On a car ride home from Lowe's one night earlier this month, my 5-year-old son was in the back seat listening to a Lookouts baseball game on the radio.
"Daddy," he said, "aren't you forgetting something?"
"What?" I said. "It's the national anthem,'" he whispered, nodding toward the radio speaker. "You need to take off your cap and put your hand over your heart."
I looked at him in the rearview mirror. He was sitting at attention in his booster seat, his right hand on his chest, his chin tilted slightly upward to show reverence for "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"Sorry," I said, suddenly driving up the W Road with only one hand on the steering wheel and the other over my heart.
Quirky. That's what the doctor called my younger son in the hospital the day after he was born in 2006 when he developed a little hitch in his breathing that made him sound like a terrier with a head cold.
Our outing to Lowe's to buy a boy-size tool set was one of a number of diversions I had concocted to relieve his anxiety about starting kindergarten. For several weeks, he had been cranky and sad. You'd have thought we were about to deliver him to the Taliban.
Maybe he was getting vibes from me. Sending a kid to kindergarten, especially your youngest child, is a gut punch. It signals an end to early childhood and a surrender to elementary-school rhythms, which pick up tempo every year.
My 10-year-old son, who it seems started kindergarten only 10 minutes ago, asked me yesterday what caused the Korean War.
Monday was the big day for son No. 2. Although his mother teaches at his new school and his big brother attends fifth grade there, he was a ball of nerves. Several times during the previous week, he had crawled up in my lap at home and said, "Daddy, I'm sorry. I'm just nervous."
On Monday morning, I packed his new red lunch box and helped him get dressed.
"Hey, your barn door is open," I said as he strapped on his backpack.
"Daddy," he said with fake frown. "I think you need to work on your manners."
I zipped up his shorts and mussed his hair. Meanwhile, I detected a lightness in his mood that gave me hope.
At school, we visited Mommy's classroom and then found the cafeteria, where the kids sat on the floor in ranks waiting for their teachers.
"There are too many people in here," he said. I could feel his body heat as he backed up against my leg. We both looked out over a sea of children and parents snapping photos with their iPhones.
Minutes later, his kind young teacher arrived and stooped down to greet him eye to eye. Later, he fell into line behind her and walked to his classroom, teetering under the weight of his supply-filled backpack. I followed a safe distance behind.
Once inside her room, the teacher showed the children their storage cubbies and directed them to sit on the carpet at the front of the room to begin their day.
My son took one step toward the carpet, and then he stopped as if he had forgotten something. He turned and smiled at me. "Bye, Daddy," he said, waving.
He looked so little -- just 43 pounds, a little stick boy with scraped knees and a nervous stomach.
How could he be starting school? Yesterday he was in a crib, wrapped in a blue and white blanket at the East Ridge hospital, looking through a window at his improbable 48-year-old daddy.
As I waved back at him in that kindergarten class Monday morning, I felt a little hitch in MY breathing.
"Better go now," I thought, as I turned and walked briskly down the hall.
I'm sorry. I'm just nervous.
Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...