“Janessa Marie Warner.”
With a smile she thought would never fade, Janessa walked confidently up the steps. She glided across the stage, pausing long enough to shake hands with Dr. Todd Marks, President of Indiana Wesleyan University. She accepted his congratulations and held tight to the maroon folder he handed her. This was it. Her degree. The little piece of paper she had worked hard for, had lived the past four years for. No, she had lived for God these last four years. That folder and the piece of paper it proudly displayed just represented His will for her life.
No amount of hard work and sacrifice on her part would have meant anything if God was not in it all.
She reached the edge of the stage, having shaken hands with a few other members of university faculty. She looked up and said, “Thank You, Father,” before descending the steps and rejoining her classmates.
Garrett Shepherd was on his feet, cheering louder than anyone else as he watched Janie walk across the stage. The maroon and gray tassel on his mortarboard cap slapped him in the face as he whooped and clapped. Not that he cared. He was so proud of her. In a lot of ways, her graduation meant more to him than his own. He knew how hard this had been for her, how much pressure she had felt to get to this day. And today she was being rewarded for her hard work.
His parents had made a lot of sacrifices for Garrett and his twin sister Graceyn to get through Indiana Wesleyan. There were times when he wondered if they were sorry about that, if they thought they had wasted their money—especially when they saw his grades some semesters. There had been moments in the first two years when even Garrett thought Mom and Dad could have found better uses for their money, investments that would have given a better return. Staring at Janessa Warner as she slid across the stage, smiling from ear to ear, Garrett was grateful he had stayed in school, grateful for the sacrifices his parents had made.
When Janie had cleared the stage, he reached beneath his own maroon gown. He had to check his pocket again, to be sure that little box was still there. A smile spread across his face and he touched the soft velvet. Janessa had said her happiest day would be when she finished college.
Garrett hoped that he would be able to make it just a little more memorable for her.
Tears spilled out of Kerri Warner’s eyes as she clapped for her daughter. A shout of, “Way to go, Janie!” followed by a long, shrill whistle filled her ears. Kerri giggled at the unbridled enthusiasm her 12-year-old showed. From the corner of her eye, she could see her husband Tim place a hand on young Natalie’s shoulder. Kerri turned him.
“Let her cheer,” Kerri said gently. She wrapped one arm around Natalie’s shoulders, pulling her daughter close to her side. She smiled up at her husband. “It’s a day for celebration. She’s proud of her big sister. And so am I.”
“Do you think I’m not?” Tim asked. Kerri studied his normally reserved face. His eyes were full of pride and full of tears, tears she knew better than to think he would be shedding in public. “But that doesn’t mean that we have to draw attention to ourselves.”
Kerri smiled up at him. She would have expected nothing less from Tim. He had surpassed her expectations in so many ways over the years. At times his serious, reserved nature had annoyed her. Yet he was exactly what she had needed in her life. He’d kept her from making too many impulsive decisions in her life. Kerri’s gaze turned back to the stage at the front of the auditorium. Janessa was walking down the steps and returning to her seat as cheers for the next graduate rose up.
That girl was one reason to be thankful for Tim’s level-headed ways. Kerri couldn’t imagine Janessa getting so far in life—becoming a college graduate, with a real future in front of her!—had she been raised alone by a headstrong, often flighty mother. God sure knew what He was doing by bringing Kerri and Tim together.
Sometimes, she couldn’t help wishing He had brought them together sooner.
She shook her head, pushing those thoughts aside, forcing her focus to remain on the bright smile of her eldest daughter. No reason to question God’s ways and God’s timing. He’d blessed her in more ways than she could count.
Kerri prayed for those blessings to continue.
Janessa turned toward the sound and smile. Garrett Shepherd—the brother of her roommate and Janessa’s boyfriend of nearly two years—was waving for her attention and walking toward her. The graduation ceremony had just ended, and graduates crowded the area, looking for their families. Janessa worked her way through the crowd of maroon caps and gowns until she was at Garrett’s side. He wrapped his arms around her waist and spun her in the air, causing Janessa to giggle.
“We did it,” Garrett said. He kissed the tip of her nose and sat Janessa carefully back on the ground. “Can you believe that we just finished college?”
Janessa held her cap in place, stumbling slightly to get her footing. She was not used to the high heels her mother had insisted she wear that day. “For now,” she said. “But you still have a way to go until you get that law degree.”
“Aw, can’t you just let me celebrate this for a while before I have to think about going back?”
She laughed. “Fine, I’ll let you have a little break. But I am so proud of you. I am so sick of school. I can’t imagine having four years left.”
“But I know I am doing what God wants,” Garrett said. “As much as I would like to stop now, I know that He has something better in store for me later.”
Janessa smiled, not wanting to admit to what she was feeling. She hoped that the something better God had in store included her. The worst part of graduating was the knowledge she wouldn’t see Garrett every day anymore. He would be heading back to Michigan and she would return to Texas with her family. Sure, they had email and cell phones and Facebook, but things wouldn’t be the same.
She pushed those thoughts out of her mind, keeping the smile on her face. This was supposed to be a happy day; she didn’t want to dwell on the coming separation right now. “Have you found your parents?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I left Gracie with them while I came to find you. Found yours yet?”
She shook her head, craning her neck to see around him. “Not yet. I am sure they are around here somewhere. It’s amazing anyone can be found in this crowd.”
“Hey, Mom and Dad want to take us out to celebrate graduation tonight.”
“Oh.” Janessa tried to hide her disappointment. They had planned to spend their last evening in Marion together. She had hoped to extend the night for as long as possible, postponing their good-bye. She didn’t know why she had not considered that their parents might have other ideas. “You and Graceyn will have a good time, I’m sure.”
“You, too,” Garrett said, giving her hand a slight squeeze. “Mom and Dad thought it would be fun if you and your parents came along.”
“Really?” Janessa couldn’t decide if she was more excited to have dinner with Garrett or more nervous about meeting his parents. “Nattie is here, too. You sure they won’t mind having my sister tag along?”
“As long as you are there,” Garrett said, “I don’t think they will mind. Gracie suggested Italian. Sound OK to you?”
“Olive Garden? Sounds about perfect.”
“Great.” Garrett’s smile caused Janessa’s heart to leap. It didn’t matter that they were surrounded by their entire graduating class. When Garrett trained his blue eyes on her and smiled that way, Janessa felt like they were the only two people in the world. “I didn’t want to miss our last evening together, but I didn’t know how to say no to Mom, either. Besides, I’d love to meet Kerri and Tim.”
Garrett laughed. “Yeah, I’d like to meet your sister, too.”
Janessa heard someone call her name. She turned around to see her mother waving wildly at her, practically leaping in the air in her excitement. “There are my parents,” Janessa said.
“I should get back to my family anyway. Meet you in about an hour?”
She nodded. Garrett kissed her cheek gently and then turned, quickly disappearing into the crowd. Janessa wasn’t alone for long, though. Soon her mother, father, and little sister were at her side, hugging her and giving their congratulations.
“You are so lucky,” Natalie, Janessa’s 12-year-old sister, told her. “You don’t have to go back to school ever again.”
Janessa laughed at her. “Not until I find a job, anyway. It’s kind of hard to be a teacher and not go to school.”
“As long as you are a nice teacher,” Natalie said. “Mine are all idiots.”
“Natalie Jean,” her mother scolded. “That’s not a nice thing to say.”
“But it is true,” Natalie mumbled. Janessa saw her father place a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder. She knew that would be the last complaint she would hear from her sister for the evening. Natalie could be a pretty outspoken girl, but even she wouldn’t try to push things with Tim Warner.
“So,” her father asked. “How should we celebrate?”
“How about dinner at Olive Garden?” Janessa said.
“Olive Garden?” Natalie made a disgusted face. “Italian food stuffed full of tomatoes. Eww. Can’t we get something more interesting than that?”
Tim tightened the grip he had on Natalie’s shoulder, causing her to wince a little. He said, “This is your night, Janie. If you want to go to Olive Garden, that’s where we will go.”
“As long as you are sure that is what you want,” Kerri said. “But I thought you’d choose something different, something that is uniquely Marion that you can’t get back in Lewisville.”
“Well, there is a reason for choosing Olive Garden,” Janessa said. She linked arms with her mother and sister and began walking toward the parking lot, with her father following close behind. “My roommate and her parents invited us to meet them there tonight. I thought it might be fun.”
“Roommate, huh?” Kerri said with a little laugh. “This wouldn’t be the same roommate with the Nick Lachey look-a-like for a brother, would it?”
Janessa felt herself smiling. “Maybe.”
“As long as this brother is going to be there, too,” Tim said, doing his best to sound gruff.
“It would be nice to finally meet him,” Kerri said. “We’ve heard so much about him. But I’d like to find out if he is really good enough for you.”
“No one is good enough for my little girl,” Tim said. “For either of my little girls.”
They had reached the car by then. Janessa turned and gave Tim a big hug. “Don’t worry, Daddy,” she whispered in his ear. “You will always be my favorite guy.”
Tim returned her hug. “Have I mentioned how proud I am of you?”
Natalie groaned. “Can we just go, please?” she whined. “Let’s just get this over with.”
“Is spending an evening with your family really that much torture?” Janessa asked. She took off her graduation gown and slid into the backseat of her parents’ rented car beside her sister.
“No,” Natalie admitted. She reached up to help remove the bobby pins that held Janessa’s cap in place. “But if I have to watch you make out with some guy all night, I’m might hurl.”
Janessa threw her head back and laughed. She had never felt so happy in her life.