Mack Saying Hello

My sister’s cell phone crashed this week; and she lost everything on it. She was particularly sad to have lost a special Mack album of photos that would sometimes randomly pop up when Tracy was least expecting it. Like Mack finding a way to be present. Like Mack saying hello.

Well, tonight when Tracy was setting up her new phone, that Mack album showed up, the only files to successfully transfer from her old phone. No contacts, selfies, or other photos; just that Mack album. Tracy was certain it hadn’t been there before, but there it was, nonetheless, welcomed and cherished. It was like Mack finding a way to be present. Like Mack saying hello.

It’s Weird. It’s Wonderful. And it’s little bit of Mack magic that neither my sister nor I care to question. Because sometimes we really need Mack to be present. And we love it when she pops in to say hello…

Mack Memo #1: Make a Face

I just spent the weekend with my first baby, the splendid and sassy Savannah. We walked all over the Missouri Botanical Garden in nearly identical Birkenstock sandals. We drank giant steins of Heffewiezen under a 95-degree, afternoon sun, and we ate too many tortilla chips and not all of our tacos at a late dinner in historic Soulard. We laughed, we caught up on the details of each other’s daily lives, and we giggled a lot and cried a little when we reminisced about Mack. It was as close to happy as I have been since my last weekend visit with Savannah. And then her car disappeared down Washington Avenue, and the Illinois license plate faded away from my view. Then the sorrow moved back in, pushing out the sunshine and snapping me back to my lonely and gloomy, missing-Mack mood. The kind of mood that hangs on sometimes for hours after a weekend guest departs or after I return home from a trip to see family or friends. The mood that reminds me how desperately I miss my second baby.

This is the life of a grieving mother. This is the emotional truth of losing a child. For me, successful living in the moment comes with a price at the end that is frequently difficult to pay. Time does not heal this wound, no matter what they say; and so I must breathe in as deeply as possible during my live-in-the-moment successes and endure as best as I can the painful aftermath that always follows. Mack’s absence is the reason for my sorrow, but Mack is also the one who guides me through these terrible transitions, as well. Drawing strength from her humor through most all of my missing-Mack moods has been the key to my survival, and it is especially true after the positive effects of a magical diversion, like a visit with Savannah, fade away. To help alleviate my sorrow at these times, I always look at pictures of my funny girl. Mack’s face making faces has a curious power. I used to badger her to smile for pictures rather than to make a goofy face, but now it is those goofy faces that provide me strength to find my way to the next live-in-the-moment opportunity.

those eyeballs

Oh, that face! How can that face ever fail to make me smile?

Mack’s continuing power to soothe my heart, to bring a smile to my lips, and to make me laugh when I am at the lowest of low is a guiding force in my life. Mack speaks to me through her goofy grin and silly faces in photos. She whispers love and advice in my ear and plants happy memories and thoughts in my brain. She tugs at my arm to be strong, and she continually reminds me to laugh. I have come to think of these moments when Mack touches my spirit as memos from Mack. The contents of my Mack memos have become a sort of life mantra for me. Sometimes they come in the form of humorous one-liners, and sometimes they are lengthier essays with depth and with heart. Mack’s great character, her unflappable good cheer, her unique wit, and her incomparable wisdom for a person who had so little time give substance and style to all of her memos. Mack’s memos connect with my heart all the way across the great physical divide that now exists between us. Mack’s memos inspire and instruct me, and only recently have I come to fully understand their purpose and their power. Now I want to bundle up my precious memos and periodically share them in the pages of this blog. There is sound advice, much inspirational grace, and innumerable funny messages for good living within them.

And here to get it started is…

Mack Memo #1: Make a face. Make a silly face, people. Stick out your tongue. Cross your eyes. Wrinkle your nose. Suck in your lips. Use your face to make yourself or somebody else laugh. Making a face will make all the serious go away. It will make you feel better…at least for a while. Trust me. It will. And a goofy face might also save a life.

The Power of a Photograph

Dear Mack,

This would make you crazy, I know, but I have surrounded myself with pictures of you. They give me some comfort throughout each day without you and provide a warm sense that you are still with me and watching over me. Ok, you can stop making fun of me now, young lady. But seriously, I wanted to tell you that there is one photograph to which I have become particularly attached. And, more importantly, I wanted to tell you why I love it so much.a favorite photo 2

I picked up this cute little metal frame at World Market; it looks a little antiquey and it has a small metal hook tied with a rough-hewn rope. It is a two-sided frame. On one side, I placed one of your wallet-sized senior pictures. I adore this picture, because it is so casual and shows you wearing your favorite Chuck Taylor high tops. In the photo that I placed on the other side of this little frame, you are all dolled-up ready for prom, and I am a privileged interloper in the shot. The two photos provided the contrasting images of you that I deliberately sought; one casual and one fancy, together in a convenient portable frame. This frame I carry around with me like a security blanket. It spends time in the kitchen when I am cooking, sits on the arm of my favorite leather chair when I am reading or watching a basketball game, and spends the night on my bedside table.a favorite photo 3

Lately, I have noticed that it is the prom picture side that I choose to more frequently display; and this is the picture that has become so important to me. I noticed myself getting lost in that photograph, and I determined to give some serious thought about why I was finding is so compelling. I stared at it for a long, long while, and I embraced the powerful way in which it encapsulates so many of my memories of you.

My dear, sweet Mack, I love this picture of us because:

  1. You look absolutely beautiful. Even though beauty was not important to you and it is the least important reason why you were so special, I always thought you were beautiful. Gorgeous skin. Adorable freckles. Silky smooth and shiny hair. Statuesque physique. Here you are in this photo without a speck of makeup; and here you are looking absolutely perfect. You said you felt uncomfortable in that dress, but you do not look awkward at all. You were a natural beauty.
  2. It shows the ridiculous size difference between us that you always found so amusing. I think I might have been standing in a bit of a hole here, but in the interest of full disclosure I will remind you that you were wearing flat sandals so you would not be taller than Abhinav. Yet even if I would have been standing on that concrete ledge next to my feet, you still would have towered over me. This picture reminds me that our size difference made your special mom hugs possible. I loved it when you would rest your chin hard on the top of my head, squeeze me, and call me a “small huggable person.” You did it the day your dad took this photo, just before you left our front yard for dinner and the prom.a favorite photo
  3. You are holding your damn phone! Even there, all dressed up for prom, the phone is present. I am pretty sure I did not notice you were holding it when we took the picture. Surely, I would have chastised you and made you put it down for two seconds. But now, seeing it in this context, it makes me smile.
  4. Our favorite family hosta plant is bursting out of the ground behind us. It was only spring and there it is already well on the way to its annual takeover of the flower bed. We used to laugh and laugh about that stupid plant, because you said it epitomized our silly employment of the term “from the Pleistocene Epoch” for everything we saw that was abnormally humongous. You made me laugh, Mack. You even made hostas funny. I loved that about you.
  5. In this photo, I am one happy mom. Being your momma bear was a tremendous joy and watching you grow and participate in the important events of your life were the happiest days of my life. You and Sissy were my best accomplishments. You and Sissy provided the most important pleasures in my life. I am so grateful for the experiences you gave me; and I am grateful now for photographs like this one that help me relive the best twenty years of my life when I was the mother of two precious girls.

Thanks for not smiling, Mack

Over the past few weeks, I have sifted through hundreds of pictures of Mackenzie, and all the while as I have paused over each image, I have smiled, I have laughed, and I have sobbed—sometimes exhibiting all three emotions simultaneously. As I have lingered over particular images, I have desperately sought to sear them into my memory. Mack’s adorable freckles, especially the big one on her left cheek, her brown eyes, her dimples, those long limbs, and that crooked little smile are all beautiful reminders to me of her physical appearance and her tangible self. But so many of the pictures also capture her humor, her athleticism, her joy, and her incorrigible determination to thwart all of my best efforts over the years to capture the perfect, smiling photograph of my younger daughter. When Savannah saw a camera, she always sat up straight, engaged me with her eyes, flashed me a dazzling smile, and delivered a beautiful portrait every time. Mack, however, always preferred to ham it up, make a ridiculous face, or strike an absurd pose.

It always drove me nuts that she couldn’t just sit still and smile and let me have my shot. But now I know that she has given me something far greater.

Most all of the writing that I have done so far has spun off of one of those hundreds of images that I have spent so much time with since October 7. All of the photos I have of Mack are precious to me in the same way that childhood photographs are precious to every mother. But the photographs that are inspiring my stories about her, about my life with her, and about my life now without her, are not the ones in which she is smiling perfectly for the camera. Don’t get me wrong, I adore those priceless few images in which she gave in to my wishes. But it is a fact that the photos in which she exerted her own interpretation of the event or activity that I was trying to capture that are the most comforting to me now. I always believed that Mack was just being goofy, that she was deliberating trying to aggravate me, or that she was disrespecting my attempt to capture forever her growing-up years.

Yet in looking at those images now and thinking about the writing that pours out of me as a result of considering those images now, I realize that Mack gave me a special gift. In those goofy photographs, she allowed me to capture her spirit at that moment instead of her pretty smile. She made the photos about her and not me, and she made them about her approach to the situation at hand and not mine. She did not believe that photos were about capturing the perfect smile in every context, but rather they were about capturing the absurdity of a situation, the joy or laughter provoked by a particular moment, setting or event, and about living life and not just posing for it.

Thanks for not smiling (all the time), Mack. I love you for it more than you ever could have believed possible during all of those hundreds of photo shoots when I begged you for a pretty smile.

And now some beautiful examples:

When I asked the girls to pose with the prototype wax Lincoln for the yet to open Lincoln Presidential Museum, I got this…

girls with Lincoln

When I asked Mack to pose with my newly published book, she gave me this…


When I asked Mack to send me a picture of her Halloween costume one year, I got this…


When I asked for a picture of summer ball at The Gym, she gave me this…

goofy kid

When she sent me a picture of a kitten she was babysitting at college, this is what I got via text…


And here is one of the precious few in which she obliged my desire for a pretty smile…

Indiana braids