by Jeremiah Reinmiller
Dad got sick in the fall.
I worried it was bad when I found out. I was right.
The expected cavalcade of doctors and specialists followed. Treatments upon treatments were tried; prescriptions, one after another, doled out, and abandoned.
My frustration built with each day as his prognosis changed with the seasons. ‘Not him, not after Mom,’ was my mantra through the long, dark, winter nights. It didn’t help.
By spring hope faded with the snow. Dad was still sick, and I could do nothing, but sit, and watch him get stolen from me a piece at a time.
When the smile he’d held onto for so long disappeared from his face, I knew I had to do something.
The next night, sleepless like all the others, I found the photo album.
It was his album of The Trip, Mom and Dad’s trip to Rome decades before. They’d reminisced about it for years afterwards. They’d loved that trip, had always wanted to go back. Then we’d lost Mom, and Dad didn’t go much of anywhere after that.
The doctors objected of course, when I told them what I wanted to do. Each citing things I didn’t bother listening to. Once the magic of “we can heal him” evaporated they were strangers trying to tell me what to do.
So I ignored them and called someone who I’d heard could help; a woman who specialized in situations like ours, a travel agent.
Her appearance took me by surprise when we met in Dad’s hospital room. A dark blue, two piece suit, hair done up in something current. Face maybe half a decade past middle age. I’d been expecting something else, something more esoteric I guess. So I wavered for a moment after we shook hands. A moment that lasted until she smiled past the impinging Doctor’s glares, and closed the door in their faces.
After that we got along just fine.
She held Dad’s hand while I explained what I wanted, her fingers gently stroking his thinning gray hair. She smiled and asked a couple questions when she needed to, but not too many. I showed her the album and she flipped slowly through its yellowed pages. In the end she said she’d need a week, but she could do it, and she named a price that I agreed to without listening. Money, along with a lot of other things, was no longer such a concern.
So on a cloudy Saturday morning in mid-February we gathered in Dad’s room. Everything was set; the paperwork had all been signed. Dad lay quiet in his bed; doing as well as he ever did.
Doubt ticked in my head like a broken clock as I wondered if she could pull it off, if Dad could take it. My lips tried to form the tension into words. She smiled past it all, unshakable. She took one of Dad’s hands, and I picked up other when she nodded. In her lap rested the album, our guidebook, now full of the notes she’d made.
She looked me in the eye. I slowly nodded to her. And that was that, we set off.
A blur followed, of which I remembered little. Vague memories of travel, and waiting, mixed with taxis and airports and flights blinked past, and we were there, standing in Piazza del Popolo.
Hawkers and tourists filled the square, their babbling voices mixing into an exotic melody. Scents of dust and time hung in air thick with promise. Beyond the crowd the trio of branching streets that led deeper into the eternal city beckoned.
I was amazed; she’d done her research well. The place felt like Dad had always described it. The ancient paving stones, the slightly leaning buildings, the soaring monuments, even the time of day felt correct.
I smiled; amazed that we’d done it, that it had worked. She led us into the ancient city, my Dad on her arm, and I followed after, my head full of wonder, and more than a bit of awe.
The steps were impressive, the fountains magnificent, the cathedrals awe inspiring. Beyond it all though, Dad looked better than I’d seen him in months, in years. The energy of the city was washing through him, sweeping away the confusion and uncertainty in his eyes. After a few steps he stood straighter, and soon he walked on his own, his wide eyes taking in the sights.
Before long he was leading the way as if he knew the city by heart. He found narrow streets containing hidden gems, plazas full of statues and fountains and pieces of ancient glories. He took us into the stillness of the Pantheon as dusty afternoon sunlight slanted down from above, then circled the Colosseum, marveling at its size and design in an afternoon that stretched on around us like a warm dream.
Then we found Mom.
She sat at a table outside a cafe, sipping espresso from a tiny European cup. Sunset illuminated her hair, long, and dark, without a hint of gray.
I stood blinking, struck dumb.
I’d never seen her like this, not in person. Only in photos like the one in the album. Like this moment I’d seen captured in a picture worn around the edges from years of gentle caress.
Dad wasn’t struck at all, not like me. He smiled, and went to her, simple as that. No matter the years in between the moments, if she was there, that was where he was going to be. His place in the universe was by her side.
She smiled when she saw him, and he kissed her softly, and I felt, in that moment, I knew my parents for the first time. They sat at the table, holding hands, and talked, and watched the crowds go by.
We were forgotten, the travel agent and I. Mom and Dad were together in their own world. In a time before I existed. In a time before she died in the accident and Dad got sick. Life was good. No, life was perfect for them. The universe was at peace, and they were its calm joy filled center.
We left Dad there, in that moment, with her, his soul mate. The travel agent smiled at me, and I smiled back, and nodded, because right then, I couldn’t speak.
And with the softest of sounds, she closed the album, and we were back in the hospital room. The sights, the sounds, the smells of Rome faded. The image of my parents, happy, and together, and in love, slipped away like the tide going out to sea. Tears glistened in my eyes and in hers, but Dad, in his bed with his eyes closed, smiled.
I hadn’t been able to cure him, but I’d given him what I could, a little bit of joy, a perfect moment, an afternoon with the woman he loved.
He never came back to me after that, but I didn’t really expect him to. I’d seen the look on his face when he saw her.
Dad passed two days later.
I worried it would be painful. I was wrong.
He was still smiling.
Jeremiah Reinmiller is a lifelong martial artist, computer geek, and native of the Pacific Northwest. He resides in Vancouver (the one in Washington, not Canada) with his wife and their two cats. His stories have received the 2014 Sledgehammer Writing Award, and appeared in 2113, an anthology by Subtopian Press. His debut novel is forthcoming from LARRIKINbooks in Sept. 2015. More of his stories can be found at www.jqpdx.com.