There's always time, until there isn't

August 31, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS | DAN RODRICKS,dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Since Tuesday's column about taking my son to college for the first time, many people - more than I ever imagined, more than at any time in nearly 30 years of columns - wrote to commiserate about the passage of time, children growing up and going their own way, and how hard that can be on parents. In the midst of reading dozens of these emotional e-mails, I came across two stories of parent-child separation turned tragically permanent - one about a mother who lost her son, the other about a son who lost his mother.

Summer's fading now, and after Labor Day life gains speed again. Before we all get busy and stressed and caught up with routine, I thought we should stop here and consider the experiences of Marcia Shipley and Anthony Kinslow. It's Sunday, a good day for that.

Marcia Shipley's note was in the long queue of e-mail on Tuesday and Wednesday. It began as almost all of them did: "In 2001 my husband and I took our only child, Ben, to UMass in Amherst to start his freshman year. ...

"It was a bittersweet departure, as I remembered going through the same experience with my parents, and thinking how my son has his whole life ahead of him. In October he called us and said he decided to change schools - yay!- and attend the University of Maryland at College Park. I was delighted to have him closer to home!

"Ben was always a great kid - lots of fun, a talented musician, good student."

He played guitar, drums and keyboard, and he wrote music. During his teen years, he played with several garage bands, including one called Hippies Use the Other Door. At Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, he had been a member of the Future Business Leaders Club and had played in a school band. He was vice president of his 2001 graduating class.

For the fall semester of his senior year in college, he enrolled in the University of Maryland's Study in London program; he took English, drama and art history at London Metropolitan University.

"We visited him there and had the best time of our lives," his mother's e-mail went on. "He wrote in his journal how he couldn't wait to get home and share his experiences with his friends and family.

"Ben died there after a fall from a fire escape. He had been drinking with friends."

That's just how Marcia Shipley wrote it. I read those sentences twice, then looked up Ben Shipley's obituary in the newspaper's archives from Nov. 17, 2004. Suddenly temporary separation from your college-age kid seemed utterly insignificant. I told Marcia Shipley I'd be publishing her e-mail.

"I hope," she wrote, "that all your readers give their children a hug today and tell them how much they love them and how proud they are!"

Felicenne Houston was proud of her son, Anthony Kinslow. He gave her lots of reasons to be. He'd been an engaged and successful student and athlete at the Park School in Baltimore County. He'd been accepted into an honors program at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. Anthony was Fel Houston's only child, the center of her world.

She was a single parent who worked two jobs to put him through a private school and get him off to college. "She did everything she could for Anthony," says Traci Wright, the dean of students at Park.

A few weeks ago, Anthony and his mother drove from their home in Randallstown to Greensboro, making the six-hour trip in the same six-year-old SUV that Fel Houston had driven when taking her son to soccer, baseball, football and basketball games.

"Never missed one," he says. "She always left work early to be at my games. My mom was always right there with me."

By all accounts, Fel Houston had an energetic spirit and made a lot of people laugh along the way. She liked line dancing and hand dancing. She loved to party with friends and family.

Last September, when she turned 50, she staged a three-day celebration.

"It started with a Friday night fish fry," Anthony says. "Then Saturday was a Hawaiian party, a luau, and Saturday was a black-and-white party. She went all out."

At NCA&T, mother and son moved Anthony's belongings into his dorm, had lunch at Sonic, hugged and said goodbye. Her baby was a mature, responsible, ready-for-life college freshman, and Fel Houston was pleased with that. "She was really excited," Anthony says. She drove back to Maryland, then treated herself to a brief vacation in Florida.

When the vacation ended, she sent a text message to her son, saying she was about to get on a flight back to Baltimore.

That was their last communication. Anthony Kinslow's mother had a seizure during the flight; the plane made an emergency landing in Columbia, S.C. Fel Houston was pronounced dead on Aug. 19 at a hospital there.

The funeral was to be yesterday in Randallstown. Relatives, including his father, were with Anthony for the past several days. He's had a lot of support, but almost all of his relatives live outside of Maryland, his dad in Missouri.

Anthony told Traci Wright that he considers his friends from Park, and some members of the faculty and staff there, his local family.

"I will be going back to college, it never crossed my mind not to," he says. "You know, I was eager to get to college. I was looking forward to being independent. But now, I'm disappointed. ... I wish I could go back. I wish I had a few more years with my mom."

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