How to feel when your child goes to college: a guide for parents at this fragile time when your child leaves the world

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A note from the author: About a year ago, our 19-year-old son Keeling packed his Toyota blue truck and left Signal Mountain to go to college in Alabama. On a home visit in December, he took this self-portrait with a new camera he got for Christmas. For me, the image symbolizes a young adult who knows he has both roots and wings.

To calm my emotions about our firstborn’s empty bedroom last fall, I pulled out an old column I wrote for the Chattanooga Times Free Press when Keeling was born the month after September 11 in October. 2001. For college last August, the two pieces represent the polarity of parenthood – great oscillations between euphoria and sadness.

Fortunately, when the emotional pendulum ends up stopping in the middle, it always – always – comes back to love.

October 2001

Welcome to the world, little boy.

And what a curious place it is, boyfriend. Prepare for some surprises. Your daddy cries in front of sad movies and your mom plays with shotguns.

People have told me I should write about your birth since I first became a dad at 43. But I think I prefer to share some memories with you today.

About 10 years ago, your father started collecting stories from ordinary people. It was as if each story represented a piece of the puzzle of life.

As you get older, you may want to keep a copy on hand. Take it out every once in a while when the world seems sad or complicated or beautiful or dull.

I would love that.

* * *

Once upon a time there was a man who lost his high school ring in Chickamauga Lake. The ring plunged into the murky water and soon disappeared into the depths.

Many years later, a fisherman hung a paper cup on the bottom of the lake. He twisted the thread and was about to throw the goblet into the water when he noticed a golden glow in the sediment at the bottom of the goblet.

The fisherman unearthed the ring and located the owner using only the name of the school and the initials engraved inside.

Believe in miracles, little boy.

* * *

I once met a blind woman who lived alone in Soddy-Daisy. Her eyes stopped working because someone she once loved was shaking her too hard. She was diabetic and had a bad heart. She lived a life filled with physical pain. She tried to have babies, but none of them came into the world.

She lived in a small trailer with a dog named Bear, who protected her from harm.

Even with all of her problems, the woman was one of the happiest people I have ever known. She had a voice like a flute. I never heard her complain.

Years later, on her wedding day, I saw a butterfly land on her shoulder as she took her wedding vows.

Never give in to despair, little boy.

* * *

I once met a man from Nashville standing in line at the Tennessee Aquarium when he saw a pretty woman in front of him. As he walked into the aquarium, the man spoke with the lady, who had beautiful oval eyes.

But it was very crowded that day, and people got stuck between the man and the woman. Finally, he lost sight of her as she walked through the door.

Upon returning to Nashville, the man felt heartbroken. He pulled up to a freeway exit and bought a Chattanooga newspaper. He later bought a classified ad in the newspaper looking for the lady with the pretty oval eyes whose name he didn’t know.

Surprisingly, the ad worked like magic and the two started dating. A few months later, they got married.

Do anything for romance, little boy.

* * *

I once met a man who was determined to score 1 million points in a video game called Pac-Man. It was a silly little game, really, that involved moving a big open mouth around a video screen to gobble up electrical points.

The man played for hours every day and kept his sheet music in notebooks which he put under his bed. It took him many years, but he finally hit a million points. It didn’t matter to anyone but him, but it made him proud.

Be relentless in the pursuit of your goals, little boy.

* * *

Photo by Mark Kennedy / Keeling Kennedy and family dog, Boise.

I once met a woman in Dunlap, Tennessee, who fell in love with a stranger in a restaurant while she waited for the bug spray to settle in her home. In fact, she didn’t really fall in love. It was just that she was so alone that imagining herself with a pretty person made her feel better.

She told me she would give anything to find her “blue eyed stranger”. Some people heard about her loneliness and started writing letters to her. I think the letters helped her.

Never be afraid to ask for help or for friendship, little boy.

* * *

I once met a woman who bought a horse from a glue truck. She called the horse Red and the two started riding barrel races together. At first they weren’t very good, and people wondered why an old horse and a rider over 50 bothered.

Then, as no one was paying attention, Red and his date got better and better. They trained to run almost every day in the mountains, and Red’s legs got stronger and stronger. At the world championships, the runner whispered to Red, “This is it.” Rouge raced like the wind and finished 11th in the world.

Let the animals teach you love and loyalty, little boy.

* * *

Once a man who thought he was too old to get married met a pretty young teacher. The man had small, stocky hands and the woman had long, tapered fingers. One day he promised to love her for 10,000 days (maybe all he had left) if she was his wife. She said yes, and they held hands and kissed.

Several years later a baby came and the man and woman painted their hands with wet green paint and stuck their handprints in the leaves of a tree that the mother had painted on the wall of his nursery. They asked their relatives and best friends to put their handprints on the wall as well, so the baby would always know he was loved.

Take care of your mother, little boy. My 10,000 days won’t last forever, but you never need to be alone.

* * *

Now go out and tell your own stories, grandson. Some days of your life will be happy; others will be sad.

Remember, if the world seems heavy from time to time, it might be because you are in the middle of your story. Your happy ending will come.

Mine arrived the day you were born.


Of text
Photo by Mark Kennedy / Keeling Kennedy, left, and his younger brother, Brooks, run on the beach in Destin, Fla.

^^^

2020

It’s the week I’ve been dreading for 18 years. Our eldest son, our firstborn, is going to college.

I will miss the little things.

The heavy footsteps that made the floor creak in his upstairs bedroom. Popsicle’s wrappers were piling up on his nightstand. The neon blue truck in the driveway.

It’s customary for parents to say it’s a bittersweet time, but bitter and sweet are not the right words. This feeling is salty. Salty like tears.

Here is the truth. I have a lump in my throat as big as a cue ball. I feel like I have a fist clenched against my sinuses, like a bully telling me to give in and cry.

I tried to have a harsh conversation with myself: “It’s not about you, old man.”

And, of course, it is not.

Our son is prepared for college. He will be 19 in October. He is smart, resourceful and strong. Samford University is lucky to have it.

“Don’t go to her room for a few days,” texted us the other day.

Will not work. All the sweet memories of 18 years of fatherhood are already playing in my head, like a grainy family movie:

The restless newborn baby wrapped up in a blanket, finally falling asleep against my chest as I watched the 2001 Diamondbacks-Yankees World Series. It was only weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the happiness of becoming a dad for the first time at 43 raised me like a drug.

The 3 year old with arms and legs wrapped around me anxiously clinging to daddy as I carried him to preschool at the Battle Academy.

The 4 year old hiding behind my legs, shy and nervous, at Parents’ Night at our church kindergarten.

Elementary school athletic glories, home run derby trophies, third grade cross country medals.

And always, football. So much football. Fifteen years of value.

I remember the highlights. A corner kick that went through the keeper’s hands to win a tournament in Birmingham when he was 9.


Of text
Signal Mountain’s Keeling Kennedy (14) heads down. The TSSAA Class A football tournament was held at Siegel Park in Murfreesboro on May 21, 2019.

But there were also losses of character. A handball canceling an opponent’s goal in a frenzied tournament final when he was 10 years old. A water bottle slammed into a trash can after a punitive loss in the final of an indoor tournament when he was 17.

But I will take the passion over perfection any day.

Work hard. Care. Struggle. These are the powerful tools of adulthood.

I try not to be too hard on myself because I feel a little sad.

We parents of first year students do not mourn our 18 year olds. We mourn the end of a childhood. The awkward farewell hug in a faraway place. Driving away from campus. The obligatory photos of the Facebook college “deposit”. The sad dog back home is waiting at the door for “his boy”.

I’m teaching this semester at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, and I asked the kids, “What should I do, all of you?” What if I feel like crying the day I get home? Should I just fit in? “

I expected these slightly older students, mostly juniors and seniors, to cringe and tell me to avoid embarrassing my child at all costs. But no.

“If you need to cry, cry,” said one student.

“Your son may be embarrassed for a minute, but he will always remember that his dad really loves him,” said another.

That settles it. I’ll be honest at the time. If I cry, I cry.

I will taste these salty tears.

And I will know, without a doubt, that I love my 6 foot tall baby boy like the day he was born.

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