WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. — Tabatha Vail took a seat inside Mi Pueblo Mexican restaurant and slowly glanced over the chips and salsa resting in front of her on the table.
It’s Mother’s Day, and this mom spends a moment convincing herself to eat.
She didn’t have much of an appetite. She lost it a month earlier when her teenage son, Taylon Vail, was senselessly killed by stray bullets in a drive-by shooting while sleeping at his grandmother’s house.
But on this particular day — a day that was supposed to be devoted to her — she mustered up the courage to place an order.
That’s when Clarissa Brown-McCormick, Vail’s godmother, posed the imperative question.
“So, would you like to cry now, or later?” Brown-McCormick asked.
It was an inquiry that left Vail completely dumbfounded. She wasn’t sure how to interpret the blunt wording, but opted to wait so she had enough time to at least pick around her food.
Then 30 minutes passed without much progress, and the godmother forged ahead with her plan.
“Why don’t you go wash your hands,” Brown-McCormick suggested, which created more suspicion from Vail, who obliged.
By the time the grieving mom returned to her table from the bathroom, it had been completely cleared, and placed in front of her was an envelope marked with a very familiar logo: The University of Kentucky, her son’s favorite basketball team.
“When I opened it up — oh my goodness — I was bawling crying,” Vail said. “I was so excited.”
Inside was a custom, blue Kentucky jersey marked with her son’s last name and his favorite number. On the front, it was signed by Wildcats coach John Calipari.
Accompanying the gear was a letter and an official scholarship offer, intended to fulfill a dream that was tragically stopped short his freshman year of high school.
It was a moment that had been in the works for several weeks, spearheaded by Brown-McCormick, who initially emailed the university and kept the gifts a secret until Mother’s Day.
Taylon Vail always wanted to play college basketball, and his hope was to attend Kentucky just like fellow Arkansas prospect Malik Monk.
“I was trying not to get tears on the jersey,” Vail said. “It wasn’t until then that I realized why she asked me to go wash my hands. It was pristine. It’s so special.”
Moving forward with Taylon
Over the next few days, Vail kept the jersey and scholarship papers with her, eventually moving the items into a shadow box to work as a better display.
She knew that both Kentucky and Calipari are polarizing topics in West Memphis, which is mostly populated by Memphis and Arkansas fans.
“It was so interesting, because when I shared it — I didn’t share it through social media, I shared it with family and people close in Taylon’s life — a lot of them said, ‘Oh my goodness, I have respect for John Calipari now,’ ” Vail said.
It wasn’t until last Friday that the gifts from Kentucky would become public, when Tabatha Vail made a guest appearance at Academies of West Memphis High School’s freshman day.
“I got up in front of his class and I spoke, and then I shared that jersey with them,” Vail said. “I mean, they were all in awe. Their applause — you could hear the excitement. They were screaming and yelling, it was so amazing.”
It was a celebratory moment for both the mother and the school, vastly different from the somber vigil that was held outside its doors just three weeks earlier.
“I remember that one of Taylon’s teachers wrote on a sticky note and said, ‘We will not move on without Taylon, we will move forward with him,’ ” Vail said. “That really hit me. I figured that the Class of 2022 will remember him up until they graduate, then it will fade when they go to college. I want to be able to move forward with them, until its time for the kids to go their separate ways.”
Going separate ways
And when that moment comes, the Vail family hopes to go its own way too, but not without making a trip to Lexington for a Kentucky game first.
“I’m not going to say I owe it to them, but I’m a Wildcat mom now,” Vail said. “So, I need to go.”
Vail doesn’t expect that when she sees the UK logo printed on the floor, or brings the jersey into the arena, it will bring any more closure to her tragic circumstances.
But what she does hope, just like her Mother’s Day celebration inside Mi Pueblo, is that it can bring a few more happy tears.
“I don’t think I will ever get closure,” Vail said. “When people think of closure, they think of the person who did this behind bars, but the damage is done. There’s nothing that can ever give me closure.”
“This is about making his dream come true. It’s sad that it had to come true in this way, but just to know that he’s still loved, and that John Calipari took the time to sign the jersey and offer him a full-ride — based on a story — that is the most amazing thing ever.”