In nearly 15 years, I had not walked through those doors. Those doors. On the last day before our local Lake Forest McDonald’s would close, I entered the very doors my 11 year old son, Steven exited after enjoying a quick Chicken McNugget Happy Meal with his buddy, turning to cut through the West Lake Forest train station, where he was struck and killed by a freight train crossing a commuter train. That sunny, windy Saturday afternoon in April of 2003, Steven never returned home, and my family fell off the cliff of our lives.
Revisiting any place that represents the last moments before a loved one’s death can not only be a trigger to nightmarish visuals, but sort of like opening a time capsule that is better left untouched. For me, although I remained in Lake Forest with my family after Steven’s death, drives past that McDonald’s were usually silent and prayerful, often leaving me short of breath and short of answers as to the “why” of my little boy’s untimely passing.
That day I finally walked back in to the farmhouse styled McDonald’s with its now weathered green cedar siding, I found myself immediately entrenched in the noisy normalcy of customers enjoying their last morning “McCoffee” with local friends, moms treating their little ones to a last pancake breakfast there, and a long line of others wanting to take advantage of their last chance at half-price “made-to-order omelettes.” (And yes, you might be thinking, “Only in Lake Forest, right?”)
Although time stood still for me in those first moments, time had marched on uninterrupted for the many who frequented our local McDonald’s and would surely miss their familiar morning rituals there. I panned the landscape of the restaurant, not really knowing if I’d simply stand there for a few moments and make my escape, or at least try to stay and take in this unfamiliar experience with some semblance of what a “normal” patron would do there. I chose the latter, and decided to order what any health-conscious, almost 54-year-old woman would be brave enough to order “to-go” at a McDonald’s – Egg McMuffin, no Canadian bacon (“to go,” of course, in case I chickened out of staying).
As I waited for my order, a vibrantly colorful span of wall tiled murals immediately captured my focus. Indeed, many of the walls of this McDonald’s were covered in murals by local and beloved artist, Mark McMahon. I had recently read in DailyNorthShore that an anonymous donor offered to fund the removal of the beautiful tiles to be relocated to the Gorton Community Center in east Lake Forest, where they’d continue to be treasured by our town and the loyal following of McMahon’s storied work. I grabbed my brown sacked breakfast and found myself very slowly walking through the place, bending over the accommodating shoulders of patrons in the perimeter of booths as I scoured each local scene depicted in McMahon’s many murals. Our church, St. Patrick’s in Lake Forest, our beach, Market Square – the very favorite locales of our little boy – were all gracing the walls of this iconic place.
Hmm, I thought to myself, I never knew these scenes were even here. Hmm, I also thought, how incredibly ironic that this McMahon artwork and these local scenes are almost exactly the same as what hangs on our walls in our own home — memorial gifts from family over the years to forever remember Steven’s favorite places in life as captured by Mark McMahon. Who knew?
I immediately felt a wash of relief and a deep, full breath fill my lungs for the first time, after all these years, in this once horrifying place of mystery and pain, where my little boy ate his last fries, laughed his last lunch away, and walked his last steps. Steven’s favorite places all around me on these colorful, comforting walls brought a sense of closure I did not anticipate. The everyday feel of the people and the upbeat “last-day-of-business as usual” mood here made me realize that my worries had evaporated into the confidence that Steven’s last moments were filled with “a ‘happy’ Happy Meal,” no knowledge of what was around the corner.
Thank you, God, I thought. Thank you for giving me the courage to do this and for the positive and healing turn this gave me on my grief journey. All was indeed OK in that last hour of Steven’s life. He was surrounded by colored walls of his favorite places on this earth. And now I see this same colorful artwork every day in my own home. Sure, I walked out those doors, but now exited with confidence, a new lightness in my step, eager to get to work and enjoy the rest of a positive day.
Lake Forest McDonald’s, I hardly knew ye – but I’m glad I came to say good-bye.
Maria Malin is the author of the book “When You Just Can’t Say Good-bye, Don’t: A Mother’s Personal Journey After Losing a Child”.