“Take your meds, Pa” Felix said as he cleared the dinner dishes from the table. He pointed to the small medicine cup filled with pills of different shapes and sizes in front of the old man. Reluctantly and with shaky hands he brought the medicine cup to his mouth.
“I put your pain pills in there too. You’re going to need them.” Pa froze and shot him a look of annoyance, “You know these make me sick”
“I know,” he responded. “Take some of your Zofran too. It will help with the nausea” He opened a bottle and handed him yet another tablet. “It dissolves under your tongue”. Pa took the pills slowly. One- by- one he swallowed the pills down, a thrice daily ritual that seemed to get longer each time. It was no longer about getting better, it was about masking the symptoms of his disease that was rapidly claiming his life.
Felix helped him put on his sweater, and then a coat. Although it had been a mild autumn day, the once strong and muscular military man was nothing more than bones encased in thin and sagging skin. Felix put a warm hat over the few wispy hairs left on Pa’s head and slung a portable oxygen tank over his shoulder.
“You ready old man?” Felix asked smiling.
“I’m so tired, son. Where are we going?”
“I know you are, but it will be worth it. You’ll sleep good tonight.” Certain he had all the necessary items for the outing, Felix wheeled his father out to the car and helped him get inside. Pa’s house was situated in the hills, miles from the nearest town. After he retired from the military he enjoyed the solitary life of an outdoorsman. Chopping wood, befriending the local critters and fishing in the creek that ran behind the house were some of his favorite past-times. Felix’s mother had died many years earlier after becoming the final victim of her alcoholism. In her final days her scraggily black hair and yellow eyes that glowed of jaundice and rage reminded Felix of the stray black cat that often hung around his apartment building. Bad memories and hard feelings had kept Felix away from home until now. He had forgotten how beautiful these hills were, how calming the stillness of the woods was and how humanizing the rising of the mountains in the backdrop was, and to those mountains was where they were headed.
They drove along the winding roads, gaining elevation with every mile. The sun was beginning to make its decent and Felix drove faster, having miscalculated the time it would take them to get there. Looking over at Pa hunched over in the passenger's seat, gave him an inexplicable sense of urgency he hadn’t had before. These days Pa never left the house. Felix had been staying with him as much as he could, but he now knew he wouldn’t be able to leave Pa again. The solitude he felt in recent days was starting to drive him mad, but seeing the slow smile of understanding beginning to lit up Pa’s face was worth the pain.
Felix slowed the car as the path began to narrow. It had been years since they had been up here, but it was one of Pa’s favorite places. One of Felix’s earliest and most vivid memories was that of when he was a little boy and Pa used to carry him on his shoulders. He had carried Felix all the way up the trail on his shoulders. They had passed not a soul on the trail and Felix felt like they were the only people in the world. Pa had broken out into a jog, pretending to race to the top of the mountain, jostling little Felix around on his shoulders. Felix giggled wildly. “Hush son,” Pa had said “This is my mountain, it’s a secret. We can’t let anyone know we are here!” For some reason that made Felix giggled even more. Now, life had passed, the world had gotten to them and those memories felt like they were a million miles away.
Felix had nearly forgotten the day, until a few years ago, when Pa was in better health, he sent Felix a self-portrait from the top of the mountain, proudly beaming and the text following, “Remember this?” Memories unlocked like a floodgate and Felix knew he had to come back. He just didn’t realize it would take him this long, he didn’t realize it would be under these circumstances.
Felix hopped out of the car and opened the trunk. He unfolded Pa’s wheelchair and brought it around to the passenger’s side. Grabbing his headlamp, he strapped it securely to his head. He hung the portable oxygen tank from one of the handles and helped Pa sit gingerly in the chair. The temperature was dropping and the sun was setting faster than he had imagined. He had to hurry. He always kept a blanket in the car and he used that now to wrap Pa in before they set off on their journey.
The path narrow, but the ground was hard making the chair easier to push. The entirety of the trail was uphill, but Pa’s small smile was now turning into a full-blown grin, melting decades off of his face and giving Felix the fuel, he needed to push forward. Up and over the branches, the rocks, and the fallen leaves Felix pushed his father. They were almost there and Pa’s excitement was growing by the minute. It was the most alive he had been in months. Then up ahead they spotted something blocking the trail. A massive tree had fallen along the path. Felix and Pa came to a stop.
“Oh no, Felix” Pa cried, “We’ll never make it”
“It’s okay Pa. Since when have we ever let an obstacle stop us? We are almost there. I’ll carry you.”
“I don’t want you to hurt yourself. It’s okay. We tried.”
“No Pa. We’re gonna see it through.”
Felix once again slung the portable oxygen tank over his shoulder, then he easily lifted Pa from his chair. He held back tears when he felt how truly thin his father had become. He was just a shadow of the strong man he had known his entire life. Old age, he thought with rue. If we are lucky it, comes for all of us. He carefully began to make his way up the trail again. Felix was breathing heavier now in his haste. The sun was still lighting their faces but was now turning to a blood orange and painting deep pink streaks across the sky. Finally, they had reached the summit. Felix set Pa gently down in the small meadow. These days Pa didn’t have the strength to sit up long by himself, so Felix sat behind him to offer him support.
When Felix looked out over the vista, he held his breath. The self-portraits Pa had sent years earlier and his hazy boyhood memories had done no justice to the real-life view. The fall air had transformed the trees into golden bursts of color, spanning as far as their eyes could see, birds seemingly floating through the air, the sun plummeting behind the mountains, Felix was truly mesmerized by the scene. He glanced over at Pa but quickly averted his eyes when he saw a single tear streaming down his face. The two men sat for a long time in silence, with only the quiet hissing of the oxygen tank to remind them it was only a temporary slice of paradise.
After a long time, Pa spoke, “Thank you, Felix”
“You’re welcome, Pa”
Pa looked over at Felix. “I’m tired son. I’m ready to go now.” Felix thought meant back down the trail, but even the darkness couldn’t obscure peace that was radiating from Pa’s face, leaving Felix wondering if he meant something more. Unspoken words hung in the air between them.
Felix switched on his headlamp, igniting the trail ahead, gathered the oxygen tank and with minimal effort lifted his father from the ground to start the journey back.
They had done it, a final sunset on Pa’s mountain. Full circle. They had come full circle.