisted in our efforts to girly-girl-a-tize our little Mackadoodle, but we ultimately failed…and thank goodness, really. Because looking back on our choices, I realize we certainly did overplay our hands.

By the time Mack was three, she screamed at skirts, ran away from dresses, claimed that frilly headbands “squeezed her brains,” and threw lacy anklet socks in the garbage when I wasn’t looking. But there was that one pink bikini with the strawberry appliques on the top and the little ruffle on the bottom that broke Mack’s no-stupid-superfluities-on-this-body determination and melted her anti-girly-girl grit. That ridiculous swimsuit beat all the tomboy odds against it. Mack wore it with joy. She sported it—big belly and all—with pride. Strawberry boobs, we called that bikini; and it ruled Mack’s wardrobe. She would put it on and smile from sea to sea, checking herself out in front of the bathroom mirror. The too-short bangs, which were just rebounding from being cut off at the root, completed the look of girl toddler magnificence. In her smashing strawberry swimsuit, Mack definitely strutted the preschool catwalk. One day after I helped her into that swimsuit for an afternoon in the backyard sprinkler, Mack proudly stood up, admired herself, ran her hands down her torso, and shared this heartfelt opinion: “I just love this zucchini!!” And love it she did during the entire summer of 1998.

For a long, long time afterwards, we teased Mack a lot about that bikini, and, fortunately, it stayed tucked in the back of one of Mack’s dresser drawers for years. When we packed for the move to St. Louis, it made it into the “keep” pile, because it had become such a funny fashion artifact of Mack’s life. She always thought it quite a hoot that she had once worn strawberry boobs with such panache. I still have the bikini today, tucked into an archival box with Mack’s baby blanket. Funny, these memories we keep. Funnier still the odd artifacts we retain in our human effort to document those memories and to hang on to the happy past for dear life.

bikini

My Favorite QB

Today is Super Bowl 50, and I am feeling low.

As a lifelong and exuberant fan of the NFL, I have always thought it appropriate that the Super Bowl marked the age I turn each year. In 1995, for example, when the ‘49ers trounced my beloved Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, I turned 29 that fall. I have enjoyed sharing this weird little bond with this great American holiday…until this year. And to make it worse, the NFL decided that we are too stupid to know what an “L” means in Roman numerals, so those boisterous Arabic numerals “50” have been staring me down for weeks. Turning “L” sounds so much better, right?

But, alas, Super Bowl 50 marks the countdown to my fiftieth birthday in October, and there is no way around this truth. And despite my low mood and the fact that I am ten kinds of mad at the league I have followed like a boss since 1980, I tuned in to the pre-game festivities a full four-hours before the kickoff. I will watch the game with much enthusiasm, eat way too much chili and chip dip, and enjoy the evening as best I know how in a world without Mack, my favorite quarterback.

QB

As I settle in to watch Peyton Manning and Cam Newton, Mack will be the quarterback on my mind. Mack was the tiny, loud-signal calling quarterback of her peewee team, she was the artful and cerebral quarterback of her flag football team, she was the bossy and serious quarterback of her two Powder Puff high school teams, and, in so many ways, she was the quarterback of her family and friends, as well. She was my favorite quarterback ever in the whole wide world. So from the first snap of Super Bowl 50, for me, it will be my Mack under center. I will see Mack’s brightly colored fingernails on every handoff to running backs. Each touchdown pass will remind me the beautiful, tight spirals that Mack could throw since the age of six. And on every touchdown celebration in the end zone, I will see a ten-year-old Mack dancing like a fool because she just scored a TD against four boys on the playground at Dubois Elementary School.

mack6

Donuts

Mel-O-Cream donuts are as much of an institution in Springfield as Abraham Lincoln and Illinois state government, and I raised my girls on them. Dozens and dozens and dozens of them. Those glorious, sweet and pillowy, sugary delights were a nearly weekly treat for all of us, but my Mack was a certified donut monster. She loved all Mel-O-Cream donuts, except the ones with nuts; but her favorites were the glazed donuts featuring a generous dollop of lemon curd, Bavarian cream, and all of the varieties that were covered in powdered sugar. On Sunday mornings, we would get a dozen donuts (three for every member of our skinny little family), and we would eat ourselves into sugar comas while drinking black coffee and reading the morning newspapers. It was not a healthy family tradition, but it was a cherished one.

mel-o-cream 1

Not only did Mack exuberantly participate in the McDermott weekly three-donut tradition, she added to it whenever possible. We took donuts to weekend team practices for various sports, she chose them over cupcakes for school birthday celebrations, and once she was able to drive, she frequently got up a little early so she could swing by Mel-O-Cream to collect her favorite portable breakfast. The floor of her junky Jeep was littered with those small, square, old-fashioned napkins with the Mel-O-Cream logo.

When we moved to St. Louis, we were sad, and Mack particularly so, to leave Mel-O-Cream behind. Giving up that special family donut tradition was a disappointment. However, if we had not moved, a nutritionist intervention would likely have been necessary.

Yesterday, I was in Springfield for work, attending a staff meeting. As editorial meetings at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln are always ponderous and protracted, a favorite colleague told me he was bringing a dozen Mel-O-Cream donuts to get us through the day. In route to Springfield that morning, my mouth watered and my eyes glazed as I anticipated the sugary goodness that awaited me. I thought about Mack, too, and how much she always craved those donuts. When I got to work and opened the lid of that beautiful donut box and gazed upon the lovely assortment of breakfast treats, I sighed deeply, smiled broadly, lifted a perfect glazed donut with a generous dollop of lemon curd, and toasted Mack by taking a Mack-sized first bite. And then I ate two more donuts! Mack would have been proud.

I felt fat and ashamed about my three-donut day until this afternoon, when my Mack whispered in my ear and said, “It’s ahhright, Momma Bear. If I’d have been there, I’d have eaten four.” As usual, Mack was right, and it was perfectly alright that I had detoured from my usual healthy diet. I had nothing to be ashamed of because dammit, I enjoyed those donuts. They were delicious, and they made me happy. While I do not plan to revive the McDermott three-donuts-per-person plan any time soon, I had to admit to Mack, to me, and now to all of you, that I loved those three donuts with gleeful abandon, that maybe I even needed those donuts, and that I will harbor no shame for paying homage to an old McDermott family tradition from our Springfield days.

powdered donuts