“Geoff,” Eli called as he walked through the barn, the horses sticking their heads out of their stalls probably to see why he was yelling at such an ungodly hour of the morning.
“What is it, Tiger?” Geoff asked as he closed the stall door, smiling at him as he turned. Normally that smile would light up his heart the way it had every day for the past twenty-plus years.
“Don’t Tiger me,” he said stepping closer, holding up the crumpled piece of paper. “When were you going to tell me the doctor wants you to have some additional tests? After your checkup you told me everything was just fine, and now I find this when I was cleaning up your office.” Eli knew his anger and fear resonated in his voice, but he couldn’t help it. “I bugged you for months to make that appointment,” Eli blazed. “Now do I have to make another one and go along with you so you’ll tell me the truth?”
“I’m fine, and I had those tests last week. The doctor hasn’t phoned with the results, but I’m fine. You can stop worrying.” Geoff soothed the way he usually did, reaching out for Eli and folding him into his arms. “I’m going to be around for a very long time.”
“I’m sure that’s what your father said, and you know you’re the same age he was when he died,” Eli said against Geoff’s chest. “I’m not allowing that to happen to you.” Eli lifted his head so he could see Geoff’s eyes. “Because if you up and die on me, so help me, I’ll… smack you silly.” Eli knew he was being ridiculous, but the thought of going through what had happened to Len all those years ago scared the hell out of him.
“I’m fine, love, and you have nothing to worry about. If you want, once the doctor’s office opens, you can call them. I added you to the HIPAA forms, so they’ll give you any information you want,” Geoff told him with a smile, and Eli felt some of the anger and worry dissipate. “Like I said, I’m going to be around for a long time, and when we go, we’re going together.” Geoff smirked, and Eli smacked him lightly on the shoulder before moving back into his arms.
“Sorry,” Eli said. “I shouldn’t have gotten mad.”
“Hey, it’s okay. I forgive you. But next time just ask. I’ll tell you what you want to know. I’ve never kept things from you, and I don’t intend to start now.” Geoff squeezed him lightly before resting his head Eli’s shoulder.
“Is this the calm before the storm?” Eli whispered, and he felt Geoff nod his head. “I suppose I better help get the chores done, because we’ve got a big day.”
“Yes, we do,” Geoff agreed, but he didn’t move away.
“Morning, Geoff,” Joey called as he entered the barn, completely unfazed at the sight of the two of them together. Joey and his partner, Robbie, had worked at the farm for twenty years and were like family. A number of years ago, they’d bought into the farm as junior partners, and with their help, Laughton Farms had continued to grow so that now they were the largest landowners in the county, maybe that part of the state. They had thousands of head of cattle and thousands of acres under cultivation. They’d even started an orchard a number of years ago, and after some initial troubles, that had turned into a success as well.
“Morning, Joey, is Robbie with you?”
“No. He’s teaching a class this morning, and then I need to pick him up. We won’t be late, don’t you worry,” Joey said as he wandered out of the barn, and Geoff heard one of the tractors start. Regardless of the festivities happening later, there were still chores to do.
“I’m going to make breakfast, and then we can all get ready,” Eli said, finally moving out of Eli’s embrace. “And don’t think for a second I’m going to forget to call the doctor,” Eli warned as he walked toward the barn door and out into the crisp, late spring air. The first rays of sunshine bounced off the dew-covered grass as he walked toward the house, his home for over two decades. Inside, he found Adelle making breakfast. She’d retired about eight years ago, but she’d become family. They’d told her that she had a place with them for as long as she wanted, and she’d never left. As she’d gotten older, she’d slowed down, but she still insisted on making breakfast each and every morning.
“I haven’t seen Jake yet,” Adelle told Eli.
“He stayed at a friend’s last night, but he’ll be home in time to eat,” Eli said, and Adelle chuckled.
“That boy never missed a meal yet,” she teased, and continued cooking. Sure enough, the back door opened and Jake hurried in, setting down his bag before hurrying back to the door.
“Hey,” Eli said, and Jake returned, hugging the stuffing out of him.
“Got chores to do or dad will be pissed,” Jake said as an explanation before kissing Adelle on the cheek and then rushing out the door. Eli shook his head, walking into the living room and then up the stairs, deciding to take advantage of the availability of the bathroom.
After his shower, Eli dressed and headed downstairs to a house full of people. Geoff and Jake came in from their chores, and everyone sat down at the table for one of Adelle’s famous farm breakfasts. The meal promised to be last quiet moment of the day, and sure enough once the meal was over, the house turned into a hive of activity as the last people got ready to go.
“Are you ready?” Jake said from behind them.
“Yes,” Eli answered. “Have you got all your things? We won’t be able to come back in time if you forget anything.”
“I have it all.” Jake lifted the garment bag in response, and Eli released Geoff. Most everyone had already headed out, so Eli, Geoff, Jake, and Adelle got into Geoff’s car for the trip to town.
They pulled up to the high school, and Geoff found a place to park. Jake grabbed his things and hurried inside while Eli, Geoff, and Adelle followed the people into the courtyard, which was filled with chairs on the sunny day. Looking around, Eli saw Joey stand up, and they made their way toward their contingent. Len and Chris hugged both him and Geoff. Both men were in their seventies and still active—definitely slower, but still vital. Jonah and Raine hugged them as well as their son Benji threw himself at his Uncle Eli. Stone and Preston were there too. The surprise was who stepped out from behind them. Arie was supposed to be playing concerts with the Chicago Symphony, but here he was with Duane, now the sheriff, both of them beaming.
“What are you doing here?” Geoff asked happily, ‘“I thought you were booked in Chicago.”
“I have to be back in Chicago tonight, but there was no way I was going to miss this,” Arie beamed before hugging both of them.
The music began to play, and they all found their seat as the orchestra serenaded them. After a while, the music shifted to Pomp and Circumstance as the graduates filed down the center aisle in their blue caps and gowns. Eli watched for Jake, smiling as he saw his son walk down the aisle, but instead of taking a place with the other graduates, he climbed the steps onto the stage, joining the instructors, principal, and superintendent. Once all the graduates were in and seated, the music wrapped up and a warm spring breeze wafted through the courtyard.
The speeches and ceremony began, but Eli heard very little of it. All he kept seeing was his son on the stage. The boy he and Geoff had adopted together. The boy whose diapers he’d changed and who he’d walked around the yard a million times on his first pony. The little boy who’d taken off across the yard wearing nothing but a smile as he made a break for the barn, looking for daddy because he wanted a pony ride, and it didn’t matter if he was still wet from his bath. This was also the same little boy that he and Geoff had taken together on his very first day of school, and the same one that they’d had to pick up from school a few years later because the teacher had told him his daddies weren’t married, and he’d told her she was “full of shit.”
Eli felt Geoff’s hand touch his and he realized there was a tissue in it for him. He could still see Jakey when he’d come home from school with his prize from the science fair, and he could see each and every blue ribbon he’d won at the 4H fairs. He also remembered teaching Jakey to ride and having to explain that he couldn’t sleep in the barn with his first horse, even if it was cold out there. It was only the speaker’s closing remarks that pulled Eli out of his memories.
The principal took the podium once again. “It’s my pleasure to introduce this year’s class valedictorian. He’s graduating with a near-perfect academic record and a full scholarship to Michigan State University, where he will begin his work toward a degree in veterinary medicine, Jacob Henninger-Laughton.”
Eli felt a tingle run all up and down his spine. He’d of course known that Jake was valedictorian and that he’d be giving a speech, but not how he had asked to be introduced, and even after getting offers to help with the speech, Jake hadn’t told anyone what he was going to say.
“Good morning. These speeches are usually about the same thing each year—looking ahead to our future—and as most of you know, I rarely do what’s expected and I don’t intend to today. Instead, I want to speak about the people who got us here. I’d like to ask all the graduates to please stand up and look at the person or people in the audience who raised, supported, and loved you.” Jake paused a few seconds. “Now please give them a hand.” All the graduates clapped, and Eli couldn’t help grinning as his own son looked at him and the rest of their group. The applause died down, and they took their seats again. “Because without these people who took us to little league, helped us with our homework, chaperoned class trips, and the million other things we did over the last eighteen years, we wouldn’t be here.” Eli swore he wasn’t going to cry.
“To illustrate how vital the support of our families was, I intend to use my own as an example. I’d like to ask my family to stand up.” Eli looked at Geoff, and they slowly stood up and then sat back down again. “Actually, I mean all of you,” Jake’s gaze swept the entire group of people, “because, yes, there’s my dad, Geoff, who brought home my first puppy, and my dad, Eli, who taught me how to ride a horse, and between the two of them, they also taught me about laughter, love, and what it means to be a man. There’s also my Uncle Robbie, who taught me to play the violin, and my Uncle Joey, who first let me drive the tractor when I was seven. Dad, if you’re wondering why it was so easy for me to learn to drive, I started early.” The crowd laughed, and Eli peered at Geoff, who was smiling. “There’s also my Uncles Raine and Jonah, who when I visited them in Chicago when I was twelve, took me to the Field museum and showed me my very first dinosaur. Uncle Arie, who took me to Windsor, outside Natchez, Mississippi, and showed me where the columns play music in the wind. Uncle Duane, who as sheriff taught me the importance of putting others before yourself. And my Grandpa Len and Grandpa Chris, who taught me that love is open to everyone, regardless of age.” Jake paused, and Eli wiped his eyes, trying to swallow around the lump in his throat. “And to my Grandma Adelle, who taught me the value of the wonderfully simple things in life, like being able to lick the spoon. She also taught me that love doesn’t know color or ethnicity. Hilary Clinton wrote that it takes a village. Well, I had a village in the form of an extended family that, while extremely unconventional by most standards, made me the person I am today. So, I ask all of the graduates to think about your own families and what they taught you. Those lessons will stay with all of us and carry us out into the world. Don’t lose sight of them, because they’re the best and most important lessons we’ll ever learn.” Jake paused, and with tears running down his face, Eli applauded along with everyone else in attendance.
There was no way Eli could look around him, so he held Geoff’s hand and concentrated as the diplomas were handed out. The graduates threw their caps into the air, and then with more music from the orchestra, filed out and inside the school. Then the rest of the parents and guests filed out, and Eli blew his nose and tried to wipe away the last of his tears. They found Jake inside the school, and Len took pictures like he had through a lot of the ceremony. Then they all rode back to the farm, where Adelle and Eli got things together for Jake’s graduation party.
Once everyone else arrived, Eli got a few minutes, so he snuck into Geoff’s office and made a phone call. “Good morning, Dr. Woltanski’s office, this is Kathy,” the receptionist said in her usual friendly tone.
Good afternoon, this is Eli Henninger, and I’m calling because Geoff Laughton had some tests run. I’m calling for the results—sorry it’s so late, but we just got back from graduation at the high school.”
“Oh, hey, Eli, sure. Today was Jake’s big day, huh?” He heard her moving around. “We got those results, I think. Hold on, let me check the files.” The line went quiet, and Eli waited nervously. He’d read that they were running prostate and liver function tests and he knew what those meant: cancer, just like Geoff’s father had had. Those few words on that piece of crumpled paper had scared him half to death.
“Eli, yes, the results came back and the doctor said there was nothing to be concerned about. He was being cautious because of some minor anomalies in the bloodwork, but everything came back normal and there’s no sign of any issues,” Kathy told him pleasantly. “So you can stop worrying,” she teased. He was about to protest, but gave it up. He’d known Kathy since she took her first riding lesson at eight years old, so it stood to reason that she’d know him pretty well too. “I’ll see you next week when I bring Sarah for her riding lesson, and give that handsome husband of yours a hug for me.” They said goodbye, and Eli hung up the phone with a gigantic sigh as he heard the office door open behind him.
“Everything okay?” Geoff asked from behind him, and Eli nodded. “Did the doctor say I was fine?” Geoff asked with a knowing smile.
“Yes,” Eli admitted. “Everything’s normal, but don’t scare me like that again. I want you around to see our grandchildren and to help me teach them to ride a horse and drive a tractor.”
Geoff held up his hand. “I promise,” Geoff said softly, leaning close, hugging him tightly before kissing Eli with a hint of passion and a lot of love. “Now, we have a party to attend, and then once everyone’s in bed, I’ll show you just how healthy I am.” Eli chuckled before kissing Geoff once again. Then, together, hand in hand, they left the office and joined their family and friends in celebration.