A/N: Thank you to everyone who read this tale and enjoyed its progression along with me, pushing me and encouraging my writing to new and, hopefully, improved levels. This story has been a labor of love for me, a journey into my past for it is personal. I've shared a piece of myself with you, and, you in return, have rewarded me with your warm reception, gracious comments, and caring and attention readership. Once again, thank you, and I hope you enjoy this final chapter. Charlynn
Taking a deep breath, Marissa squeezed her eyes shut to will her tears away before squeezing the hand of her oldest daughter for comfort and support and standing up to make her way to the stage. She didn't normally do things like this, speak in public. They had always preferred to keep their personal life just that, to themselves, but he was loved and respected by many, and each person whose life or heart had somehow been touched by him deserved to say a goodbye. Looking out at the hundreds of people sitting in the crowd, the row upon row of white, wooden chairs aligned neat and orderly along the back lawn of his manor and filled with somber men and women all in black, Marissa was thankful he had requested the ceremony be held outside. The sunshine lent a sense of warmth and peace otherwise absent on the late summer afternoon; the cool breeze off the ocean, its strains of salt burning her cracked lips, had always reminded her of him, the home he had finally provided her with, and a sense of safety only being in his presence could afford her. Finally, as she became accustomed to her environment, her eyes forgot the presence of all those strangers and she focused upon the seven people left in her life that meant the most to her. After all, the words she was about to recite from heart were for them: her family.
On the left side of the aisle sat Callie and her son Austin. Despite the fact that they were not related by blood, Marissa feared they would be hurt the most by his death. He had been their constant support, their companion, their distraction from the harsh realities sometimes placed upon a single mother and her fatherless son. They had lived with him since Austin was just a baby. When Callie had night classes, he was the one to watch her little boy, and if he needed a guest for a charity event, they were his dates. She was the daughter he never had, someone he would watch over, protect, and provide for, and he was the father figure who loved her and her child unconditionally that she had only hoped for before he entered her life. It was unconventional, but they were a family, a family that suddenly was missing a third of its membership. The little boy who wasn't so young any more, already twelve, sat with his head buried in his Mom's shoulder, both of their eyes red rimmed and glistening with unshed tears.
The right side of the aisle was comprised of her own immediate family, her own twelve year old child sitting on the end, an empty chair, Marissa's chair separating her from the rest of her siblings. Aubrey Selene, her first born, precious baby was growing up so fast it scared her mother sometimes. She could vividly remember the day she had first seen her image on the small sonogram screen, the day she had first held her in her arms, the day she had first seen her Daddy cradle her protectively against his chest. Now, she was a girl on the cusp of womanhood, mature, caring, nurturing, and intelligent. Just like her, Aubrey was an artist, one who was even more talented than her mother. To encourage her unique skills, she attended a special art academy, and, while for years, Marissa's artwork had dominated their home, it was now decorated with the young lady's masterpieces. For her last birthday, he had even surprised her with her own gallery opening, showcasing her artwork to the public. Now, he was gone, but his image lived on forever in the portraits Aubrey had created of him.
On the other side of her empty chair sat the oldest of her two sons, Landon Blake, who was ten. Looking down into his eyes, Marissa was reminded, as always, of the ocean. After they had returned from their honeymoon ten and half years before and announced that she was expecting again, it had been decided that they would move into the manor, the future of the Atwood legacy residing in the home that had been in the family for generations. The first thing her son had seen when he opened his eyes after being born at home had been the ocean, and, from that day on, he had been possessed by an unwavering love for the sea. He excelled at swimming, was fascinated by the wildlife of the water, and had even made sure that Atwood Industries donated large amounts of money to the protection of the valued and often endangered ecosystem. Landon was her little beach baby, his tan skin, sun-kissed blonde hair, and blue eyes the epitome of their Southern Californian culture, but, unlike the stereotype he represented, he respected the very world he embodied. With that love of the water, came a passion for sailing, a hobby her son had always shared with him. Never a beautiful Sunday would pass without them casting off the private shoreline with the wind in their sails.
Griffin Ryder, her charming and witty six year old son, sat beside his older brother with a gentle, soothing smile on his face. He understood the gravity of the day, that they had lost someone important to them, someone they had loved, but her son claimed he would want him to smile, he would want him to be happy. It made sense though for it was what he was known for. Whenever she was having a bad or stressful day, Griffin would climb up on her lap, wrap his little arms around her neck, and tell her one of his tried and true 'knock-knock' jokes. He was a born comedian. Even as a first grader, his timing and delivery when he was telling a funny story amazed her, and he would often perform for a room full of guests without even a hint of preparation. Just that morning he had made her laugh, informing her that if she ran out of things to say, he'd come up on stage with her and tell some jokes. The man they were honoring that day had always loved her son's enthusiasm and joy for life, but they could never quite figure out where he had gotten the traits. It was very un-Atwood-esque, and Marissa knew the comedic nature was not something her son had inherited from her side of the family. She liked to think that, instead, Griffin was just himself, special and unique.
Her youngest child, little Carly Evelyn, who was just two, was next. Marissa wasn't sure if she was lucky to not understand what was happening or whether, despite the pain it would cause her, she was missing out on something important in her life. After all, she would never remember him, never know how much he had loved her, how much he had enjoyed playing with her. She was the apple of his eye, the golden child who could do no wrong, perhaps because of her namesake. They would make sure she knew him by sharing their treasured memories and cherished photos and paintings, but he would never get to know her. He wouldn't see her ride her first bike, he wouldn't be able to overreact over her first boyfriend, and he wouldn't be able to watch her blossom into a beautiful young woman. As Marissa moved her eyes to the last person sitting on the right side of the aisle, she realized it was the fact that he would miss out on so much of her baby's life that saddened her the most.
Finally, she let her eyes fall upon the man she had fallen in love with thirteen years before. His eyes followed her closely, adoringly, devotedly, as he held their youngest child on his lap. After the months of pain and heartache they had put each other through, their relationship had always been strong and secure. She had been able to break through the walls losing his mother at a young age had put around his vulnerable heart, and she knew their trust and faith in each other was strong enough that losing his father would not ruin or even hurt their bond. Ryan was her best friend, her confidant, her partner, the father to her four beautiful, amazing children, and, perhaps most importantly, he was her lover. Together, they had built a lifetime on top of what was supposed to be a one night stand, and, together as a family and as a couple, they would be able to get through anything.
Smiling graciously down at the seven people in front of her, those important seven who made up her support system, her rock, Marissa, with confidence, began her eulogy to her father-in-law.
"The day I first met James Ryan Atwood III, I was pretending to be everything I wasn't and he was pretending to be everything he thought I wanted, and, despite my deception, he loved me anyway. You see, I was young, foolish, naïve, pregnant, and scared. I had walls up around my heart and shields over my eyes so he could, hopefully, not see who I really was. To me, it was safer to not let anyone in, to hide within myself, and let the world pass me by, but he didn't live like that nor did he accept that attitude in the people he cared about, and, luckily, he cared about me. He listened when I talked to him, trusted me and my opinion, and then entrusted me with the thing in this world most dear to him: his family, his son.
"Without interfering or telling me what to do, he helped show me who Ryan was, and he helped me fall even deeper in love with him. James gave me my husband who, in turn, gave me my children, the joys of my life. Before I met them, I was alone in this world, alienated, by choice, from my family, but they filled that void in my life that not even I was aware I was missing. With them, I found two men who respected and believed in me, two men who welcomed me into their home and made me an integral part of their life, two men who loved me for who I was.
"James not only gave me my personal life, but he also gave me the professional one I enjoy and strive to succeed in. When I met him, I was, as he would probably put it, dreaming small when I should have been dreaming big. I had lost someone close to me as a teenager through a terrible disease, and that tragedy drove me in life and made me want to help others. By handing me his company on a silver platter, millions of dollars of charitable funds at my disposal, he made sure I was able to make a difference. No one had ever believed in me like James had, and, for that, I will always be grateful.
"Now, we as a family, Ryan and myself, our four children, Aubrey, Landon, Griffin, and Carly, my best friend Callie and her son Austin, are left behind to carry on the traditions James has set for the Atwood family, to keep his legend and memory alive. Although making sure his company is a continued success is a part of this challenge, my father-in-law was not a businessman in my eyes. He was a father, a grandfather, a friend, a mentor, a kind heart who always wanted to help everyone in need, a man with vision for the future, patience for the presence, and respect for the past, a man who was loved deeply and who loved even deeper, a hero. He has touched every single one of our lives in a positive way, so now, as we leave here, as we say our goodbyes to the man I have respected more than anyone else in my entire life, it's our duty to live the way he would have wanted us to, to uphold his memory in our own actions, but, most importantly, we need to smile.
"As my son Griffin told me this morning, that's what his Grandpap would have wanted, for us all to smile, laugh, and be happy. After all, James lived a full, rich, wonderful life. He saw the world, made his mark on it, was a success both professionally and personally, won the love of a special, talented, beautiful woman, had a son who became the center of my universe, and lived the last twelve years of his life with the sounds of children's laugher, his grandchildren's laughter, ringing gleefully throughout his family's home. And I know that wherever he is, he's smiling down at us right now, probably cursing us all for having tears in our eyes, once again at peace with his beloved Evelyn by his side."
Casting her eyes towards the sky, Marissa stopped her speech, laughed softly to herself, and winked at the clouds. "Give 'em hell up there, Dad," she called out. "We'll be doing the same thing down here."
Blowing a kiss to the heavens, she went back to her seat, hugging and kissing each other her children and then finally her husband before settling back to listen to the other eulogies. Yes, she would miss him, but life went on, and, while it did, she would have the best part of James with her every step of the way: Ryan.
"Do you want me to leave you alone," Marissa offered, attempting to stand up from her husband's lap but he, instead, pulled her back almost immediately. "The letter's only addressed to you," she continued, explaining her offer. "Plus, I should probably check on the kids."
They were gathered at Evelyn's, the fourth and latest restaurant Ryan had opened so far. After they had returned from their honeymoon all those years ago, she had suggested that perhaps he would want to turn their empty downtown space into a restaurant, show the world what a wonderful chef he was. She knew he could do it, and she could help him with the menu. However, he had argued that with a second child on the way and surely more to follow, he didn't want to be tied down to the job of cooking every night, but the building he had purchased was in the perfect location and just the right size for a restaurant. So, hiring a world renowned cook, he had gone against James' warnings that the restaurant business always failed and opened up his first eatery, Selene's, named after Aubrey. It had provided a warm, inviting, family oriented, high end eating experience to the wealthy of LA, and, immediately, he and his first solo investment had been a success. Three other restaurants followed, each taking the middle name of one of their children. Blake's was in the style of a sports bar, a fun, lively, sometimes even rowdy source of good food, nightlife, and entertainment for its clientele. Though perhaps the most successful of the four businesses, it was the family's least favorite, because it was not suitable to intimate dining. Ryder's was the most relaxed of all the establishments. On the ocean, south of town, it specialized in seafood, employing the local fisherman to stock its freezers with their freshest catches. Finally, just a year before, Ryan had opened Evelyn's, his father's favorite of his four restaurants, because it revolved around everything he and his son associated with its original namesake. It served her favorite foods, was decorated in her favorite colors, featured her favorite paintings, and they even used her favorite flowers, freesia and sweet pea to give it the right ambiance. Because of how much he loved the place, often spending most of his evenings there in front of the family's private table situated before the fireplace over which hung a portrait of Ryan, Marissa, and their children, entertaining friends, socializing with his family, or simply losing himself in his memories of the past, James had requested his wake be held there.
However, it was late, the guests had all gone home, even Callie and Austin had retired to the apartment in the city they had shared with him, and only the six surviving members of the Atwood family remained. While Ryan and Marissa were sitting together on the couch in his office, the kids were in the front of the restaurant, Aubrey in charge of watching them all, as they played as only innocent children could after such a somber event. Every once in a while, peals of their naïve, joy filled laughter would trickle down the halls and float into the stuffy enclosure of Ryan's private quarters, warming their parents' hearts against the chill of their suddenly fatherless world.
"It may be addressed to me, but he would want you here," Ryan responded to her reason. "Besides, I need you with me when I read this."
It was a letter James' lawyer had left with him after he had departed the wake. Under his former employer's instruction, he was to hand Ryan the letter the day of his funeral so he could read it before the will was read the next afternoon. The envelope was simple, plain, unpretentious, the exact opposite of James but exactly the way he saw his son and daughter-in-law, the address on it simply put to Ryan in his father's sprawling, quick hand.
"Then this is where I want to be, too," Marissa agreed with him, offering him a quick kiss before settling herself back into his arms, making sure she was comfortable before he started reading. With no to-do or introductions, Ryan simply started reading his father's words out loud.
Dear Ryan (and probably Marissa as well since the two of you do nothing without the other),
I wrote this letter for three reasons. The second two, an explanation of what my will is and my motive for not telling anyone I was sick, are, for me, trivial, but I know they will matter to you, especially the latter, but the main aim of this note is for me to finally tell you what I feel.
I realize I haven't been the perfect Dad. After your Mom died, I let you down, accepting the shell you built around yourself instead of helping you grieve and move on properly. If you hadn't been irresponsible enough to have a one night stand with Marissa, a night that resulted in your beautiful oldest daughter, something I've been grateful for since the moment I found out you were having a baby, I'm not sure you would have ever been happy in life. Your girls, as I've always called them, made you wake up to life, love, and joy. If I can impress upon you to do anything in your life, thank them every day for what they've given you, show them how much you care, and never forget the gifts of their love they have bequeathed you.
I, unfortunately, did not heed this advice when I was your age. It is my greatest fear that your Mother died not knowing how much I loved her. True, our marriage was not a perfect one, but it was not for a lack of affection on either of our parts. We just…circumstances outside of our control drove a wedge between us, her illness especially. I was too young, too stubborn to admit that there was really a problem until it was too late, and, by the time we all realized she needed help, I had lost a wife and you had lost your Mom.
Blindly, I made the same mistakes with you. I saw that you were hurting, that you needed me to be your father and not your friend, but I took for granted that you would bounce back without me having to open up and admit how much I love you, because, Ryan, I do. For twelve years, you and your Mom were my world, and then, after she died, you became the sole being that made living for me worthwhile. Everything I did, even if it didn't seem like it, building our company, forcing you to go to college, dictating your life, I did it with the best intentions, trying to show you how much I cared. But it took someone with a bigger heart, someone who actually understood you, your wife, to show me that I didn't have to show you how much I cared through physical, tangible representations, I just had to love you.
It took you falling in love to teach me how to really feel again. As I watched you discover your feelings for Marissa, I let go of the past that weighed me down and started to realize who you were as your own man. You might already know this, but, seeing as how I'm dead if you're reading this, I don't think my promise is binding, but Marissa was the one who asked me to let you go, to set you free to make your own way in this world. She knew you well enough, better than your Father, to realize you weren't happy working for me. So, not only do you owe the family you love and cherish to her but also your professional happiness as well.
Speaking of the big, beautiful family the two of you have made together, I must admit that you've made me the happiest man in the world. You have given me four amazing, unique, beautiful grandchildren, and it is my hope you have more kids. The two of you, after your rocky start, were made to be parents. Never have I seen two adults more suited to each other, to marriage, or to nurturing children. I might not be that wise in my old age, but I do know that each and every one of your children, Artistic Aubrey, my first-mate Landon, Funny, adorable Griffin, and bashful, demure little Carly Evelyn, will be wonderful and special in their own rights, just as any other children you might be lucky enough to have will be as well. All I ask is that you do one thing for me: tell them every day how much their Grandpap loved them.
Now, as I've rambled on long enough, let me get to the meat of this letter. My will, in my estimation, will not come as a surprise to either of you. The bulk of my estate, the actual wealth and possessions will, of course, go to you, Ryan, my son. Of course, because, as your wife so wisely predicted years ago, you've become a phenomenal success on your own, you don't need my money, but you've earned it for putting up with my butting into your life and harping on you for so long. You've been a good sport…the majority of the time. However, I don't leave my company to you.
I know this will shock the business world, perhaps even anger some of my colleagues, but I find that to be just a perk of this decision. Marissa has the shrewdest business mind I have met in years, even if she doesn't see it herself. It took me many years to make her live up to her promise to come and work for me. Like the woman I know and love, she fought me tooth and nail, wanting to help individuals instead of aiding a bigger cause, but now that she is running Atwood Industries, do not think for one second I'd let her go. When my will is read tomorrow, she'll be named the sole owner and CEO of my life's work. I trust her completely. She has not only earned my respect as a person but as an employee as well. I have no doubt she'll take our family into the next generation, advancing it far beyond my scope or imagination could have predicted while, at the same time, being a champion for the underprivileged, the abused, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. It is her generosity and kindness towards others which makes her a talented and powerful woman. Please, Ryan, if she's not reading this with you, tell her I say to 'break a leg.'
For each of your children, I have prepared a trust fund. In it, they will have adequate money to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be. Don't clip their wings, let them fly and soar as high as they wish. If they fall, simply be there to pick them back up, kiss away their wounds, and set them free again. I have faith in you though as a parent, my son, so I doubt you need your Father's advice. On top of their trust funds, each child is going to receive a special gift from me. Aubrey's, as you might assume, is my collection of artwork. She and her Mother have been the only two people who have appreciated the pieces since your Mom passed away, and Marissa has already taken possession of her favorites. I hope Aubrey finds them to be inspiring, a bench mark to set for herself to surpass. Again, Landon's special gift should come as no surprise. I leave him my yacht. Granted, he is only ten, but he's a better sailor at his tender age than I ever was. I know the old girl will be in good hands with him as her skipper. To Griffin, the funniest six year old in the history of comedians, I leave him keepsakes no one knew I had. Throughout my life, I have kept a secret: I am a closeted comedy junkie who has collected and hidden dozens of famous comedians' autographs over the years. From Bob Hope and Chris Farley to Bill Cosby and Dave Chappelle to Jerry Seinfeld and Tina Fey, I have them all. Guess it's not really a mystery anymore where your son gets his flair for the funny. And finally, to darling little Carly Evelyn, I leave her all of her Grandmother's jewelry, from her engagement ring to the necklace I bought her on our final anniversary. I know she'll be as beautiful as your Mother, son, and the gems will only serve to highlight her natural elegance and grace.
Finally, there are two members of our family who have touched my heart in a way I never imagined, young Callie and her son, Austin. The apartment I've shared with them for the past eleven years is theirs for as long as they want it; the deed will be transferred into their name upon my death. There are trust funds set up for the both of them so that they may never want for anything. All I ask is that you let them both know how much joy they brought to an old man's life. Never a day went by without both of them bringing a smile to my grouchy old countenance.
And finally, before I close, I feel I owe you an explanation as to why I never shared with you I was sick. Yes, I knew I had cancer, and yes, I'm sure if I would have tried to fight it, I would have perhaps lived a few months longer, but I was selfish to the very end, wishing to enjoy my family in my own way without them worrying about my health or dreading the day when I would pass away. Yes, I robbed you of weeks of time with me, but wouldn't you have rather had me stubborn and ornery as I always was instead of sickly and in bed? I'm an old fashioned man underneath all these hip clothes Callie keeps me in, and it would have killed me slowly every day to watch the worry you felt etch wrinkles upon your fresh, young face or damper the bright light that shines in Marissa's eyes or dull the rosy, healthy glow of your perfect children's cheeks. Instead, I went in my own way, in my own time, and, for that, I'm not sorry.
In closing, remember three things for me. Your tears will fade, your fears will diminish, but your fairytales are there forever as long as you reach out with both of your hands and hold onto them as tightly as you can. My fairytale has been you, my son, and the family you have given me. Thank you for loving me and thank you for letting me love you. It has been the single most profound experience and joy of my life.
Wordlessly, Ryan folded the letter, encasing it back in its envelope and sealing it away in the top drawer of his desk. Going back to his wife's side, he took Marissa in his arms, drying her tears as she simultaneously did the same for him. For several moments, they just stood there, savoring the comfort being in the others arms gave them, but, after leaning in and offering her a gentle kiss, Ryan pulled back, wrapping his arm around her still slim waist and curvaceous body.
"Let's go home," he offered, her head tilting down to rest against his shoulder serving as the only sign of her acceptance he needed.
Walking out into the restaurant, they found their children sitting together peacefully in the family booth, the three younger children listening eagerly as Aubrey told them stories of their Grandpap. Stopping to eavesdrop, they waited for her soft, soothing voice to finish the tale before making their presence known, scooping each child into their arms separately for a tender, loving embrace.
"Hey Dad," Aubrey asked, the last one to hug her Father. "Do you mind if I change the portrait above the fireplace? It's just….this was Grandpap's place, where he came to remember Grandma, and I painted something a couple of weeks ago for him. It's in the back."
"Or course, baby," he agreed, kissing the top of her blonde, curly head before watching his oldest daughter quickly run out of the room. She returned moments later with a covered portrait, revealing it for the family to see and for her Dad to hang up. It was a recreated image of a photograph of James and Evelyn from when they were first engaged. In it, his handsome face, a face that resembled that of his only son's, gazed down upon the only woman he would ever love in his lifetime, the adoration he felt for her visible in her eyes as the affection she felt for him radiated from her own deep pools of intense blue. It was the picture they used to announce their engagement, and it was the way Aubrey was determined to remember her grandparents. "It's perfect," Ryan finally responded after several quiet moments of simply looking at the artwork his eldest child had created.
Within seconds, it was upon the wall, its presence changing the entire soul of the restaurant. Slowly, the family made its way towards the front door, each member's eyes straying back to look upon the happy couple one last time. Not only was it their beacon to the past, but it was a glimpse into their future. With the lights dimmed and a soft gaze, the last generation of the Atwood family resembled the present one, and, in that moment, Aubrey knew that someday a similar portrait of her parents would hang in another restaurant as her children and those of her brothers and sisters looked upon their smiling, content faces just as she was then. She would capture their fairytale in a portrait for eternity and hope she could someday wade through her private and personal tears and fears to form a fairytale of her own just like her parents'. After all, just as her Mom had mused to herself earlier in the day, life goes on.