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

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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