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Self-portrait by Keeling Kennedy / Author Mark Kennedy's son, Keeling, stands at the precipice of Signal Point — and adulthood.

A note from the author: About this time a year ago, our 19-year-old son, Keeling, packed his blue Toyota truck and left Signal Mountain for college in Alabama. On a visit home in December, he took this self-portrait with a new camera he got for Christmas. To 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 9/11 in October 2001. Book-ended with a 2020 column about his departure for college last August, the two pieces represent the polarity of parenthood — big swings between euphoria and sadness.

Fortunately, when the emotional pendulum eventually stops in the middle, it always — always — settles back on love.

October 2001

Welcome to the world, baby boy.

And what a curious place it is, little friend. Get ready for some surprises. Your daddy cries at sad movies, and your mommy plays with shotguns.

People have told me that I should write about your birth, since I'm becoming a first-time dad at 43. But I think I'd rather just share a few memories with you today.

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

As you get older, you might want to keep a copy of this handy. Pull it out once in a while when the world seems sad or complicated or magnificent or dull.

That would make me happy.

* * *

There once was a man who lost his high school class ring in Chickamauga Lake. The ring plunked into the murky water and soon disappeared into the depths.

Many years later, a fisherman hooked a paper cup on the bottom of the lake. He reeled in the line, and was about to toss the cup back into the water when he noticed a glint of gold light in the sediment in the bottom of the cup.

The fisherman dug out the ring and tracked down the owner using only the name of the school and the initials engraved inside.

Believe in miracles, baby boy.

* * *

I once met a woman who was blind and lived alone in Soddy-Daisy. Her eyes quit working because someone she once loved shook 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 made it to the world.

She lived in a little house 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 known. She had a voice like a flute. I never once heard her complain.

Years later, on her wedding day, I saw a butterfly settle on her shoulder at the moment she said her marriage vows.

Never give in to despair, baby boy.

* * *

I once met a man from Nashville who was standing in line at the Tennessee Aquarium one day when he spotted a pretty woman up ahead of him. As he walked through the aquarium, the man talked with the lady, who had lovely oval eyes.

But there was a big crowd that day, and people wedged between the man and the woman. Eventually, he lost sight of her as she walked out the door.

On his drive back to Nashville, the man felt brokenhearted. He stopped at a freeway exit and bought a Chattanooga newspaper. Later, he bought a classified ad in the newspaper in search of the lady with pretty oval eyes whose name he did not know.

Amazingly, the ad worked like magic, and the two began dating. A few months later they were wed.

Do anything for romance, baby boy.

* * *

I once met a man who was determined to score 1 million points at 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 electric dots.

The man played for hours every day and kept his score in notebooks that he kept packed away under his bed. It took him many years, but he finally made it to a million points. It mattered to nobody but him, but it made him feel proud.

Be relentless in pursuit of your goals, baby boy.

* * *

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

I once met a woman in Dunlap, Tennessee, who fell in love with a stranger in a diner while she was waiting for the bug spray to settle back at her house. Actually, she didn't really fall in love. It was just that she was so lonely that imagining herself with a pretty person made her feel better.

She told me that she would give anything to find her "blue-eyed stranger." Some people heard about her loneliness and began to write her letters. I think the letters helped her.

Don't ever be afraid to ask for help or friendship, baby boy.

* * *

I once met a woman who bought a horse off a glue truck. She called the horse Red, and the two began to ride together in barrel races. At first, they weren't very good, and people wondered why an old horse and a rider over age 50 would even bother.

Then, while nobody was paying attention, Red and his rider became better and better. They practiced running nearly every day in the mountains, and Red's legs got stronger and stronger. At the world championships, the rider whispered to Red: "This is it." Red ran like the wind and finished 11th in the world.

Let animals teach you about love and loyalty, baby boy.

* * *

Once, a man who thought he was too old to marry met a pretty young teacher. The man had little stubby 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 would be 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 pressed their handprints in the leaves of a tree the mother had painted on the wall of his nursery. They asked their loved ones and best friends to put their handprints on the wall, too, so the baby would always know he was loved.

Take care of your mother, baby boy. My 10,000 days won't last forever, but you will never need to be lonely.

* * *

Now, go out and make some stories of your own, little son. Some days of your life will be happy; others will be sad.

Just remember, if the world feels heavy now and then, it might be because you're in the middle of your story. Your happy ending will come.

Mine arrived the day you were born.

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

^^^

2020

This is the week I've dreaded for 18 years. Our older son — our firstborn child — leaves for college.

I will miss the little things.

The heavy footsteps making the floors squeak in his upstairs bedroom. The Popsicle wrappers piled up on his bedside table. The neon blue truck in the driveway.

It's customary for parents to say this is a bittersweet moment, but bitter and sweet are the wrong words. This feeling is salty. Salty like tears.

Here's the truth. I've got a lump in my throat as big as a cue ball. It feels like a clenched fist pressing against my sinuses, like a bully telling me to give in and cry.

I've tried having a stern talk with myself: "This is not about you, old man."

And, of course, it's not.

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

"Don't go in his room for a few days," a friend texted us the other day.

Won't work. All the sweet memories from 18 years of fatherhood are already playing in a continuous loop in my head, like a grainy family movie:

The fretful newborn swaddled in a blanket, finally falling asleep against my chest as I watched the 2001 Diamondbacks-Yankees World Series. It was just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the bliss of becoming a first-time dad at 43 lifted me like a drug.

The 3-year-old with arms and legs wrapped around me, clinging to Daddy anxiously as I carried him into preschool at Battle Academy.

The 4-year-old hiding behind my legs, shy and nervous, at parents' night at pre-K at our church.

The sports glories of elementary school, the home-run derby trophies, the third-grade cross-country medals.

And always, the soccer. So much soccer. Fifteen years' worth.

I remember highlights. A corner kick that whipped through the keeper's hands to win a tournament in Birmingham when he was 9. A header goal in the high-school state tournament and, with it, the same rush of fatherly pride.

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Signal Mountain's Keeling Kennedy (14) makes a low header. The TSSAA Class A Soccer Tournament was held at Siegel Park in Murfreesboro on May 21, 2019.

But there were character-building losses, too. A handball negating an opponent's goal in a frenzied tournament final when he was 10. A water bottle slammed into a wastebasket after a punishing loss in the finals of an indoor tournament when he was 17.

But I'll take passion over perfection any day.

Work hard. Care. Fight. Those are the power tools of adult life.

I'm trying to not be too hard on myself for feeling a little sad.

We parents of college freshmen aren't grieving for our 18-year-olds. We are grieving for the end of a childhood. The awkward goodbye hug in a faraway place. The driving away from campus. The obligatory Facebook college "drop-off" photos. The sad dog back home waiting at the door for "his boy."

I'm teaching a college class this semester at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and I asked the kids: "What should I do, y'all? What if I feel like crying on drop-off day? Should I just hold it in?"

I was expecting these slightly older college students, mainly 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 might be embarrassed for a minute, but he will always remember that his dad really loves him," said another.

That settles it. I will be honest in the moment. If I cry, I cry.

I will taste those salty tears.

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

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