"So if we rent a car at O'Hare and just drive out of there, we can take the 10 p.m. flight out of Dulles, then get the first flight out of Madison in the-- what? What are you staring at? Am I leaking again?" Donna stopped, mid-sentence, staring at Josh in horror over his computer monitor before giving her breasts a frantic squeeze. "What time is it? I'm not due to pump for another--"
"It's fine, Donna, it's fine," Josh said, gripping her wrist and drawing her around his desk. "I just noticed-- them-- I'm still not, you know-- used to it."
Donna made a disgusted sound and swatted his arm, then jabbed a finger at the printout she had been discussing. "I'm trying to organize something here, and I don't need your neanderthal ogling-- they really look good?" She looked at him through her lashes.
"Yes, God, yes," Josh groaned. "Still full as they were the day you went into labor."
"See, I told you pumping would be worth it. They'll get up to a handful. You just wait--" She stopped short when she heard a throat clearing in the doorway. "Mr. President!" she gasped, face flushing hot. "And Mrs. Santos?" She glanced at Josh as he stood to greet the President and First Lady. "Both of them? This can't be good," she murmured under her breath.
"What can we do for you, sir?" Josh asked as he stood, running his fingers through his hair, then with a glance at Mrs. Santos, adding, "ma'am?"
"It's actually about these travel plans you emailed me about," the President said, holding up his iPhone. "Helen and I had a chance to talk about them over dinner, and we had a couple thoughts."
"We tried to take your campaign schedule into account, sir," Donna said, tugging her blazer more tightly closed. "With the North Carolina primary, I know it's not a good time--"
"This is a once in a lifetime occasion, Donna," Mrs. Santos interrupted. "And we think you and Josh need to make the most of it. It's not every day you're awarded an honorary doctorate."
Donna exchanged a look with Josh, but before either of them could protest, the President continued. "I know the primary song and dance already, Josh. You've got me well trained. I'm not endorsing any one candidate, simply putting the party platform out there. Sam can handle things for the week."
"And I'm taking some time off to spend with Peter before he goes to Japan this fall. Take advantage of him still thinking his mom's cool enough before he realizes most college-aged boys are mortified by their mothers." Mrs. Santos chuckled, then gestured toward the framed photo on Josh's desk. "The time goes by so fast, Donna, and you haven't even had a full week with Avi since he was born. You were working from your hospital suite! It's kind of hypocritical to advocate for work-life balance for mothers while keeping you away from your newborn son."
"So consider this an executive order," the President picked up where Mrs. Santos left off. "From the moment your plane leaves Dulles, you're both off duty, for a week. Spend time with your son and your families. Enjoy yourselves. Celebrate. You've earned it. Both of you."
Donna looked at Josh, throat tight. His face was a mish-mash of emotions, several playing at once. She could see the objection forming on his lips, but she could tell in his exhausted eyes that it was more for formality's sake. The President saved him the trouble.
"We're in the home stretch, Josh," he said, leaning over and clasping his Chief of Staff's bicep. "I know we're not home free yet, but it's only six months. Let's rest up, then make these last six months matter."
For the first time since their son was born, Donna saw Josh's mouth turn up into a true smile. "Yes, sir. Understood, sir."
Donna checked her hair one more time, then adjusted her hood, before checking her iPhone. It was suspiciously quiet, and Donna was entertaining fantasies that Mrs. Santos had embargoed her for the duration of their 'vacation.' She didn't know what to do with quiet, any more. She hadn't lived a quiet life since she'd first walked into the offices for Bartlet for America sixteen years before. As the Santos administration had begun to look toward the end of the president's term, Mrs. Santos had joked that Donna had gotten pregnant just to make sure she'd have something to fill her schedule. That gentle teasing had done little to assuage Donna's guilt at the time, although C.J. had advised Donna that a little "whoopsie" was the best thing that could have happened to her, because otherwise she and Josh never would have made time for a family. And despite the pain, the difficult decisions, and the sheer exhaustion, Donna knew C.J. was right. She was looking forward to the California Primary in a few weeks to introduce Avi to C.J.'s two daughters.
"When did we grow up?" Donna mused aloud as the opening strains to 'Pomp and Circumstance' echoed through the arena. She stepped out into the packed arena and felt her head swim. She'd seen bigger crowds at Santos rallies, at Inauguration Day, at protest marches on the Mall. But none had felt so intimidating, so important, so-- impossible. She'd never thought she'd see herself here, walking the long walk of someone who was about to become a college graduate. She smiled and waved, conscious that people were photographing her simply because she was Chief of Staff to the First Lady and the featured commencement speaker. It was an automatic reaction after eight years, and Donna's thoughts raced, thinking of the cold February day she'd walked away from this campus as a stupid 22-year-old who always put others before herself.
In some ways she hadn't changed.
As they processed onto the platform, Donna finally caught sight of Josh, sitting in the front row of the dignitaries section, Avi asleep in the crook of his arm. Donna's parents sat to one side, and Josh's mother on his other side. She nearly stumbled as she hurried to her chair, glad that it afforded her a clear view of her family--one that allowed her to exchange an entire conversation's worth of glances with Josh without saying a word. They were good at passing the time during long, boring ceremonies like that.
Except this time, Donna was the one with a job to do, and she looked up as the president of the University rose to introduce her:
"Now I would like to introduce to you to our commencement speaker. She is the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, from the School of Education, for her contributions to promoting literacy and higher educational standards. As Chief of Staff to First Lady Helen Santos, she has been a tireless advocate for affordable college education for American students. I know many of you graduating today have benefitted from the grant and public service programs created by this woman. Please give a warm Badger welcome to Donnatella Moss-Lyman."
"That's me," Donna thought with surprise when she heard her name. It was difficult to believe that Donna Moss, college dropout, could have been responsible for so much. As she rose and stood behind the podium, she met Josh's eyes. He gave her a reassuring smile and nod, then propped a yawning Avi up to allow him to 'watch.' A wave of warmth surged through Donna from within, and she took a deep breath.
"Hi." Donna said, with a rush of exhalation. "I can't tell you how much of a thrill it is for me to be here, talking to you today. The crazy journey that has been my life has taken me all around the world, from the White House to Gaza to Beijing to Wake Island. Does anyone know where that is? A few of you? That makes you, me, and all ten people who live there."
She relaxed as the audience chuckled, then checked her notes before beginning in earnest. "I dropped out of college after two years, because I thought I had more important things to do. Doing that deprived me of some of the most valuable time in a person's life. College is where you discover who you are, what your passions are, what your true voice sounds like. You learn to think for yourself, to think critically, to determine not just right and wrong, but what's right and wrong for you. College gives you a kind of safety net to make mistakes, to figure out what works, to put together a toolbox to take out into the greater world with you. And I went out without that toolbox.
"I ended up doing all right for myself," she continued. "I'd be a liar if I didn't say things had ended up pretty good. I owe a lot of that success to luck. I found the right opportunity at the right time, and I was frankly desperate. I had reached a dead-end, where I knew I had to do something to prove to myself I wasn't a complete failure. And that's where President Bartlet's campaign came in. I walked in and made myself useful, and never stopped making myself useful. I learned the very first day I was answering phones in the Bartlet campaign headquarters that you can get anywhere, even the West Wing, if you're bold, determined, and refuse to take 'no' for an answer. Ever." She gave Josh a knowing smile, which he returned with a shake of the head.
"You always have to be your biggest advocate. You know what you're capable of; make sure everyone else knows it. Don't ever let yourself be under-appreciated. If you don't have an advocate who will help you to that next level, then find one. And if you can't find one, then be your own. Don't wait around. When I decided to leave my position at the White House to work on Bob Russell's presidential campaign, I was terrified. Once again, I had to believe in my own abilities enough to step up to a challenge, even one that wasn't a sure thing. It turned out better for me than it did for Bob Russell." She threw that one in just to see Josh smirk. She loved that look.
"I worked my way through the end of Russell's campaign, then ended up with President Santos. And now, instead of working for Josh Lyman, he works for me. He changes diapers like you wouldn't believe." The laughter from the audience was a relief. The baleful glare from Josh was the crowning victory of the address. "I'll be paying for that later," she quipped.
"So remember, every one of us has the ability to make it to the White House, to the corner office, to the New York Times Bestseller List, or even to outer space. Find your opportunities, be your own advocate, and never take 'no' for an answer. But I'll tell you something else. Every one of you has a shortcut available to you that I didn't have when I walked in to Bartlet for America's headquarters. You have a college degree--that experience, that distinction sets you above and apart from everyone else. Use it. I know I will. Congratulations. Now go make the world a better place."
Donna's knees were shaking as she turned to shake the president's hand and accept her honorary degree. When she returned to her seat, she opened it, smiling and tracing her finger over her name in hand-written calligraphy: Donnatella Moss-Lyman. As the long list of student names began, she mused that maybe it was a good thing she hadn't gotten this degree before now. The name that would have been on that piece of paper so many years ago didn't have an identity--she was busy being what everyone else wanted her to be. Now, even as everything was changing around her--the end of her tenure as Chief of Staff for Mrs. Santos, the beginning of her journey as a mother--Donna knew who she was. Of all the things she'd gained in her years at the White House, that was the most precious and important. And she'd never take it for granted.
"You sure Toby didn't write that speech?" Josh teased as he handed Avi to Donna after the ceremony.
"Trade you," Donna said, handing him her newly acquired degree for his inspection. She held Avi close to her chest, rocking him back and forth and breathing in his warm, clean scent that was touched with the essence of Josh's aftershave. He smelled like home. "Mommy killed it, didn't she?" she asked her son, peppering his blonde hair with kisses. She watched Josh as he read the degree, then raised an eyebrow as he closed the leather cover. "It's not Yale," she began, but she was cut off by a kiss.
"There's already enough Yale graduates in this family, Doctor Lyman," Josh murmured against her lips.
Donna teased the kiss out a moment longer, before drawing back to look her husband in the eyes. "That's Doctor Moss-Lyman. And don't let the baby hear you say there are enough Yale graduates in this family. I thought you had plans for him. Maybe we can make it a family thing. Yale Law school for everyone!"
"Well, we've got a few years--" Josh began, and Donna wrapped her free arm around his waist.
"You're not doing anything after January, right? You can be a stay-at-home dad--"
"And I can get my law degree--"
"Then when you run for governor of Connecticut--"
"Okay, okay, this is just weird. I'm not supposed to be the one reminding you we're not on the clock." Josh stopped in front of Donna and gripped her shoulders. "I promised the President we'd take what he said seriously. And I promised you that I'd make time for us. So here's what's going to happen: we're going to make our dinner reservation, we're going to leave Avi with his grandparents tonight, and we're going to celebrate your new title. And then we're going to relax. And then we'll go to the mall. And do whatever else there is to do in Madison. What did you do when you lived here?"
Donna shifted Avi on her shoulder, then took hold of Josh's hand--the one that wasn't shouldering the diaper bag and carrying her diploma. "I left," she said.