Four Years On

Dear Mackenzie,

Exactly four years ago this morning, I kissed that glorious giant freckle on your left cheek and watched you pass through the airport security line and disappear through the gates. I was bursting with happiness for you on that pre-dawn Sunday, as I watched you leave for Spain. You were so bright and so brave, even with the tiny twitch of nerves you revealed as you tried to calm my own by telling me you’d be alright. Because you knew “hola” and “cerveza” and probably wouldn’t need to learn too many more words beyond those. Liar. I could never have imaged the extra tight big-Mack hug you gave me at the last minute would be the last. We could never have known you only had one month in front of you. Four years ago that was. Four years. Four long years without you, after twenty too-short years with you.

Today is a really bad day, honey. I know you would not like it, but these milestones practically undo me every time. Sometimes the pain of your absence feels like a freight train coming on fast, the panicky whistle growing ever more shrill, and I am paralyzed on the tracks with no power to get out of its way. I am still, and always will be, profoundly sad without you. And, whoa, some of the days along the way are as painful as the first day without you. It’s just the way it is. We all miss you. Even Pepper, who, by the way, went to the puppy spa yesterday (she got her hair did, as you would’ve said). Did you have something to do with the groomer choosing for her a deep purple bandana? Anyway, she is delightfully fluffy you’d be happy to know, and she knows I need extra cuddles right now. You told her to take care of me when you left, and she does a pretty good job of it.

Tomorrow will be better, I promise. I’ll be in Chicago with Sissy and my dear friend Bridgett. We are going to take a yoga class with pygmy goats. Can you believe yoga with pygmy goats is a thing? You’d even do yoga with me if there pygmy goats, wouldn’t you? We will also visit the new American Writer’s Museum, and you know we will eat some amazing food and enjoy overpriced drinks in the windy city, too. How about I promise to find happiness tomorrow and you check in to make sure? At the end of what I know will be a good day, we will settle in for drinks at a cozy bar, and I will offer four toasts to you: The first to Mack the animal lover. The second to Mack the writer. The third to Mack the bratty baby sister (that one for Savannah’s sake, of course). And the fourth to Mack the bright spirit who continues to shine a light upon my life, four years on.

Pep Dog

Bye-Bye, Benji

Last week, we said bye-bye to Benji, the spirited and plucky little Jeep Wrangler that raised my two spirited and plucky little girls. He had chugged to a stop late last fall when Savannah parked him on Winnemac Avenue, in the middle of the block, just south of Winnemac Park in Chicago. He had gurgled and rattled when Savannah cut the engine, just like he always did in the waning years of his life, as he struggled to be the peppy and happy car he had been in his youth. But, sadly, it was there on that sleepy, residential street, where a dead battery, a finicky starter, a worn-out transmission, and one final Windy City winter finished off the poor, old bastard once and for all. Mack would have thought it a fitting final parking place for her beloved “Benj” on a street with her name in it and very near a softball diamond, like so many other softball diamonds, where Benji often collected a pitching mound’s worth of dust waiting for Mack to collect him after a practice or a game.

Savannah probably never should have taken that 1997 Jeep Wrangler to Chicago with her in the first place, but it was just months after losing her sister and she lacked the heart to let go. Sometimes inanimate objects hold the keys to our most cherished memories. Benji had been Savannah’s high school and college car, and then Mack’s high school and college car, and then Savannah’s car once again. The sister connection in that gun-metal blue bucket of rusty bolts was strong and the emotional attachments deep; and even though it made not a lick of sense whatsoever to keep an unreliable car with a long list of ailments in Chicago, it made absolute sense to Savannah’s heart. So for two years, in honor of her sister, Savannah held on tight, patiently weathering the inconveniences of Benji’s senior citizenship.

But when spring came this year, so too came the realities of driving and parking in Chicago, especially in a car that needed hundreds of dollars in repairs. As the daffodils bloomed and street sweeping loomed, Savannah understood that she had to either sell or at least to move Benji from his pastoral parking spot around the corner from her apartment. Savannah made the difficult decision to let Benji go. It was time. It was past time. It is true that the tangible artifacts of our lives—big and small treasures into which we place our memories for safekeeping—possess the spirits of ghosts we wish would linger. But material objects do not possess the permanence we so desperately seek when we entrust them with our memories in the first place. Savannah held on to Benji long enough to learn that her connection to her sister was bigger and deeper and far more permanent than a beat-up, old car, however well-loved the car.

Although Jeeps, even old ones that do not start, will fetch at least some pocket-money, Savannah did not wish to profit from a decision that was breaking her heart. NPR really does take old cars, it turns out, and Savannah chose this graceful exit for our old family friend. We mailed in the Jeep’s title, and last week NPR took the car away. Rephrase: took Benji away. Benji with silly string sun-baked onto the dashboard and the driver-side door, evidence of a “hit” by Mack’s softball teammates. Benji with the duct tape holding his glove compartment in place. Benji with his broken and failing mechanical systems, a flat tire, a bleached out and ripped rag top, and a “Life is Good” spare-tire cover still on the back. Benji went away with a little piece of Savannah’s heart, and a little piece of mine, as well. But Benji did not go away with his gear shift, because Savannah snagged it as a final souvenir. And he did not go away with our memories, either. We will keep those, as well.

Benji was just a base-model, 1997 Jeep Wrangler, but he was the vehicle of some very important McDermott family memories. He took us on summer night drives to watch outdoor, local theater at Lincoln’s New Salem. He delivered us, albeit uncomfortably, to the family cabin in Wisconsin after our big car broke down one summer. He taught both of my girls how to drive a stick-shift, and he suffered all of the terrifying lessons they each gave to their teenage friends. He kept Savannah safe when she rolled the Jeep over and landed upside down in a ditch on a snowy ride home from college. Benji was just a car. But he was the spirited and plucky car of my spirited and plucky girls. And that, in and of itself, is grand.

Mack loved her Jeep, and I love the memory of her loving her Jeep. I have painted this happy picture in my mind that Benji and Mack are together again, reunited like friendly old ghosts, out on the open road somewhere in the beautiful universe. Mack is driving with the top down on a warm summer day; Benji is new and shiny, engine humming. Music is blaring and Mack is singing, big sunglasses covering her sweet, freckled face. She’s grinning, driving way too fast, and breathing in the feeling of freedom that the wind bestows upon the spirit of carefree girl in a Jeep.

Springfield Family: Mack and Laura

Springfield Girls 2

The Springfield Family Girls: Laura, Maggie, Nell, Mack, Mandy, Savannah

I had the incredible fortune to raise my girls within a loving inner-circle of friends in Springfield, Illinois. There were ten adults and ten children in our close-knit group. Standing Friday night dinners at D’Arcy’s Pint, frequent Saturday nights hanging out in each other’s homes and backyards, annual New Year’s Eve celebrations, and occasional weekend excursions filled our calendars with good and clean fun since 1995. The close relationships we formed over the years also afforded moral support and encouragement in achieving personal, academic, and professional goals and provided emotional support during times of illness, disappointment, and heartbreak. We laughed together, we played together; we shared time on bleachers together, watching our kids play sports; and we communed over shared interests in politics, literature, food, and the high hopes for the future of our kids, our families, and the world. Our Springfield circle was not just a close group of friends. It was an extended family for all of us. My girls not only had two parents and a sibling who adored them, but they also grew up in the loving embrace of eight adults who loved them as if they were their own children, and they came of age among eight kids who were as close to them as siblings.

In the past few years, this Springfield family of ours has become somewhat geographically disbursed. Yet the bonds have remained ever strong. It is upon this twenty-year-old group of friends—this extended family— on which I now so mightily depend. WE lost OUR Macko. She is our first shared loss. Together we grieve and together we search for solace. Over the past several months, I have focused much on my amazing Springfield family, seeking comfort from them and providing it where I am able. I have been buoyed by the knowledge that each and every member of our tight-knit Springfield family carries Mack within their hearts, remembering in their own ways her life and the imprint she made upon them. In their loving hearts, Mack lives on, and this knowledge brings me some comfort.

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Laura, Savannah, Mack in purple, and Laura’s brother Matt

I have been thinking lately that I want to write about Mack and the members of our Springfield family, to tell funny stories about her time with them, to share details about their relationships, and to reflect on how they enriched her life and how she influenced and inspired them as well. Last week, a member of our Springfield family faced a devastating medical diagnosis, a difficult surgery, and a lengthy recovery. So it is with Laura that I will begin an intermittent series of essays about Mack and these wonderful and special and amazing people who shaped her growth and development and gave her twenty years of unconditional love and support.

Laura was just nineteen months old when Mack came into the world. For a very brief time, Laura was a little jealous, and she heartily objected when her father paid any attention to Mack. “NO, baby Kenzie,” she would scream, “MY daddy!” But it was not long before these two silly little girls were friends. They played basketball together, they gorged on candy together, and they spent hours playing the board game “Life” together. At Friday night dinners or Saturday gatherings, they were inseparable as toddlers and as kids. They shared babysitters when the grownups went out alone, they shared each other’s clothes, and together they conquered the Nintendo snowboarding game SSX Tricky. Laura and Mack also became famous for their undying devotion to the movie My Cousin Vinny. They laughed hysterically every time they viewed it, sometimes viewing it multiple times in one night. They recited the lines as the movie proceeded, and they frequently acted out the best scenes, even when they were way too young for some of the content of the dialogue and, of course, the profanity!

Laura was a year older in school, and she and Mack had mostly separate circles of school friends. So, naturally, as they grew into their teens, they spent less time with each other. In high school, middle school, and college, they sometimes went for a few weeks without seeing one another, but they remained in touch through text messaging and they never stopped caring for each other. They always made an effort to schedule “dates” to catch up on each other’s lives. If it had been a couple of weeks since she had seen Laura, Mack would say, “I need me some Laura time.” Then she would summon Laura to our house, and the two of them would bake some terrible cookies or pig-out on unhealthy snacks and stay up all night watching My Cousin Vinny. In 2014, Mack was at Truman State in northern Missouri and Laura was at Milliken in central Illinois, and it had been some time since they had seen one another. So in April, Laura spent a couple of days with us in St. Louis, because Mack needed some “Laura time,” and I am so thankful they had that last special time together.

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Mack and Laura, who is wearing one of Mack’s soccer team shirts.

on couch with Laura

Sugar coma? Or all-night SSX-Tricky marathon?

For eight years, Laura has suffered from Crohn’s. The disease interfered with her adolescence, subjected her to long stretches of horrible pain, and forced her to endure numerous hospitalizations and inconvenient medical treatments that sometimes thwarted her ability to live the life of a normal kid. After the most recent flare-up of the disease, Laura’s specialist in Chicago told her that medicinal treatments would no longer provide any remedy or relief and that the removal of her colon was the only option. A twenty-two-year-old kid should never have to face such a serious diagnosis. She had to consent to the drastic surgery or risk losing her life. It took several days for Laura to process the news, but she decided to have the operation.

Last Saturday morning before her surgery, Laura was resting in her hospital bed, scared as she waited for the nurses to take her to the operating room. She turned on the TV, and after flipping through the small number of channels that were available, she found My Cousin Vinny. On a Saturday morning on one of just a handful of channels, her favorite movie and the favorite movie of her lost “sister” quieted her fears. Mack and Laura were together again. As Laura told me later, “I felt so much more at ease, feeling Mack’s spirit.” Laura went to surgery with a calm and hopeful attitude, and her surgery was a success. She will face a long recovery and adjustment period, but the doctors are very hopeful that pain and suffering are in Laura’s past and that health and happiness await her. One thing is absolutely certain, Mack was in Laura’s heart at the very moment she needed her most, and those two girls had a family bond that will last forever.

mack and laura

Laura and Mack, two special members of the Springfield family that consists of the McDermotts, the McKinneys, the Ericksons, the Mutman-Doyles, and the Parsons-Mosers. I love them all!

Savannah

Savannah Arya McDermott is the one thing…the one person…who inspires me to get out of bed every morning and face another day without Mack. She is my amazing older daughter, and she was an amazing big sister as well. Today is Savannah’s 27th birthday, and I want to brag on her a little. She is an intelligent, feisty, and adventurous young woman, and she really does inspire me. She was an inspiration to her baby sister as well. Mack was very lucky to have had Savannah as her “Sissy,” and here are just a few of the wonderful reasons why…

Unconditional Love: Savannah was an only child for six years, and for most of that time she begged for a baby sister. She was a precocious child (talked at nine months!) and she was an adorable little drama queen. She skipped and twirled through her life, always playing the role of a Disney princess. She was the center of my attention, spoiled rotten, and happy. But she was lonely for a sister. So Mack’s arrival in the world was a big day for Savannah, and she was the happiest little Kindergartner in the world when Principal Hathaway came to her classroom to deliver the news that her sister was born. Savannah cuddled and loved her new baby sister and looked after her like a little momma; she was thrilled to play the role of big sister.sissies

Mack—a goofy comedian and a tomboy with a quiet disposition—grew into a very different person than Savannah—a studious girlie-girl with an outspoken personality. My girls were as different as night and day. Yet their love for each other never wavered, and the guidance my big girl provided my little one never faltered. They fought and fussed like all siblings, but Savannah always loved, respected, and accepted her sister for who she was, what she wanted to do, and who she wanted to be in the future. I have no doubt that a large part of the reason Mack was so accepting and tolerant of others was because Savannah was so accepting and tolerant of her.

Studious Role-Model: Growing up, Savannah was a conscientious student, a voracious reader, and a gifted writer. She was always writing poems and stories, and one of her stories won her a trip to the prestigious Illinois Young Author’s convention in 1999. As a young adult, Savannah was a shining example of the importance of a life-long commitment to reading and to learning. Mack’s dad and I provided evidence of that, too, but a sibling’s example in this regard had much more impact. Mack grew up with a sister who placed importance on school work, always had her nose in book, and at the dinner table and on long car rides enjoyed talking about what she was reading and learning in school. Mack spent much of her life focused more on sports and less on academics, but Savannah was a persistent (non-adult) reminder that there was a world beyond basketball and softball.

babiesSavannah often chided me for letting Mack coast in academics because she was so busy with sports; and she always pushed Mack to choose more challenging books, to study harder, and to take full advantage of her academic opportunities. I am sure there were many times when Savannah believed that her advice was drowned out by the incessant dribbling of basketballs. But by the time Mack finished her freshman year of college, I clearly saw the impact of Savannah’s example. Whenever she was home from Truman State, Mack talked with me about her coursework with the same enthusiasm that Savannah always did about her own. I frequently heard the cadence of big sister’s tone in Mack’s voice, and I well recognized the keen argumentative style she had clearly learned from her as well.

Musicals Make the World Go Round: Two days after Mack was born, Savannah auditioned for her first play. Neither Kevin nor I could bear the thought of missing her audition, so we schlepped the brand-new Mack and all of her brand-new baby accoutrements to the Springfield Theatre Centre in the early morning hours on Saturday, March 19, 1994. Mack spent that second full day of her life in that theatre, and at the end of that long day, her big sister landed a coveted role as a bean person in Jack and the Beanstalk, a musical. I guess all of that singing got into her brain, because Mack, like her sister, adored musical theatre and musical movies for the rest of her life. Every summer, Savannah attended a theatre camp program at the Springfield Theatre Centre, and as soon as Mack was old enough to attend, she joined her big sister. The girls had a blast singing, dancing, acting, and preparing for the final show at the end of the summer session. Savannah was always the ham in these productions, but one time she convinced her sister to audition for a solo part. That summer, Mack sang “Build Me up Buttercup” all by herself in the 1950s-themed final show. We were all proud, but Savannah was particularly thrilled.sissies 2

Savannah’s influence did not stop at theatre camp. From the time she was tiny, Savannah loved musicals. In fact, she WAS Ariel from The Little Mermaid almost every day of her toddlerhood; and for many weeks when she was just two years old, she scooted up the stairs on her little butt, just like Gretl did in The Sound of Music. “The sun has gone to bed and so must I,” she sweetly sang, as she went off to bed each night. Savannah was happy to have a sister with whom to watch her favorite musicals; and my little girls watched and re-watched, always singing aloud. As Savannah grew up, she added to the rotation more adult shows—like Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, and Moulin Rouge. Together my girls spent hours and hours watching these shows, sometimes singing way into the night. Mack’s interest did not stop when Savannah went to college. After that, she became a devotee of the TV show Glee and she was crazy for the Book of Morman and Next to Normal. Yep, Savannah was single-handedly responsible for Mack’s love of musicals.

Inspiration for Travel and Adventure: Savannah started dreaming about studying abroad and living overseas when she was in junior high school. She worked very hard in her Spanish classes, was always reading about new places, and talked nonstop about where she wanted to go and what she wanted to see. When she left for Indiana University to major in Spanish and International Studies, we all began to realize that she was dead serious about pursuing her dreams. As a college junior, she made the bold choice to study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was proud of her, but worried; and Mack thought it was cool that her very own sister was brave enough to live in a place that was so different and so far away. After Savannah graduated from college, she applied for a teaching program in Spain; and once she was accepted, she never looked back. Always determined, prepared, organized, and courageous, my little mermaid left in July 2010 for the adventure of a lifetime. After a month-long trip with a college friend, she moved to southern, rural Spain and began her life as an ESL teacher.

By the time it was Mack’s turn to consider studying abroad, Savannah had lived in southern Spain, spent eighteen months living and working in southern Thailand, and was back in Spain, this time in Madrid. At first, Mack talked about the UK, because she was obsessed with British culture and television. As she told me on many occasions in the months preceding her decision, “I already speak the language, momma bear, and besides, I got that accent down.” But when Savannah weighed into the conversation, challenging her baby sister to choose a location where there would be a language barrier and real culture shock, Mack listened. And you know what? I was not surprised when Mack decided to go to Spain. Savannah had been an inspiration to Mack for her entire life, and it was only fitting that big sister’s influence here would win the day. Savannah was right, and I am pleased that Mack chose Spain. It was the correct decision. And I am so very grateful that she had that short time in Spain, living an adventure, just like Sissy.

So you see, Savannah was an amazing big sister. She made an indelible mark on the life and character of Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott. So much of the person Mack was pays tribute to the sister who loved her and helped her grow into the amazing young woman she became. To know Mack was to know that she was lucky in the sister department. Savannah always loved and accepted her, challenged and inspired her. And I am so proud to have raised them both.

Happy Birthday, Savannah. As Mack would have said, “yous the best.”

sisters in spain

Sissy

I practiced the first six years of motherhood on the sweet and precocious Savannah, a red-headed and brilliant little drama queen who changed my life forever. Before her, I was a hard-drinking, self-centered material girl of the ‘80s, and immediately after she arrived in the world on March 23, 1988, I had a purpose in life that was way, way bigger than my hair. Savannah uttered her first words at nine months, was stringing articulate sentences together at one year, and she’s never really shut up since. I have always loved that about her…you never have an excuse not to know exactly what the hell is on her mind. Kevin and I showered our princess with affection, obsessed over her health and wellbeing, and spoiled her just a little bit rotten. We talked a lot about raising her as an only child so that we could give her every advantage that was possible in the world. However, in the end, we agreed that the best thing we could give her was a sibling. Cherishing a sister of my own, I was over the moon when I delivered a sister for Savannah just six days shy of her sixth birthday on March 17, 1994.

Mack was a chubby but athletic little toddler, and kind of a little bruiser. Savannah was a dainty and cerebral child who would sit quietly for hours reading a book. Mack skipped crawling and started walking at eight months, and very soon after that was able to run after her big sister. Watching my barefoot toddler chase after (and sometimes terrify) my skinny and giggly girly-girl in ruffled socks was such a hoot. Savannah would yell and scream at me to make her sister stop, but she already knew what needed to be done. Savannah would drop to her knees, hold out her arms, and Mack would barrel into her with a monster hug. My girls were so different from each other, and it was a joy to watch them navigate the world in their own individual ways. In large gatherings with family, and especially within our close circle of friends in Springfield, Savannah sat with or spied on the adults, while Mack led the gang of kids as far away from the grownups as was absolutely possible. Savannah talked early, but had no interest in athletics; Mack walked early, but didn’t talk until she was almost two. I always teased Savannah by saying that Mack didn’t talk because she couldn’t get a word in edgewise. But when Savannah left for college, and Mack did not step in to fill the silence, I knew there was no truth in that at all.

The six-year gap in their ages was sometimes difficult, and my girls did not always get along, but they adored one another. Sometimes it was way, way, deep, deep down, but there was a great deal of love between them. Their names for each other offer just one example of their shared respect and affection. When Mack finally started talking, she called Savannah “Sissy.” It may have started because she couldn’t put her tongue around the word Savannah, but it stuck even after she grew up because she idolized her big sister. While most everyone else called Mackenzie “Mack,” Savannah never did. She always referred to her by her full name and often chastised her dad and me for cheating her sister out of her full Irish name and calling her a name for a boy.

Sometime around 1996 or 1997, we were all three in the bathroom. I was giving Mack a bath, and Savannah was assisting me. We were all singing and laughing, and Mack was probably drinking the bath water and splashing us. It has always been a habit in our family to make up silly songs and jingles, and Savannah made up a song about her baby sister. Although it’s pretty bad, it’s one that has stuck with us all these years. Savannah will probably cringe that I’m writing it here, but the embarrassment of my girls has never stopped me from doing anything before, so here goes:

Mackenzie Kathleen,

Mackenzie Kathleen.

She is the nicest thing we’ve ever seen!

She’s sweet and she’s cute

in her birthday suit.

Mackenzie, Mackenzie Kathleen!

She’s witty and wild.

She’s our “special” child (and, yes, Savannah, added those quotes–probably because her sister was drinking the bath water!)

Mackenzie, Mackenzie Kathleen…McDermott!

We have had so many laughs over that dumb little ditty, and now it is even more precious to me than ever before. Part of my overwhelming grief in the loss of my Mack is feeling so keenly the loss of Savannah’s Mackenzie. My precious older daughter has lost her baby sister. I certainly do not know what I would do without my sister; and I am heartbroken that the greatest gift we ever gave Savannah is gone. I do not know how she will ever accept this terrible loss; and I don’t know how I will ever accept mine. But one thing that is absolutely certain: I still have one very precious and dear reason for living. And I will do everything in my power to show my beautiful Savannah that she is not alone, that her sissy will be in her heart for the rest of her life, and somehow, we will survive this horrible tragedy together.

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