There was never any doubt, really. Sure, we loved the beauty of App State and the coziness of UNC Asheville. And then there was the purple-and-gold enthusiasm of East Carolina — and all the promise of opportunities beyond your wildest dreams from colleges around the country that invited you to tour their campuses. On the way home from each one, to break the awkward silence, I’d make some ham-fisted comment about how cool the library or the dorm or the campus was. And every time, you’d reply, “Yeah, it was nice …” in a tone that implied “… but it’s not Chapel Hill.”
In the summer of 2019, when we finally got to tour the esteemed University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I promised you that I wouldn’t wear my favorite Duke shirt. And I promised not to embarrass you with any stupid dad jokes. (For the record, I promised to try not to make any stupid dad jokes.) And I promised that where you would go to college was your decision, not mine. All promises kept.
When the call came in early 2020, you still had an interview lined up at NC State — a very worthy choice just as all the others were. When you told me that UNC had accepted your application and that you would be a Tar Heel, my proud dad reaction was: Of course they accepted you! You’d worked hard since kindergarten and had a top-tier scholastic résumé. All that was left was to march across the stage with the rest of the Class of 2020 and start your college career in the fall. What could go wrong? Right, 2020 …
Your future — your next chapter in life, next year, next week — is unpredictable, but it always has been. From day one to today, my dad-hopes have been high and my confidence in you has been over the top. And, with a nod to Dr. Seuss, sometimes I need to remind you, and myself, of the places we’ve been and the places you’ll go.
For Casey, learning about our state is a family tradition — so it’s no surprise that she’s continuing her education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. photograph by Ryan Herron/iStock/Getty Images Plus
On the day you were born, Ohio State blew out Purdue at The Shoe. As I remember it, you were tiny and quiet, unfazed by the occasional “Yes!” whisper-yelled by your dad. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world: watching my beloved Buckeyes with my beloved daughter. It was, of course, blissful ignorance. There was no way to know the trials we’d face in the coming years — divorce, death, moving, pandemic — or the joys. So many joys to come, and so many places to explore — and explore we did.
We found refuge at Fort Macon in every season — from rain or sweltering shine. During the winter, when the sun set over the ocean and the beach was open and empty, the place was all ours. Whether we were chasing cold, frothy waves or ducking in and out of the shadows of the fort, we ran and laughed until we were — well, I was — breathless.
Our annual Valentine’s Day trip to Oriental was a tradition until it wasn’t. Lingering at the ferry port at Cherry Branch and rushing back to the ferry port at Minnesott Beach — and, in between, having our special Dad/Casey date eating pizza at The Silos, absolutely not trespassing at the marina, and one of us eating cheap oysters at M&M’s Café.
Getting to places and getting home from places always made for great memories in their own right. Like when you were learning to read and practiced on every road sign along the route. My favorite will always be the MIA/KIA/POW Highway coming out of Jacksonville — which you not-incorrectly read as Mia-Kia-Pow Highway, just as it’s written.
My 4 a.m. recollections of waiting for our train to D.C. in the ornate Greensboro Amtrak depot are a bit fuzzy, but memories of our evening flight home into PTI Airport — with the lights sparkling below and your eyes wide in the window seat — are imprinted in my mental scrapbook.
There are entire chapters in our scrapbook devoted to memories of food.
And for every trip we took to the Midwest to visit family, we always knew we were truly back home when we crested that hill on U.S. Highway 52 and Pilot Mountain came into view.
There are entire chapters in our scrapbook devoted to memories of food — pizza in anonymous towns on the way to somewhere else, chicken nugget dinners at white-tableclothed restaurants, and so many lunches and snacks and gummy worms eaten on the road or in a park picnic shelter. And so many French fries shared with hungry seagulls at the beach.
Sometimes, the places we went weren’t about travel at all. Handing bouquets to my ballerina after your dance recitals in the West Carteret High School auditorium was almost as memorable as watching Carolina Ballet perform The Nutcracker every year at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Each year, we sat somewhere different: From the balcony, we could take in the enormity of it all; in the front row, we could feel the music and meet the kettle drummer.
During Hurricane Sandy, we listened to ghost stories on NPR and to the wind howling outside our hotel window in Pine Knoll Shores. It was easily the safest, most dangerous thing we’ve ever done. And when surgery relegated me to the couch to recover for most of the summer of 2016, you were my Summer Olympics sports buddy — all day and into the night.
It wasn’t your first taste of sports, of course: Since you were old enough to keep score, you had tagged along with me and your sports-writing stepmom to Asheboro Copperhead baseball games and Friday night high school football — and, of course, you posed in more O-H-I-O photos than any of your NC-born-and-bred classmates in the Class of 2020.
Now, here you are: at THE University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wearing Carolina Blue and rushing across the quad to class … sort of. You were born with my procrastination gene, so you’re still rushing, but just finish assignments before your next online class. For now.
You’ll be back on campus eventually and I’ll be reorganizing my mental scrapbook of memories whenever a holiday rolls around, or unexpectedly when I drive through a town or crossroads that sparks a memory of our travels — New Bern or Beaufort or Spivey’s Corner. All cherished reminders of the places we’ve been.