A glimpse of the happy future. :-) The manip at the end was made by Elycia. I received support, encouragement and artwork from so many people during the writing of The Woodjin. My deepest thanks to them all.
May 17, 2011
“I hate being vertically challenged,” Elijah complained, balancing on his tiptoes in a mostly vain attempt to see over the heads of the people in front of him.
“Tell me about it,” sighed Hannah, standing at his elbow. “Of course, it doesn’t help that Sean is vertically challenged, too.”
“I’m afraid I’m the one to blame for that,” Anna Astin said. She was, though stouter, even shorter than Hannah. “Sean didn’t get his height from his father.”
Mack put a consoling arm around his mother. “But I did, Mom. I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
“Ha,” said Jordan smugly, from his perch atop his father’s broad shoulders. “I’m taller than any of you. I bet I see Uncle Sean first.”
Elijah laughed. “Maybe I should ask Lawrence to put you down and pick me up instead.”
“No way,” Jordan said. “Don’t you do it, Daddy.” He clung tighter to his father. Then he let out a yelp. “There he is! Uncle Sean! Uncle Sean!” He started waving his arms like a semaphore.
“Where? Where?” Elijah demanded, jumping up and down and craning his neck.
“Over there, Elijah,” Lawrence said, pointing to their right.
“Where… oh, oh my god, I see him.” Hannah’s arm came around his waist as Elijah put the back of his hand to his mouth and tried without success to stop his eyes from filling with tears.
A river of students in black caps and gowns was streaming past, marching in ragged formation to the recorded processional music: the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine graduating class of 2011. Out of that sea of soon-to-be-doctors, one face captured Elijah’s attention. Sean. He was smiling broadly under his black cap with the silk tassel hanging down the right side, and his eyes were crinkling in that devastating way that set Elijah’s heart to pounding. He wasn’t close enough for even Elijah’s keen sight to pick out the individual laugh lines, but Elijah didn’t have to - he knew all six on the left and seven on the right intimately.
With Elijah on the very tips of his toes, their eyes connected across the crowd, and Sean waved exuberantly then gave him an enthusiastic two thumbs up, the overlong black sleeves of his rented gown with their three bars of black velvet, falling back to show the white dress shirt he wore underneath. His happiness was almost palpable, and why not? Today Sean’s rekindled dream was coming true, years later than he had once thought it might, but the occasion was all the more blessed and rewarding for that.
In the pocket of his robe, Sean was carrying a small photo of John Astin. Elijah knew that Sean’s father, who had impressed on him the importance of getting the education he himself had never had the opportunity to, was with him in spirit this day.
“Mackenzie Astin! What on earth-” Anna suddenly exclaimed, and Elijah looked around to see a grinning Mack lifting his mother in her elegant cream-colored pants suit and paisley silk scarf bodily in the air so she could see Sean. Jordan seemed to think this was the funniest thing ever, and burst into hysterical giggles. But Elijah, although he felt like giggling himself, had already returned his gaze to Sean, unwilling to miss a single glimpse of him on this, the second most important day of his life - the first most important, of course (as Sean constantly reminded Elijah) being the day they met.
Sean mouthed ‘Hi mom’ and waved at his mother, and then made a face at Jordan, who giggled even harder. There was absolutely no doubt about it, Elijah thought ruefully, Jordan had definitely inherited the Wood family giggle.
To his left, Elijah could hear the rapid fire click of the shutter of Martha’s camera as she took photo after photo, until Sean moved past, down toward the front of the concert hall, and filed into the front row of seats facing the stage.
Hannah sighed in disappointment. “I missed him, darn it. But I didn’t want to disturb Kate with too much jumping around.” The chubby cheeked, four month-old Katherine Deborah Makoare was cradled in a Snuggly against her mother’s chest, and was sound asleep with a pacifier between her pursed lips.
“Don’t worry, Hannah,” Martha said, “I got a lot of good close ups, including some that Sean will probably wish I hadn’t,” she added drolly.
“Sean looks very distinguished,” Anna said in an emotional voice. She dabbed at her eyes with a Kleenex she pulled from the cuff of her sleeve. “John would have been so proud.”
Elijah and Mack exchanged a glance. Both were remembering her initial vocal and stubborn resistance to Sean’s decision to quit his job as CEO of Clicktwice to return to school. She’d come an awful long way in five years, and while Sean insisted it was entirely due to Elijah’s influence, it could only be Sean himself who was responsible for her about face. For what mother could possibly fail to be proud of a son like Sean, or to accept him for what he was - a man of decency, integrity, compassion and honor? And maybe, just maybe, he had a little to do with it, too, Elijah thought, remembering Anna’s first visit to the pines and how, as she had hugged him and said goodbye, she confessed that she hadn’t Sean so happy since he was a young child.
The ragged procession continued, until all 156 students from Abbott to Zink were seated and the music ended. Only then did Elijah and the others pick up their commencement programs and sit down in the red plush seats. Kate was still blessedly sound asleep, and Jordan, ensconced in Lawrence’s lap now, was gravely studying the program, his lips moving as he tried to sound out the unfamiliar words. Jordan bid fair to be as voracious a reader as his adopted uncle, who showered him with books.
The dean of the medical school, the professors and various other university dignitaries and alumni, had already filed up the steps to the stage and were sitting in several rows of chairs facing the audience. Among them was the vigorous, upright form of Ian Holm, Class of ‘72. The doctor had his cap set at a defiantly rakish angle on his still thick full white hair, and was wearing his black robe open over a tweed sport jacket and khaki slacks. He looked surprisingly mellow, Elijah decided, considering how he’d been grumbling before the ceremony about the exorbitant rental fee for his hood, cap and gown.
When everyone was settled and quiet reigned, save for a random cough or two, the Dean, Dr. Arthur Rubinstein, rose and went to the podium to welcome everyone and give the opening remarks. Dr. Rubenstein bestowed on the graduating class the benefit of his wisdom, reminding them, among other things, of the ethical and moral values to which they must adhere over the course of their medical careers. Sean no doubt was listening intently and taking to heart each and every word – possibly even taking notes, Elijah thought with tender humor. After five years of assisting Sean with his studies, Elijah was convinced that his partner was the world’s all-time champion note taker – and not just in the area of gay sex.
The dean finished speaking to a warm round of applause, and a tall, very distinguished-looking Indian man stepped to the podium to give the graduation address. He was an eminent cancer specialist, Sean had told him, and a graduate of the medical school. But try though he might, Elijah’s mind drifted during the doctor’s no doubt inspiring and memorable speech.
He couldn’t help, so near to the fulfillment of Sean’s cherished dream, but think of all that had happened since that magical night they met. And even more, he couldn’t help but recall what his life had been like before the call came that led him to a sandy clearing in the woods and a man who could see Elijah for what he truly was without fear of his otherness. Then, he had resigned himself to a life without a mate, a life without love, and now… well, his life was full to overflowing with love and joy. The difficult times, when Sean had to wait at home while Elijah was called, or when Sean left the pines for places Elijah couldn’t follow, only made them appreciate the priceless gift they’d been given all the more.
Elijah jumped when on either side of him Hannah and Martha began clapping enthusiastically. A little guiltily, Elijah joined in.
“Wasn’t he marvelous?” Martha enthused. “Such an inspirational speech.”
“Um, yeah, it really was,” he replied, squirming a little for the tiny falsehood and fidgeting with his silver ring - a dead giveaway, Sean would have said, and added with a teasing grin that Elijah was, hands down, the worst liar in history. But he’d held Elijah and tried to ease his tearing grief after being forced to use his magic to protect himself, by hiding someone’s memory of meeting him. That, too, was a gift Elijah had never allowed himself to believe he would be granted - no longer to suffer alone and in silence.
“This is it,” Hannah said. Her hand reached out and gripped Elijah’s. The eminent cancer specialist had returned to his seat, and the first row of students, including Sean, was rising and moving toward the side of the stage. “I’m so glad Sean’s last name starts with ‘A’ and not ‘W’,” she added. “I'm not sure if I could survive the wait.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Elijah agreed. Three people, two women and a man, were ahead of Sean in line, and as Jennifer Elizabeth Abbott was called on stage to be hooded and receive her diploma, the audience and the waiting students erupted into applause. Elijah’s gaze was, of course, fastened on Sean, who was whooping and clapping enthusiastically and exchanging high fives with his classmates on line.
Next came Kyran Nihal Adani, and then Rachel Suzanne Andrews. Sean began to mount the steps.
“Sean Patrick Astin, Student Government President,” intoned Dean Rubinstein, and amidst tumultuous applause, Sean strode across the stage to where Dr. Ian was waiting. In his hands Ian Holm held a hood identical to the one he wore himself: lined in red with blue chevrons, and bordered in green velvet, the symbol of a graduate of the medical school. As an alumnus, he had requested and been given the honor of hooding Sean.
Even as Elijah cheered and clapped and stamped his feet the tears were streaming down his cheeks. He could hear Martha’s camera snapping away, and she said, “I don't believe it - Ian’s crying, Elijah. I never thought I’d see the day. He’s always insisted he wanted Sean to go to Penn because it was the best school in the area, but I think it was because he was so looking forward to this moment. Damn,” she added with a watery sounding laugh, “I’m fogging up the viewfinder.” The shutter’s click paused and then started up again.
Sean had turned and crouched down a little so that Dr. Ian could place the hood around his neck. The doctor carefully draped it over his head and arranged it down his back. When he was finished, his hands gripped Sean’s shoulders hard for a few seconds, and then the two men embraced. Elijah furiously blinked back the tears. Sean had truly become like the son Dr. Ian had never had, and there was no gauging the depths of what this moment meant to the crusty old piney with the heart of gold.
Sean stepped back, wiped his cheeks on his sleeve, and continued on to the podium to receive his diploma and a congratulatory handshake from the smiling Dean Rubinstein.
After he accepted the parchment in its maroon and gold holder, Sean didn’t immediately move, but closed his eyes, and briefly lifted his face heavenward. Elijah didn’t need any special powers to know that Sean was sending a private message to his dad.
Then, holding his diploma high in the air, Sean pumped his arms, let out a jubilant ‘Yes!” and fairly danced across the stage. It wasn’t Elijah’s imagination that the applause was louder and more deafening than ever. Sean liked to joke that he was the grand old man of his class, the geezer, and that’s why they’d elected him student government president. But the truth was that he had been a constant source of inspiration to the younger students, many of whom had been flabbergasted to discover that their hard-working classmate had turned his back on a job as CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation to attend medical school.
Along the way, in addition to moral support and guidance, Sean had offered unobtrusive financial succor to his classmates in need. Elijah had lost count of the number of times Sean had quietly paid for textbooks or lab supplies, neither expecting nor asking for thanks or repayment. “I know what it’s like to start out in life with a huge financial burden,” he’d said to Elijah on several occasions. “Anything I can do to help alleviate that burden, I will.”
As he returned to his seat, Sean was hugged, back slapped and high-fived by everyone who could reach him, and Elijah was hoarse and his palms were pink and tingling by the time Sean was sitting down again.
There was quite a long wait after that, as the rest of the class mounted the stage one by one to be hooded and awarded their diplomas. But for every student, not just for Sean, this was a monumental accomplishment, and each deserved the same level of respect and recognition. When they reached the ‘T’s Kate finally woke up and started whimpering in a ‘I need my diaper changed and something to eat’ fashion, and as Jordan was getting antsy, too, the Makoares quietly decamped and said they’d wait outside until the ceremony was over.
When the final student in the final row had received the final diploma and returned to his seat, Dean Rubenstein raised his hands and the class stood for the final part of the ceremony. It was probably just his imagination, but as the 156 students recited the words of the Hippocratic Oath after their dean, Elijah was certain that he could distinguish among them Sean’s voice: strong, intense and determined.
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures that are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.
I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.
The last word faded into the rafters of the theater; there was a respectful silence. And then Dean Rubinstein said, “Congratulations, Doctors!” and 156 black caps went flying wildly into the air, and mayhem ensued.
In the melee after the recessional, as students and families tried to connect, Elijah was too keyed up with excitement to feel oppressed by the bodies crowding around him. He jittered from foot to foot, not wanting to stand still, but knowing it would be easier for Sean to find them if he did - the burly Lawrence, at six foot four inches tall, was hard to miss, even in a crowd this huge.
“Elijah!” Elijah whirled around, his heart leaping, and there was Sean, shouldering his way past a small group of faculty members.
The rest of the family hung back, understanding that this moment between Elijah and Sean was sacrosanct. Not that Elijah noticed, of course. The world had narrowed to a pair of gold-flecked green eyes and a crooked, lethal, oh-so-sexy smile.
“Sean!” Like bog iron to a magnet, Elijah hurtled toward Sean and threw himself into his arms. “You did it,” he breathed, hugging him so hard it had to hurt. “Oh Sean, you did it. Dr. Astin. I’m so proud of you. So proud.”
“No, I didn’t do it,” Sean replied in a steady voice. “We did.”
The old house had never known a night like this. Music and light and laughter poured from the windows. The floorboards shook under the pounding of feet dancing a jig to a lively tune from Bill’s fiddle. The tables were groaning under the weight of a piney feast, and faces were flushed not just from exertion, but the effects of the applejack in the brown stoneware jug being passed surreptitiously around the family room.
The party had been going for several hours now, and showed no signs of flagging, even though the crescent moon rode high in the sky. No one noticed when the guest of honor and his partner slipped away and disappeared. No one but Maggie, that is, but she could be relied on not to tell tales.
“I’ve seen some bizarre sights in my time,” Sean remarked as he and Elijah set out hand in hand across the yard toward the woods. “But Chris dancing a jig with Pete has to rank right up there, just ahead of my mother giving fashion advice to Crystal.”
Elijah giggled. “Chris really let her hair down, didn’t she? Although, I suspect Bill’s applejack might have something to do with it. Someone probably should have warned her.”
“If I ever needed proof that that stuff is lethal, it’s the effect on Chris. She used to be able to drink me under the table. Well, I have a feeling she and quite a few others are going to be nursing major hangovers tomorrow,” Sean laughed. “And by the way, did I overhear her trying to buy the rug from you again?”
“Yes, but I told her absolutely no way. If she asked me for it, I’d probably give it to her, but I won’t sell it to her.”
“Very wise. But you can be sure I won’t inform her of the fact. The first time we ever made love was on that rug. I’m sentimentally attached to it.”
“So am I.” Elijah leaned in and bumped shoulders, and then slipped his left hand into the back pocket of Sean’s jeans. “What a day,” he sighed, resting his cheek against Sean’s arm. “I’ll never forget it.”
“Neither will I.” Sean slid his arm around Elijah’s waist. “The only bad part was not seeing enough of you.”
They walked on in silence, entering the pines by a well-trodden sandy path where once they had watched a fox reunited with his injured mate. The woods were quiet, muffling the remaining sounds of the music from the house. The air was fragrant, crisp and clean and pine-scented. It was like breathing wine, Sean thought, and he could never get enough of it, or of the man at his side.
“Everything okay?” Sean asked a little while later.
Elijah closed his eyes briefly and concentrated, a faint line appearing between his brows. Then he nodded decisively. “Not even a whisper of uneasiness.”
“Good.” They exchanged a look and a spark of excitement arced between them. Not yet, Sean thought. It wasn’t the right time or place quite yet.
“I still can’t believe it,” Elijah said. “Sean Patrick Astin, MD. Oh Sean, I’m so proud of you.”
“Uh-oh, here we go with the waterworks,” Sean joked as those amazing blue eyes filled with tears, even though it was all he could do not to join the sobfest. “What did I tell you I was going to do to you if you started crying on me again?”
“You wouldn’t!” Elijah quickly stepped back.
“Oh, yes I would. I got an A in a special elective course on tickling anatomy.”
“No, no!” Elijah shrieked, giggling and batting at Sean’s hands as they reached for his ribs. But it was too late, and the only answer was to retaliate.
Their giddy laughter rang through the woods as they playfully tussled. A saw-whet owl perched in a nearby bull pine hooted loudly, but didn’t take flight. It was the Woodjin and his mate, after all, and there was nothing to be alarmed about in that.
There was no victor in the tickling battle, or perhaps, Sean decided, they had both won; breathless and with their sides aching, they fell together and not surprisingly their mouths met in a fervent kiss.
“Come on,” Elijah said, when they separated at last. His eyes looked huge and almost black. He took Sean’s hand and pulled him along, walking at a faster clip now. Sean went with him willingly. He’d follow wherever Elijah led.
Eventually they emerged into a sandy clearing littered with pine needles, and there they stopped. It looked like any of dozens of other such clearings in the pines. To everyone, that is, except Sean and Elijah, for it was here, just over five years’ earlier, that they had first met.
Elijah dropped Sean’s hand, and holding his eyes, but without speaking a word, began to undress. Sean made no move to help him, only watched as that slender, whippet-lean torso was bared to the nighttime sky in all its beauty. The past five years had honed Elijah’s body, removing any last lingering vestiges of boyhood. To Sean’s sorrow, those years had also added new scars to the ones that had existed before.
But he wouldn’t think of that tonight. Tonight was for joy, and for the two of them alone.
Still without a word Elijah moved away several paces. His eyes never left Sean’s, and into them crept a hint of wildness, and the pines scent around him sharpened and grew stronger. His eyelids slowly closed and his head fell back and the faint line between his brows appeared again, deeper now, as he focused all his energy…
…and the air moved, melting and shifting above and around Elijah’s body, distorting Sean’s view, as if he was looking at him in a funhouse mirror. The air crackled and hummed, not with sound, but with energy. A light sprang up, dazzlingly bright, as if a million fireflies had suddenly congregated in the clearing. Sean shielded his eyes with his hand, but the light continued to grow in intensity, burning brighter and brighter until he was forced to close his eyelids. He’d witnessed this transformation any number of times now, but always, always he missed the exact moment when man turned to stag or back again.
But perhaps it was meant to be that way, he thought as he waited for the brilliant glow to dim and the hum of energy to fade, so that when he opened his eyes, as he did now, he would experience the same stunning catch of his heart at the wonder and miracle of what he saw as he had the first time.
The white stag stood waiting, his great dark eyes glimmering in the starlight. For a long moment they stared at each other, as they had long ago, the bond between them forged and forged anew. Then Sean nodded, and the stag bent his legs and carefully lowered himself to the sand. Almost trembling with anticipation, Sean walked up and slid his right leg across the stag’s broad back and settled into place. The comforting warmth of the stag’s velvet fur seeped through the legs of his jeans and Sean rested his hands palm down on either side of his proud neck. He no longer needed to hold on for dear life. He knew the stag would never let him fall.
The stag turned his antlered head to look at him, a question in his eyes. “I’m ready,” Sean said. The stag gathered his hindquarters beneath him and surged to his feet in one smooth, powerful motion. He set out across the clearing and into the woods at a rapid walk that gradually became a trot, and then with a great joyous bound, a gallop. Sean’s heart picked up the pace of the stag’s flying footfalls, while the wind streamed in his face and exhilaration filled his soul and he wished that they might never stop...
The constellations wheeled overhead and the moon sank slowly behind the trees. But still the white stag ran, tireless and swift, on and on through the starlit night.