the last laugh

Some people need to get the last word. Todd needed to get the last laugh.

Every summer the incredibly uncool, nerdy Malloy kids would make the annual trip to ValleyFair with super cool Uncle Todd. This excursion involved a lot of planning, especially who would sit with Todd on the rides.

He rounded out the older kids’ foursome, which was supposed to make the experience less awkward and not leave anyone out. But we would fight over who would be stuffed next to the 6-foot-5 guy taking up a ridiculous amount of leg room, arm space and pooled over into the seats.

Despite these quibbles, we had a blast.

The pinnacle of the trip was the pilgrimage to the Wild Thing, which I know I was not the one to convince Mike, who is scared of heights, to ride. That was all smooth-talking Todd.

As we waited in line, I insisted we needed to figure out how we were going to pose for the picture. We needed a strategy. I wanted to see something awesome when we walked out of the tunnel and into the souvenir screen trap.

We had it down to a science, knowing where in the tunnel the lights and cameras were positioned, timing how many seconds we had to do something good. We knew we had one shot to make it perfect.

For some reason, Mike and I thought it would be awesome to get a picture of him pretending to choke me, while I held a gun made out of my hands to his face.  That’s the kind of middle school bad-assery that only comes out of Catholic school.

I don’t remember Amanda’s instructions. But I do remember Todd remaining calm and collected, not commenting as we plotted.

My memory still churns up the moments of the dark tunnel and flashes, the anticipation, the carefully planned action, then realizing when you are moving fast and going down, fake choking becomes real choking. Haven’t made that mistake again…

As we returned to daylight, we laughed and screamed, rushing to see our gloriously epic photo.

And then we saw that Todd had bombed it. There he was expressionless, bored and annoyed. Our, “Look!” Became, “Todd! You wrecked it…”

He could not stop laughing. The whole way home, he kept laughing. Years later, we’d pull out the picture, and he would laugh at how he skunked it. Grandma still laughs at it.

Aug. 31 would have been Todd’s 41st birthday. I pulled this out the night before and couldn’t help laughing and still feeling that dammit, he won.

As someone who needs to always get the last word, maybe Todd is trying to teach me something. How different would life be if we went after the last laugh?

our last meal

I wish I remembered the last thing I said to you, but I don’t. I remember three things: what we ate, what I overheard you say, and the hug goodbye.

I decided to make Grandma and Grandpa breakfast after the post-Thanksgiving festivities. Grandpa had a seizure that weekend. You were there. You watched, helped and called me, panicked. I was always the first to answer your calls in a family emergency. No matter what, we could reach each other and get the family phone tree started.

I made scrambled eggs. You asked if we had cream cheese to put in the eggs. One of your favorite concoctions. Unfortunately, we did not. But the eggs still turned out OK. I remember we went to the cabin one summer, and I intended to make Grandma a cranberry citrus bundt cake for her birthday. It required so many special ingredients, including crème fraîche, and I had to go to three grocery stores to find it. When I woke up, you had used the precious ingredient in your scrambled eggs. I wanted to be angry, but it was delicious. I don’t think I ever told you though.

We had waffles. I remember when you were in high school, and I would spend the night. Grandma and Grandpa would make us waffles in the morning, and I couldn’t believe how many you could eat. I didn’t like maple syrup. You told me to eat waffles with peanut butter, which I always thought was weird. I made fun of you, while secretly enjoying it. I rarely eat waffles another way now. Once for your birthday, I went to Mall of America for hours stressed out searching for the perfect gift. All I could find was craft peanut butter. I was so worried it would look cheap, so I got you three flavors. You raved about that peanut butter. It was probably the best gift I gave you, and I never underestimated your love of peanut butter again.

I also picked up special lamb sausage from Whole Foods. The kind that was patties made specially by the butchers. I didn’t know you were coming, so we had to share the sausages, and everyone was asking for more. You came into the room as we were sitting down, and again, impressed me with the number of waffles you could eat. Of course, you were a foot taller me, so you definitely. But I felt like that 4-year-old again, in awe as I watched you eat.

It was after the meal, when I overheard what would be those last words I remember. Grandpa apologized for not getting you up North to the cabin.

“It’s OK, Dad. I really think God has a plan, and everything happens for a reason,” you said.

You told him he had found better doctors now. The medicine was re-calibrated. Everything was going to be OK. I hadn’t heard you talk about God or serenity for many years. You sounded peaceful, happy.

Then you came out of the room in a hurry to go find those wine glasses that looks like beer mugs for your friends. It had been your mission all weekend to find these. We even looked, but you were determined to see for yourself. All I could focus on was those words. I wanted to write them down. I kept replaying it in my head trying not to forget it.

Suddenly, you gave me a great big hug. We probably said I love you; I’ll see you soon. I don’t remember. I wish I did, but sometimes those details escape us when we aren’t looking for the meaning of mundane moments. I thought I would see you in a few weeks anyway. Yet, I didn’t want to let go. Then you were gone.

It’s been three years now. I miss you. But I inherited two of your favorite kitchen items. I have your cast iron skillet and alien juicer that I use daily. I forget about the day as I cook, and get lost thinking about the meals we ate and words that were left unsaid. And how could you be so genius to put peanut butter on waffles?