NOTE: And so we end this journey but fear not - I will be back next week for another continuation of this family's story. Keep an eye out for Family Confidential - The Final Quarter: A New Beginning coming to your screens soon! Thank you ALL so much for still being with me with these characters - it is a joy and a pleasure and an honor to know you all!
Thanks specifically to Boris Yeltsin, ImSoCooliPissIceCubes, bluexaphyre, Katherynne the Great, bluepaintbox and Guest for taking the time to lead feedback! It is so, so appreciated!
Willow waved the family over to the row of seats she'd wrestled from the mom of the captain of the lacrosse team. Tara arrived with the girls and had them take the three seats on the end while she sat in beside Willow on the lawn of the high school.
She settled her purse by her feet and glanced at Willow unsurely.
"Why is Marie McDonnell giving us stink eye?"
"Why should she get the front seat?" Willow asked indignantly, "Her son isn't valedictorian."
Tara mouthed 'sorry' at the other woman, who flounced into her seat two rows behind with a roll of her eyes.
"You can't dine out on that forever, you know."
"I can dine out on it today," Willow returned with a grin, "My son is valedictorian."
"Our son," Tara corrected.
"You're quite welcome to kick someone out of their seats too," Willow offered graciously.
"Can I kick someone out of their seats?" someone asked from behind and all five ladies turned and jumped out of their seats at the same time.
"JJ!" Lily and Emily screeched in unison and flung themselves at JJ's legs.
"JJ," Tara breathed and walked into JJ's chest to embrace him, with Willow close behind her.
When they parted, Robyn leaned into JJ with a nod which made her hair fall into her eyes. There was a hint of affection mixed in with the teenage surliness of her smile.
"Hey, lil' bean," JJ teased and Robyn rolled her eyes.
"What are you doing here?" Tara asked, rubbing JJ's arm, "I thought you didn't finish classes until next week."
"I don't," JJ shrugged, "But I wasn't going to miss my only brother's graduation."
"What about your exams?" Willow asked with an arched eyebrow.
"None until Tuesday," JJ nodded easily, "But I've finally settled on a major."
"You have?!" Willow asked, rising to her toes with excitement.
JJ nodded and made them wait for it until Robyn punched his arm. Neither mother corrected her.
"Ow, jeez," he rubbed his arm dramatically, "Okay, I'm majoring in…"
He slapped his hands against his thighs in a drum-roll.
Both Willow and Tara exchanged confused looks.
"That's…" Willow started.
"Very interesting," Tara finished.
"Sports journalism to be specific," JJ continued and Willow and Tara exchanged knowing looks.
"Oh, of course!"
"JJ, that's a fantastic career for you to pursue," Tara said and closed her arms around JJ's body again, "And where better than Manhattan for you to study. You have so many opportunities on your doorstep. Oh, I'm so proud of you."
She cupped his face and kissed his cheek.
"Right here, Mrs. R-M," Cleo appeared beside JJ and tossed him the car keys before nodding at Willow, "Other Mrs. R-M. Little ladies."
She high-fived all of the girls and smiled at Tara.
"My Mami says she wants your breadstick recipe and that she's prepared to hire me the best lawyer if I kill you to get it. She said it's the best she's had since being in high school."
"Tell her she can have it without a scratch," Tara smiled with a little glint in her eye, "I'll even give you some to bring back to her."
Cleo mouthed 'I love you' and made a heart with her hands which she mimicked beating by holding it to and from her chest. Tara winked at her and put an arm around her shoulders.
"Come tell me all about school. Do you and JJ share any classes at NYU? I'm guessing there's not much overlap with biology and sports journalism."
"Oh, he told you?" Cleo asked with a big, adoring grin, "He's going to be fantastic. He's already known in our group of friends for the commentary he gives during games."
"…some like it more than others," she smiled again, "But he's so passionate. It's so cute."
Tara hugged Cleo sidelong.
"We miss you two. Please tell me you're coming up here to hang out with us a bit this summer."
"Definitely. We're going to Toronto Pride with Kayden and Alex if he comes home from Albany on time. We'll be here for a couple of weeks after that if that's okay."
"Anyone who makes my boy as happy as you do is welcome for as long as they want," Tara replied with a kind, knowing smile.
Suddenly Willow was rushing into her seat beside Tara and Tara realized the ceremony was starting. Tara glanced over to check that the girls were being quiet and though Lily was barely able to sit still, she was staying in her seat and Tara was proud of her for it, especially with the unexpected excitement of JJ showing up.
Tara couldn't help but smile over at her boy, a man now and reached across Willow's back to squeeze his shoulder. He looked over and flashed her a winning smile. Tara smiled back, then dedicated her smile toward the stage where the principal was making his speech. It was short and sweet and then he was saying the words, 'please welcome our valedictorian Kayden Rosenberg-Maclay'.
As the whole crowd stood to clap, Willow and Tara shared the proudest of smiles.
Kayden took the podium and smiled out confidently.
"We made it through the wilderness," he sang confidently in a soft, lyrical voice, "Somehow we made it through."
He paused and gave a cocky little grin.
"My brother's a big Madonna fan."
A laugh broke out in the crowd and Kayden caught JJ's face, who looked surprised, amused, and honored all in one grin. Kayden nodded once with the smile still affixed on his face and faced the crowd again.
"Madame Superintendent, Principal Walker, teachers, faculty, parents, classmates, and friends."
He took a deep breath.
"I thought a lot about what I was going to talk about today. Gratitude or accomplishment. Stories of change or who inspired me. How we move forward from this, here, now. The truth is, I want to speak of all of those things. And I can do that, I can speak of who we are by telling you who I am."
He clutched the podium and tried to look at everyone at once; to make everyone feel seen.
"If you had asked me when I started at this school if I would be standing up here four years later speaking to you all, well…I wouldn't have even been able to imagine it. Back then, I was very tied to this school. So tied that I was living in the locker rooms. And I don't mean it as a metaphor for being a sports nut. I was sleeping on the mats with a pool noodle for a pillow."
Some people laughed unsurely and Tara took Willow's hand tightly. Willow looked over sympathetically and kissed Tara's cheek.
The tassel on Kayden's waved in the wind.
"That's a lot of change for me to fill you in on, right? And it is. But I can sum it up in two words: my family."
He looked over to them and smiled easily.
"And I can tell you the lesson I have learned from growing into this person standing in front of you from the person who hid so much he couldn't even see himself," he paused and looked around importantly, "I am strong when I am on your shoulders."
He shrugged in that adorably bashful way again, so far from his insecure shrugging of old.
"My mom's a big Josh Groban fan," he waved a hand and everyone laughed again, breaking the tension, "Before I reveal my entire family's music preferences, I'd like to stop and thank them. And not just for giving me some killer lyrics to pepper this speech with."
Kayden stopped and found them all in the crowd again, individually this time.
"But for being the first thing in this world that I knew was truly mine. My big brother. My little sisters. My moms," he said and his voice grew choked for a moment, "The best dog in the whole world."
He looked up and held his palm against his heart.
"Rest in peace, Woofy. I know you're up there doing tricks for all of the good boys that have left this world."
Cleo's arm went around JJ, whose arm went around Robyn, who held Lily's hand, who held Emily's. Willow and Tara's hands squeezed together again.
Kayden looked back into the crowd with a piercing stare and was quick to bring them all back into the moment.
"I haven't finished telling you about my family. I have grandparents and I have aunts and uncles and cousins and those of you that don't know me are probably wondering why I'm listing a bunch of normal familial relationships as if they were something special."
"Because they are," he said softly, "I had to go through years of not having any of them to realize it. And some of you sitting here might be feeling the same thing, in different ways. Like the people around you aren't your family. Your kin, maybe, but not your family. Or that you've found your family in the friendships you've formed or the groups you've joined and you don't want to leave them. But I can promise you, your family won't leave. And if you don't have one yet, will find you one day. Family will always find you," he said emphatically, "And that is the most important thing I have learned in my four years of high school. No offense, Mr. Pepperton. I'm sure I'll use my knowledge of the Winnebago War of 1827 someday."
There was a chuckle and good-natured nudging of Mr. Pepperton. Kayden's hands settled on the podium.
"Education is important but it's the backdrop to what we really learn here. I found family in a lot of ways at this school. In the brother who found me and took me home. In the math club that let me join even though all I wanted to figure out was the angles of buildings. In the computer club who helped me learn CAD. In the Habitat for Humanity team that visited and allowed me to tag along and build my first house. And in not just the amazing friends I have grown to love here and the amazing relationships I've been able to form but for each and every one of you sitting in front of me. Even if we've never spoken before. We are a family and over the years we may fall out and fall back in but we will forever share this experience. Wherever you go forward from here, know that you go in step with the rest of this family behind you."
He nodded happily.
"So that's it. We did it. School's out."
"Forever," he finished with perfect melodic cadence and threw a wink to the crowd, "That one was all me."
A cheer emerged from the crowd and everyone stood up to clap, clearly demonstrating how beloved Kayden was.
He stepped back and shook the principal's hand and became the first in his class to accept his diploma.
He walked across the stage while his family clapped and cheered and moved his tassel with a full-blown grin out to them. He waited for the rest of his class to join him, shaking their hand or hugging every single person who took their iconic walk across the stage.
When it was all over, there was a bit of an anticlimax amongst the crowd but Kayden was still beaming as he approached his family. Willow grabbed him first and threw herself around him.
"You don't know how hard it is not to kiss all over your face right now."
"We are so proud of you," Tara joined in on the hug.
"Thanks, Momma. Thanks, Mom," Kayden said bashfully with a slight pinkness in his cheeks.
Once they let him go, JJ threw his arm out to shake Kayden's hand.
"Bro!" he said, pulling Kayden into a hug and patting his back.
"Bro!" Kayden returned enthusiastically and quickly hugged Cleo, "It's so good to see you."
"You were so cool up there Kayden!" Lily said as she hugged Kayden's waist.
"You're the coolest," Emily agreed, stuck to Kayden's other side.
Robyn shrugged one shoulder.
"You're pretty alright," she said deadpan but there was a little bit of a smirk.
Once everyone got their hugs in, Kayden spotted someone loitering and extracted himself for a moment. He slowly approached the other person and raised his hand in a small wave.
Dylan made such the same motion.
"Hey Kayden," he greeted, his voice a little gruff, "You did great."
"Thanks, Dylan," Kayden smiled softly and there was a bit of a lull as each thought what to say that hadn't already been said, "Will you keep in touch from Berkeley?"
"Of course," Dylan replied as if he couldn't imagine anything else, "You'll hit me up if you're ever out visiting your family's book store or something?"
"Of course," Kayden replied quickly, "And if you're in the Boston area…checking out the Socks or something…"
"If the Red Socks play for the World Series, I'll definitely come to visit you at MIT," Dylan smiled easily.
Kayden offered his hand and they pulled each other into a hug. After lingering for several seconds, they parted and walked away from each other.
"You okay?" Willow asked quietly as Kayden returned while Tara was off playing the proud Mama and accepting all of the praise for raising such a smart young boy.
"Uh-huh," Kayden nodded.
Willow looked sympathetic.
"You don't have to be brave."
Kayden shrugged, holding his hands up.
"We're going to colleges a whole continent away from each other. We had no choice but to break up," he said with melancholy acceptance, "Maybe we'll find our way back to each other someday."
Willow bumped Kayden's shoulder.
"If it's meant to be, I have no doubt you will."
"Me either," Kayden nodded evenly, "But even if it doesn't…he was the best first boyfriend I could have asked for. And that's super cool."
Willow looked at Kayden proudly for being so wise.
"Come on, then," she encouraged, reaching up to put her hands on his shoulders, "All those grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins are waiting to celebrate you."
She took a step forward and Kayden fell in step with her.
"Yes, honey?" Willow asked sweetly.
Kayden hugged her sidelong.
"I love you."
Willow stood up on her toes to kiss his cheek.
"I love you too, nugget."
"Even when I leave?" Kayden questioned unsurely.
Willow smiled and reached up to rub Kayden's back.
"There's nowhere on this earth or above that you could go that would make us stop loving you," she replied emphatically, "College was the best thing that ever happened to me. And MIT is going to be amazing for you. You'll love Boston."
"I will?" Kayden asked, a mix of nerves and excitement.
Willow nodded sagely.
She watched as Tara laughed while shaking the vice-principal's hand and felt her whole soul wake up.
"I met the love of my life there."
Kayden stood at the edge of the athletic field looking up at the dormitory building that was about to become his home.
It was like a city apartment block, unusually shaped with dips making it look like a giant Tetris piece. The walls were permeable so that your eyes were drawn right in and it glittered in the sun.
"That," Kayden breathed in awe, "I want to design something like that someday."
"We have no doubt you will," Tara replied as she came up beside Kayden with a box in her hands, "But you have to move in first."
"Yeah, lazy bones, we're not doing all of the lugging here," Willow grinned.
Kayden clasped his hand around his suitcase and pulled it along the sidewalk as they walked over to the entrance on the other side of the building.
Inside was just as electric with students milling about everywhere, engaging in happy conversation; people flitting between recreational areas like the dining hall or on-site café. A huge bulletin board was filled with colorful flyers advertising any manner of social events and clubs to join. There was a plaque on the wall guiding them to the different areas of the building and Kayden led them upstairs to his dorm.
Inside were two loft beds with desks underneath and a chair with light shining in through the checkered windows. A small couch was pushed against the front wall and there was a door into a bathroom that was shared with another dorm.
"Hey, this is way swankier than JJ's dorm at NYU," Willow commented as she looked around, "You get your own bathroom!"
"I think it's shared," Kayden said as he looked between the two different bed options.
"If it's not shared with a hundred other people it's a step up from when I was in college," Willow quipped.
"I'll make your bed up for you," Tara offered and found the box with the sheets.
"Thanks, Mom," Kayden replied gratefully and moved around to the end of the bed to help her.
Willow took another trip to bring up Kayden's belongings and right behind her as she entered the dorm, another young boy with dark black hair and 5 o'clock shadow walked in behind her.
"Oh, hey," he greeted a bit awkwardly, "Um, I'm Declan. I'm guessing you're Kayden?"
Kayden took a step down from the bed ladder and slowly stared at his new roommate, his eyes shining.
Willow had to nudge him.
"Yes!" Kayden squeaked and blushed, "Yes, I'm Kayden. You're Declan, which, you, ah, already said."
Kayden wiped his palms on his jeans and thrust it forward to shake. Willow and Tara shared knowing looks.
"Cool," Declan nodded pleasantly and looked to Willow and Tara, "Um, hi."
"These are my moms," Kayden explained, his hands flailing about awkwardly in front of him before he stuffed them in his pockets.
"Cool," Declan repeated, "My parents are on their way. I just came to figure out the way up before we had heavy things in our hands. I'm running back down now to help them."
"I'll help," Kayden offered quickly.
"Oh," Declan paused, "You're not busy with you're own stuff?"
Kayden shook his head and Declan shrugged.
"Great. Cool. Thanks."
They went off together and Willow arched an eyebrow.
"He's not even finishing carting his own stuff up yet," she sighed, shaking her head, "Dylan, Declan. I guess he wants the D."
"Willow!" Tara exclaimed, mouth dropping.
"What?" Willow asked, then continued, indignant as Tara continued to stare, "What?!"
Tara's eyebrows slowly dropped back down her face.
"You really don't know what you just said, do you?"
"Clearly not," Willow huffed to save face.
Tara shook her head.
"I would recommend never saying it again."
"Duly noted," Willow replied with a drop of her chin.
It took just one more lap to move Kayden in, even without Kayden's help, and they met Declan's parents and made pleasantries until it was time to leave and allow Kayden to settle into his new home.
Tara smoothed out Kayden's collar and Willow fixed his hair and Kayden allowed it because he was feeling the same tug on the heartstrings but had to at least put on some kind of front of bravado.
"We love you so much."
"I love you guys too," Kayden replied, thankful they were outside the door.
They each hugged him, lingering.
"We're a phone call away, any time," Tara promised.
"Any time," Willow added, "And the girls will want to video chat so you can show them your new room."
"I know," Kayden replied softly, "I've been texting Robyn. Don't worry. I'll be okay."
He smiled for them and they knew he would be okay.
After some more last-second hugs they forced themselves to leave with tears in their eyes and many waves back until the turn of the building forbid it. Outside the building, they stopped to dab their eyes but with so many people coming and going, they found it best to make their way back toward the parking lot.
"I guess we should drive to the hotel," Tara said, slipping her hand into Willow's.
Willow squeezed their palms together.
"Get the T for old time's sake?" she suggested softly, "We can pick the car up later."
Tara brushed their shoulders together.
"That sounds like a really nice idea."
As they walked out of the parking lot, Willow suddenly looked at Tara, stricken.
"What?" Tara asked with concern.
Willow's face contorted with disgust.
"I just realized what I said earlier about the 'D'."
Tara could only chuckle.
"Twenty-five years and your naivety still charms me," she said, smiling affectionately, "But I don't know how you've raised two boys through high school without hearing that one."
"Willful ignorance?" Willow guessed.
The T was bustling with kids and parents all navigating their way to the various colleges in the city. Despite the prestige and renown of places like MIT or Harvard, Willow had never regretted choosing the college she did. It was like she told Kayden, she met the love of her life there.
She smiled at Tara as they bumped into each other on the train and remembered so many dates they'd traveled to this way, so many experiences they'd shared. This little patch of land where she'd come to flee her parents' grasp and the school she'd chosen just to spite them a little bit had been the best decision of her life.
They never actually discussed where they were going but they both naturally moved to get off the train when they arrived at the station closest to the Public Gardens.
It smelled so sweet and summary as they got the first waft of flowers and walked their well-trodden path down to the lake.
"God, I forgot how beautiful it is here," Willow smiled as her eyes treated her mind to a flurry of memories.
"I haven't," Tara replied softly, "Every time the sun catches your hair…I remember. Every time you pick one of my flowers and smell it under your nose…I remember. I fell in love with so much of you here. It's buried in there forever. Part of my soul."
Willow slowly smiled. She stopped as they got to the lake and watched the famous Swan Boats taking one of the last rides of the day. She offered her hand.
"Shall we take a ride into the sunset?"
Tara took the offering and hand-in-hand with endless smiles, they did just that.