Where Hope Lives

Three years ago this day, Mack slipped away from us, quietly, unexpectedly, and so very far away in Spain. She was a towering, colossal presence in the lives of her family and her friends, and the holes in our hearts from her absence are deep and wide and Mackenduring.

Recently, my dear friend Bridgett, who is both a writer and a gifted listener for wisdom on every breeze, wrote a blog about hope and an Emily Dickinson poem I once loved but had long forgotten: “Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.” Deconstructing the image of hope as a delicate bird, my friend wrote: “hope is dogged and rough and resilient. Hope resides in the dimmest doorways and the darkest corners of our lives. Hope grows up from the disaster and the dirt, the fertile floor of grief.”

That passage got me thinking about the residence of my hope, along the path of my grief. Perhaps once…before…hope was “a thing with feathers” that perched in my soul. But when a soul is grieving, there is no room for the perching; and along the way these past three years, hope’s song has sometimes gone silent. In missing Mack’s giant presence in my life, in longing for her love and her laughter, and in lamenting all that a short life denied her, I have spent thirty-six months reflecting on loss, on life, and on learning the human balance of both. What I have been chasing all along, I now understand, is hope. Hope is the fire of our expectations, aspirations, desires, simple plans, and grand ambitions. Hope resides in that space between loss and living. Hope is food for a life worth living; and like all food, Mack would want us all to consume it, to take delight from it, and to appreciate the nourishment it offers.

In those bitter first days in early October 2014, I witnessed the flight of hope from my soul. Yet in the early fog of my grief I somehow knew, wondrously and thankfully, to reach out and grab it. When such a force of nature as Mack takes her leave, hope flies away with her. Hope was no longer within me, but I instinctively knew that I needed to keep it within sight. Hope came first in the face of my daughter Savannah, for hope resides, for mothers at least, in precious children. But since my mother’s hope for Mack could no longer reside in her body, I needed to find a way for hope to reside in her spirit, instead. The establishment of the Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship at Truman State University, where Mack learned to fly, provided a residence for my lost hope for her. Now hope resides in that scholarship. It resides on a pretty little campus in northern Missouri. It resides in the students who have benefited already and will continue to benefit in the future. It resides in an enduring legacy of Mack’s passion for writing. Even though I will sometimes fail in my grief to see it, hope will always reside there, waiting for me to reclaim it.

Today, as we mark the third anniversary of Mack’s passing, I am so proud…and bursting with hope…to announce that the scholarship that bears her name has its third recipient, a small town, Missouri girl named Athena Geldbach. The scholarship will help this studious, serious-minded young woman minimize her college debt and play a small role in her hopes of writing books and pursuing a career in publishing so that she can also help other hopeful writers. Athena has some charming characteristics that remind me of Mack. She has a passion for books, a devotion to pets, and is a liberal arts dreamer who is also, oddly, a math whiz (Mack did calculus just for fun; Athena is a math tutor at Truman). Mack always said she had a super-powered, two-sided brain; and, apparently, Athena has one of those, too.

Today, while you are all, like me, grieving for Mack a little more tearfully, missing her a little more terribly, and feeling the hole she left in your hearts a little more keenly, I send you love and a big-Mack hug. And I send you hope. Because in loving Mack and keeping her spirit always with you, some of my hope resides in you. I have learned that it really doesn’t matter where hope resides; it simply matters that it lives.

four-leaf-clover

The Mackenzie Kathleen 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/

To read more about the scholarship and the hope it has brought me, see:
Honoring Mack, 2014 (Endowment of the Scholarship)
Magical Medicine, 2015 (First Scholarship Recipient)
The Happiest and Most Enduring of Memorials, 2016 (Second Scholarship Recipient

To learn about why Mack chose Truman State, see:
A Purple Bulldog

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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.

 

birthday 1 and 7

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

The Happiest and Most Enduring of Memorials

There is a smart, joyful, and kooky young woman at Truman State University for whom writing is an essential activity of life. She is also a devoted fan of sleeping, eating, and steering clear of spiders. Oh, and her name starts with an “M” and she is witty and adores absurdity. Sound familiar? Uncanny, indeed, but in all of these wonderful ways, she truly is just like our Mack. So I am beyond charmed and delighted to announce that Marisa Gearin—a senior, creative writing major from St. Louis—is the second recipient of the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship. Kudos to the Truman State Foundation for finding yet another Mack-like spirit on which to bestow the award that honors her life.

Even before official word from the Truman State Foundation, I received a welcome holiday gift in December in the form of Marisa’s handwritten, thank you note. marisaIn the message, penned in a slightly larger, but scratch-style writing quite similar to Mack’s own, she exuded passion in her descriptions of her writing and in sharing her aspirations for her life beyond college. Like Mack’s sister Savannah, she hopes to live and teach abroad after graduation. The scholarship will help ease the costs of her final year at Truman and will help her save money for graduate school, as well. Marisa writes poetry and short fiction and has been involved with the Truman slam poetry team TruSlam (check out her Mack-perfect, spider-hating poem at https://soundcloud.com/truslam/reasons-why-spiders-are-bad). She has published work in the Truman publications Windfall and Monitor and is the author of a collection of short stories entitled Egg Teeth: Realist Fiction for Young Minds. The back cover of Marisa’s book would have earned critical acclaim from Mack, tickling her funny bone and eliciting her classic crooked smile and a hearty Mack cackle.

book-back

 

In my heart, I am starting to think that Mack herself might be intervening in the selection of these scholarship recipients, whispering in the ears of the judges, telling jokes to bend them toward the most Mack-appropriate of the candidates. In my head, I know that Mack would be pleased to make this little, annual difference in the life of a student writer. Knowing that it would please Mack so well adds another depth of meaning in the enormity of this scholarship to my emotional wellbeing and my search for solace in a world without her.

Mack’s scholarship began as a simple gesture of grieving parents to honor a beloved child. The scholarship has become a living memorial to Mack’s beautiful life and spirit and to the joy and meaning she brought into our lives. The scholarship at its core is for and about Mack. But it is also about the amazing student writers it benefits; first Megan, now Marisa, and all of those amazing student writers yet to come. Mack’s scholarship is also about the donors who have made it possible. The power to confer this $1,000 annual award lives within the love and generosity of all of the amazing human beings who have helped endow the scholarship in perpetuity. I am still overwhelmed by the contributions that provided the initial endowment way back in December 2014 and by the donations that continue to flow in support of building the endowment for even greater impact.

I have said it before, but I can never say it enough, and so I am saying it once again. Thank you for loving Mack and for supporting this scholarship in her honor. What could possibly be more gratifying than helping a passionate, student writer like Marisa Gearin pay for college? What could possibly be a more fitting way to honor our Mack, whose joy for life brought so much joy into our own? And what could possibly bring a grieving mother more solace than a legacy that preserves her child’s spirit in the present and connects her legacy to the future? This scholarship really is the happiest and most enduring of memorials; a living, breathing tribute to a beautiful life well lived, to the promise of lives yet lived, and to the gratitude and love within the living hearts that Mack left behind her.

 

The Mackenzie Kathleen 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/

True Bulldog 5

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

TruWomen

Mack arrived at Truman State University on August 18, 2012, to find the scholar and the writer inside of her soul. Within her first hours on campus, engaged in organized activities with students assigned with her to Grim Hall, she met her soul mate, Meagan. Neither Mack nor Meagan could exactly pinpoint or describe their first introduction, as their fast friendship was so effortless and so comfortable that it was as though they had known each other all of their lives. They initially bonded over a shared love of television, musical theater, food, sarcasm, humor, and feminism, but the depth of the connection between these two sweet girls went far and away beyond dorm acquaintances, college companionship, and coed mischief. This was a friendship that quieted insecurities and doubts. This was a friendship that inspired dreams. This was a friendship that empowered the women within them.

During their first semester at Truman, Mack and Meagan settled into college life together with exuberance and with humor. Both had an abundance of each of those qualities all their own, but together they blew off the lid of tiny, old Grim Hall. As the months flew by, they also drew confidence and strength from each other as they adapted to their coursework and to life on their own. They formed the foundation of a little family of friends on campus, they embraced new freedoms and young-adult fun, and they settled into their new lives in Kirksville, a small town in bucolic northern Missouri. Very soon after arriving at Truman, Mack provided regular commentary to me through text messages and phone calls, and I was surprised but pleased about an uncharacteristic new tendency in her for chatter. While she enthusiastically shared details about her classes, laughed about getting lost or oversleeping, and relayed comical details about the dorm, the dining hall, or the golf team, most of her excitement centered on the people she met. On her new friends. On her new college family. And at the root of Mack’s happy, contented self far away from home was that girl named Meagan.

I first met Meagan when I visited campus a couple of weeks after moving Mack into the dorm, and I was smitten with her, too. She is smart and silly, just like my Mack, a skeptical liberal with the second-best giggle I have ever heard. She is feisty, a little kooky, a whole lot of witty, and she sings her sentences, lilting the syllables melodically across her full lips. She is what I like to call a good egg. Mack had a long history of collecting special friends, so I was not at all surprised she found Meagan. Mack knew a good egg when she saw one, and Meagan was a keeper. In October of her first semester at college, Mack sent me this picture…

will you be my roomie

In case you cannot tell, the candies on the partly eaten pizza spell out “ROOMMATES,” and Mack was not only thrilled with Meagan’s proposal for sophomore roommate status, but was also delighted with the panache of the delivery itself: on a pizza topped with M&Ms alongside a cheesy picture of Meagan, promising Mack a bag of her favorite Warhead sour candies.

Mack and Meagan were inseparable at Truman. During sophomore year they shared a square college apartment, and they lived together as friends, as sisters, and as confidants. Mack cooked for Meagan, and Meagan helped keep dirt and wine off of Mack’s white armchair. Meagan provided the big screen TV, and Mack taught Meagan to love Buffy the Vampire Slayer and My Cousin Vinny. Their shared academic interests in writing and in gender studies made them frequent classmates, so they frequently studied together, probably mostly while watching TV. And certainly, on more occasions than I would care to know about, Mack probably convinced Meagan to skip the studying altogether and watch more episodes of Parks and Recreation instead. Meagan brought out the talker in Mack, and the two of them shared ideas, always finding ways to connect their gender-studies readings to their unique observations about the women in their favorite shows. Over two magical years, they dreamed. They laughed. They watched TV. They talked about the future. Together. Always together. Even when they were home for break—Mack in St. Louis and Meagan in nearby Fenton—they were together.

Very early on in their friendship, the girls arranged a meeting for their parents, almost like an anxious engaged couple eager to put the in-laws in a room together. They were excited for all of us to hit it off; and hit it off, we did. Kevin & I and Tony & Mary had the pleasure of dining with Mack and Meagan several times, both in Kirksville and in St. Louis. Mack had adopted Meagan and her folks in a package deal, and so did we. Since losing our Mack, the three of them have provided me a great deal of comfort with their easy friendship–drinking, eating, and talking about politics–and their generous support of the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship now endowed at Truman State. I am certain they know how much Mack loved them, but I also hope they know the depth of my own connections to them, as well. Mack’s friendship with Meagan was forever, and so it will now be with me.

Recently, Meagan told me she admired the power Mackenzie possessed to ignite the passions of the people around her, to share her infectious joy for life, and to quietly demonstrate the meaning of true friendship. Meagan’s time with Mack was too short, and her memories of college will always be bittersweet; young people should not have to suffer the tragic loss of a friend. But Meagan is a wise and brave young woman, and she believes that two years with her cherished friend was a far better bargain than never having had the pleasure of knowing Mack at all. I am beyond grateful that Meagan found her way to Truman State and that she was Mack’s best friend for the wild and wonderful adventure of college. Today, as Meagan graduates with the Truman State University Class of 2016, I take some comfort in the knowledge that Mack’s spirit lives on in Meagan’s heart and in life she will live beyond college.

And so, dear Meagan, go out in that world and make your dreams come true. As Mack would say, “you’re a grown-ass woman now,” but don’t forget to laugh and to stop to be silly along the way.

Magical Medicine

There is no magical medicine for the heartbreak of losing a child, but I have learned that it is possible to keep my lost girl with me. In living through the past ten months without Mack, I have found some solace in keeping her spirit alive in my life—telling Mack stories in this blog, talking to her every day, and working hard to live a life that would make her proud. Keeping Mack alive in this way gives me strength for the good days and helps me to breathe a little easier through the bad ones. But I have also learned that time will not heal my heart and that keeping Mack with me is simply not enough for me. It has also become imperative to share my Mack with people who never had the chance to know her; it is important for me to give her life some historical meaning. I need for the world to know that Mack was here, that she loved life and lived it with a true heart, that she left a lasting imprint on the lives of her family members and her friends, and that she made a difference in the communities in which she lived and loved and learned.

When we made the decision to establish a scholarship in Mack’s honor, just days after losing her, I knew then that it was a fitting memorial to my lost girl. Even through the shock and horror of those first terrible days, I wanted to believe that endowing a scholarship at Truman State University—where Mack had blossomed as a young woman, a scholar, and a writer—might someday have the power to bring me solace. But now that the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Scholarship has its first recipient, I realize that I grossly underestimated its power to do some good in my life and in the world. Now that we have bestowed our first annual $1,000 scholarship, I feel its power. This perpetual scholarship brings me peace the likes of which I never believed possible. But more importantly, it carries Mack’s incredible light into the world and allows my special girl to continue to make a lasting imprint on the lives of people, even though she will never know them. Every year, a special student who values education, who loves writing, and who wants to experience the world will know about my Mack, will be a beneficiary of her generous spirit, and will achieve their dreams in life thanks at least in part to the fact that Mack lived and loved the life she did. And wow…wow…what an amazing gift…what a magical medicine it is.

For making this magical medicine available to me, I will be eternally grateful to all of the more than 120 donors to the scholarship, which is fully endowed and will continue in perpetuity. And in honor of Mack’s scholarship and in recognition for all of the students in the world who will begin a brand new year of learning this fall, please join me in feeling the power of this scholarship to lift our spirits but more importantly to extend the reach of Mack’s personal magic for making a difference in the world.

The Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Scholarship, 2015

So let me introduce you to the young woman who has the honor of being Mack’s first scholarship recipient. Megan Matheney is a sophomore, pursuing a creative writing B.F.A. and a minor in Italian studies (she will study abroad in Italy next spring). A native of a small town in northern Missouri, Megan is the perfect recipient for three Mack-like reasons. First, she is an athlete. She holds a third-degree black belt in TaeKwon-do, a sport that Mack practiced for a time when she was very young. Second, Megan very much relates to Mack’s discomfort in dressy clothes. And third, she loves animals; she grew up in the country with numerous dogs, cats, horses, and guinea pigs. Like Mack, Megan basically grew up in a zoo, and animals are a very important part of her life.

Here is Megan with her cat…

The cat who thinks he%27s a dog

And here is my Mack with her friend’s college kitty, King Tut (Mack LOVED to kittysit)…

kitty

Here is the scholarship announcement and official recipient bio…

scholarship 2015-01  scholarship 2015-02

And here is Mack being goofy when I asked her to pose with the TSU sign…

at Truman

Mack’s Beautiful Brain

Mack’s self-effacing humor, silly personality, and humble nature often disguised her intellect and concealed the profundity of her intellectual curiosity. She loved to play the fool in order to make people laugh. Downplaying her own talents and accomplishments was also one of her ways of putting at ease the people around her. Growing up, Mack also invested so much of herself into athletic pursuits that she frequently put serious academics aside. She often joked about her slacking study habits, and among her friends and teachers, her academic procrastination was legendary. Throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school, Mack’s public persona was that of a witty and affable jock with a strong tendency toward frivolity and fun. Yet behind Mack’s goofy-girl façade, underneath that unpretentious layer of modesty, and well beyond her natural and effortless athleticism, was one of the most beautiful brains I have ever known.

Of course Mack’s family members and closest friends knew the truth about the depth and breadth of Mack’s intellect and intellectual curiosity. I am sure as well that there were people beyond family and close friends who may have noticed the impressive range of her vocabulary, as she peppered her comic routines with new favorite words. No doubt there were others who appreciated one or more of her razor-sharp critiques about a song or a book or a news story. And certainly there were still others who respected Mack’s uncanny ability to make an absolutely astute and succinct observation about the most random of topics.

But because Mack was always so modest and so damn quiet about her intellectual ideas, I think a lot of people might have missed out on Mack’s brain. I think there may be people who knew Mack growing up who never knew that she followed current events from a very young age, that she was reflective and philosophical, that she loved words, especially quirky or archaic ones. There are likely some people who did not know that my girl of few words was a master of debate, that she worried about climate change and the fate of endangered animals, that racism in America haunted her dreams. I am sorry that others might not have been aware that Mack was interested in how mechanical things work, that she learned quickly and possessed a remarkable ability to remember the smallest of details, that she understood people so well because she quietly watched and observed and considered them.

Frequently throughout the years, I would catch Mack engaged in a moment of deep thought. To me there was no sweeter scene than watching her freckled and expressive face as she was thinking through an idea, puzzling over a problem, or contemplating an object or event. It was such a frequent occurrence that I actually captured quite a few of these moments with a camera. While it is true that many of my happiest memories of Mack are of her dramatically delivering the punch line of a very bad joke or badly singing a silly song, it is frequently a memory of Mack’s face in quiet reflection that touches me most profoundly.reflective 2

Recently, I remembered a conversation that Mack and I had about one of those photographs. When we attended freshman orientation at Truman State, I snapped a photo of her peering into the office of a creative writing professor we were waiting to meet. I showed her the photo and asked her what she was thinking about when I took it. She looked at the picture, flashed one of her famous faces of incredulity, and said: “What the hell, mom, why are you all up in my bizness?” I smiled and asked her the question again. She started to say something, but she stopped and, instead, she took a long pause. Then, in a slightly serious tone that took me aback, she said something like: “You know, I started to tell you that I was thinking about how much candy I will be able to eat once I am in college and you aren’t around to tell me to stop. But the truth is, I was thinking about how now that I am a grown-ass woman, I get to take the classes I want to take and read the books I want to read and learn the stuff I want to learn.” And then my smart girl poked her head a few times with her forefinger and said: “the next four years is all about this brain, and that, Momma Bear, is pretty fuckin’ cool.”

When Mack went to college, she shed her jovial jock image, almost overnight; and I think it was partly a deliberate act. She was finally ready to share her brain with the world; she was ready to release the intellectual in her that had been there all along. She maintained her self-effacing sense of humor, she remained true to her belief that boasting and bragging and being a know-it-all served no useful purpose, and, thank goodness, she never abandoned her wit and sense of silly fun. I think it is an absolute fact that the people who knew Mackenzie McDermott at Truman State University would have used the adjectives “smart” and “funny,” in that order, to describe her. And I know that this fact would have painted a permanent smile upon her heart.

Smart and funny is a winning combination in life, and my Mack was a natural at both.

Mack’s Beautiful Brain at Work:

In 1999 and 2000, we put an addition on our house and did a lot of remodeling, painting, etc. I was surprised but delighted at the interest that Mack took in the project. She stood in the yard and watched the carpenters construct the frame of the second-story addition, she convinced her dad to let her help with painting and hammering trim, she asked questions about the tools and the building materials, and she was transfixed when her dad assembled and installed the spiral staircase to the loft. Here she is, just a shrimpy little kid, perched on the newly constructed steps, thinking about the construction going on in the family room below or, perhaps, considering the new view from the reconfigured stairs…

reflective 4

Of all of her sports, Mack probably had the most fun playing softball. She always said that it was her “recreational” sport, even though she played it very well. Yet for all of the fun she had in the dugout, laughing with her teammates, it was actually while playing softball that I saw her engaged in the most thoughtful reflection. In this photo, I think she had trained her attention on the opposing pitcher, perhaps developing a strategy for her next at-bat…

reflective

A Purple Bulldog

Last week, a large envelope arrived in the mail with a Truman State University logo in bold purple letters. This was the kind of envelope that announced quite clearly that it conveyed a very important and official parcel. Upon holding that envelope in my hands and feeling the somewhat squishy character of the item within it, my heart skipped a beat…or maybe two…as I realized that the envelope and its contents possessed the feel of a padded diploma portfolio. I am not sure why I knew it, but even before I pulled out the lush purple folder with Truman State University embossed in gold letters across the front, I knew that Mack’s college—the school she had picked on her own, the school she had embraced with every atom of her budding intellectual being, the school she loved—was recognizing her collegiate accomplishments along with its spring 2015 graduates.

True Bulldog 2

The tears freely flowed down my cheeks and I forgot to breathe as I fixed my blurred gaze upon that beautiful diploma. I cried because this represented Mack’s hard academic work and her success at Truman. I cried because she will not graduate with her best college friends and classmates one year from now. I cried because this will be her only college diploma. But I also cried because I realized that Mack had made a very wise college decision. That she had chosen a special school that embraced her as much as she had embraced it. And that my baby girl had spent her magical two years of college at a very special campus where individual students matter. The letter accompanying the diploma validated my realizations, and the tears just kept coming as a read it…

True Bulldog 1

I am grateful and happy that Mack chose Truman State. Mack was incredibly happy there. And at every turn, she met teachers, administrators, editors, a coach, and friend upon friend upon friend who were all happy that Mack was there, too. But I can tell you that back in March of 2012, when Mack was procrastinating her college choice right down to the wire (of course), I had no idea Truman was such a special place. I had not even heard of this small liberal arts school in rural, northern Missouri until after we began searching for a suitable substitute for Oberlin College, which was way out of our price range. In our last-minute research, we became impressed with Truman’s rankings for academics and value. After we visited Truman for the first time, we came away with a pretty good feeling about the lovely little campus with its solid red-brick buildings, lush green spaces, and architecturally impressive library. The academics, especially in English, the varied writing opportunities available to all levels of students, and an invitation to play NCAA Division II golf added to the allure. But I was still worried it would be a poor substitute for Oberlin; and late in the game, I favored Mack’s other choice, Saint Louis University.

Once Mack narrowed her choices to Truman and SLU, she refused to discuss it further. She wanted to be left alone to quietly make a decision on her own. I tried not to press her, as I wanted the final decision to be hers; but, of course, I fretted more as each day passed. Mack’s nonchalance about it added to my stress, but she expressed no worry whatsoever. Finally, just a couple of days before a deposit for housing was due, Mack chose Truman State. She was calm and deliberate in delivering her decision and explaining it. She told me that she believed it made the most sense. It was affordable and would require very little in the way of student loans. It offered the liberal arts curriculum she wanted, as well as a strong creative writing department and a B.F.A. if she decided to pursue that path. And playing golf for free was “the bacon on the burger,” she quipped. Mack’s decision made sense, I had to admit. But I immediately worried that she had simply made a practical decision, choosing Truman not because it spoke to her heart but because it was more affordable. When I expressed my doubt about her choice, Mack said: “Mom, the school color is purple. I’m going to be a Bulldog. What could be better than being a purple bulldog?!!” I responded that a college wardrobe of her favorite color and the lovability of the mascot was no way to choose a college. “Nah! Hush, hush, Momma Bear,” she chided me. “It’s all good. I’ve found the right place. I feel it.”True Bulldog 5

Of course, like so many other things in her life about which I had fears or doubts, Mack was right all along. Her hunch…her feeling…about Truman State was, indeed, all good. Within just a few days of arriving on that campus, it was Mack’s place. She found a comfortable home there, and it was from that amazing little college in northern Missouri that I watched the scholar in Mack emerge. Truman was the place where she bloomed and beamed and blossomed. It is a good feeling now to understand so very completely that the most important choice that Mack made as a young adult was absolutely perfect. Truman’s kind and human gesture in awarding a diploma for the academic work Mack completed adds one final proof attesting to the special place it really is. Truman is a smart and quirky little school with a whole lot of heart, just like my Macko. Thank you, Truman State University, for giving my baby exactly what she wanted: a happy and healthy and hopeful place to flourish.

Purple bulldogs forever.

Mack sporting some of that TSU purple…

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Mack is the first golfer on the left, next to her coach, Sam Lesseig. He was a sweet man, greeting Mack at freshman orientation with her Truman State golf bag. He and his wife fed the girls at their home and showered them with kindness and small gifts. Mack reported to me after a Christmas feast of lasagna, that he had given her a coloring book and crayons so that she could chill out a little while studying for finals. She was so tickled about that. Sadly, Sam died suddenly in the summer of 2013.

Honoring Mack

I have learned two truths over the past two, terrible months.

One: There is no magic elixir for the pain of losing a child, and not even time can offer a cure. There is no silver lining in the dark and gloomy storm cloud under which grieving parents must live the remainder of their lives. There is no solace from the heartache of a mother who loses a cherished daughter.

Two: Realization of permanent sorrow sinks into the frail, human psyche fast and hard, and finding constructive outlets for such unbearable grief is imperative. Savannah, my older daughter, is my primary motive for looking forward into the future. She provides me with an obvious and joyful purpose. But I have also found that setting my sights on a present and a future life that might include—in some small way, at least—my lost younger daughter is as necessary as is pushing air in and out of my lungs. To that end, I have undertaken two very different, but equally important steps.

One: I am writing about my Macko. I am sharing stories about her humor, describing her amazing character, and illustrating the myriad ways in which her generous spirit and sweet heart enhanced my life and touched the lives of the people who knew her. I am keeping her alive in my heart, in my mind, and in my memories, but I have an overwhelming need to put pen to paper. My blog is an important part of my personal journey down this lonely and bumpy road, but it is also one of the ways for me to keep her alive for all of us.

Two: Within hours of getting the terrible news of Mackenzie’s passing, I was determined to establish a scholarship in her honor. She had chosen Truman State University, a little-known liberal arts gem in northern Missouri, as the setting for her growth into a young woman; and it was there that she was blossoming as a writer, as well. Truman was the place where she was preparing for the pursuit of her personal dream to write television shows; and it was immediately obvious to me that establishing a scholarship at Truman to support other aspiring young writers had the power to provide me and her father with some measure of comfort.

With the initial help of the incredible staff of the Truman State University Foundation, the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship was in place by the time of Mack’s memorial service. We created a $1,000 scholarship for a student majoring or minoring in creative writing in the 2015-16 academic year, and we also created an endowment fund. A $15,000 endowment would ensure an annual scholarship of about $700 and would exist in perpetuity. I was confident that the annual scholarship would quickly be funded, but I thought that funding the endowment might take us many years.

I could not have been more wrong. Due to a tremendous, remarkable, and awe-inspiring outpouring of love and the amazing generosity of family, friends, colleagues, teachers, and even the kindness of a few strangers, a deserving student will receive that $1,000 scholarship in 2015. But more incredibly, however, the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship is fully endowed as well. Just two months after losing our little girl, the people who loved her and the people who care about us have given us the best gift that is possible in the wake of our terrible loss. I have no words to properly express my gratitude. Knowing that the Truman State University Foundation will award a scholarship in Mackenzie’s honor in perpetuity is a comfort. I know that Mack would be happy and proud, because this scholarship is, indeed, a constructive outlet for all of us who loved her so well.

Nearly 100 personal donations came in from California, Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Illinois Legislative Correspondents Association, the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, and my mother’s small Indiana church all made generous donations. Ruby Tuesdays, Mackenzie’s former employer, donated a percentage of their profits for a special day in Mack’s honor. The Sunrise Rotary Club in Springfield, Illinois—the organization that sponsored the “This I Believe” essay contest for which Mack contributed her winning “Anything Boys Can Do” essay (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Afpjdwf-994&feature=youtu.be) also made a generous donation. I am simply overwhelmed by the contributions of so many people, and I love you all.

I want to extend a special thank you to Christopher Ave, Kevin’s editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Not only did he take up a collection of personal donations at the paper, but he also organized a “Music for Mack” fundraiser on November 6. The event was an amazing night of live music (including a very moving performance by cellist James Czyzewski of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra), good food, great St. Louis beer, and a silent auction. The event raised almost $2,500. I will be eternally grateful to Christopher’s generosity and support. I also want to thank the dear, sweet parents of Mack’s college roommate Meagan Banta-Lewis. Tony Schmitt and Mary Banta-Schmitt made their own generous personal donation to the scholarship fund, but they also spent the evening with us at “Music for Mack.” They provided emotional support and friendship, and then they also purchased many of the best items from the silent auction, including the highest priced item of the evening, a hockey stick signed by the St. Louis Blues players. Tony and Mary have found a special place in my heart now and forever.

So thank you, people. Thank you. And thank you again. This scholarship has brought us some peace. It has been a constructive outlet for my grief. It honors my sweet girl, and it provides a way for her to be with us all forever. But for years and years to come, it will also help students who dream of being writers. And what could be better than helping students achieve their dreams? Mack would love that, and she would give you all one of her famous Big Mack hugs.

Weatherbird     Music for Mack        

The above left image is original art depicting the famous St. Louis Post-Dispatch Weatherbird, drawn especially for the “Music for Mack” event. He’s wearing Truman State purple and cheering for the Bulldogs (for which Mack played golf her freshman year). Tony and Mary went home with this item, too! The flyer at right was used to publicize the event.

We will continue to build the endowment fund to support a self-sustaining annual scholarship of $1,000.(http://www.truman.edu/giving/ways-of-giving/) But no matter what happens going forward, we’ve accomplished something constructive faster than I ever dreamed possible. I would like to give you all one of those famous Big Mack hugs, too.