It was the summer of 1995.
My dad, Carlos Bilbrey, sat in the hot bleachers of my high school gym and watched as I graduated near the top of my class. I remember the exuberance in the car as we left the parking lot that day. I had received the highest scholarship the University of Kentucky had to offer, and while he and Mom were going to be sad to see me leave home, they were immensely proud.
Dad was always vocal about it. I used to get so embarrassed when he'd introduce me, because it was never just, "This is my daughter." He always accompanied the introduction with a tidbit about some accolade I'd won. Ugh, Daaaad, I always thought, why did you have to tell them that?
Then our world flipped. A few weeks after graduation, Mom came home from work one day and sat down on my bed. "Karla," she asked quietly, "Could you be pregnant?"
I had been too afraid to buy a test, but I already knew the answer.
What would happen now? Would they take the scholarship away? And if they didn't, how would I live alone in a city three hours from home and take care of a baby while going to school?
Mom cried tears of bitter disappointment, but I was terrified of what would happen when dad came in from the field that afternoon.
I remember looking down at his brown leather boots as he leaned against the kitchen counter when the moment came. He leaned into the refrigerator and took out a bowl of canned peaches. I sat in a straight-backed chair and came out with the news. He smacked his lips on a bite of the fruit and barely looked up.
"You'll have to rock it," he said simply.
I lived in the honors dorm for the fall semester, then came home at Christmas and sat out the spring term.
My son Carson Jack was born Feb. 12, 1996, and I might be biased, but he was beautiful.
Dad was head over heels in love, but he refused to hold him for the first weeks after I brought him home. Mom and I cajoled, but dad said Carson was too fragile. He was afraid he might break him.
And then came Easter. We ordered Carson a rabbit outfit that came complete with a white hat, with long droopy ears. He was the most ridiculously adorable thing any of us had ever seen, and dad couldn't hold out any longer.
Sitting in the armchair, he carefully took his first grandson into his arms. Dad sat with his knees tightly together and his toes pointed inward, as though he was afraid Carson was going to fall through his lap and onto the floor. From that moment, it would be hard for any of us to ever pry Carson away again.
Every morning from then on, dad would pick up Carson from his bed and carry him out to the yard to "see the tweet tweets."
I can't imagine what it was like for him to watch us drive away to Lexington in the fall.
But we visited often and, in the summers, Carson always spent weeks at a time on the farm.
As he grew, he developed a love of fishing. Carson and his "Pops" spent long hours at the pond, then came back to the house and cleaned their fish for Mom to cook. They went for rides on the tractor and the lawn mower. They went out for breakfast at the country store up the road, where Carson gained a reputation for eating up every dollar in dad's wallet.
When dad, at 71, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last fall, one of the first thoughts that ran through my head was this: He might not see Carson graduate.
Not by a long shot, it turned out. By mid-December, it was clear that his time had run out. Carson's father brought him over to my parents' house the Saturday before dad died. Dad was sleeping when they came in, so we sat in the living room, sharing stories ... like the time dad blew a gasket because I accidentally used the blue paint intended for his antique Mustang to paint the back porch. Our laughing finally woke dad up, and I went to his bedside.
"You have a very special visitor," I said.
Carson appeared by my side, and dad's face crumpled. It was only the second time in my life I had seen him cry. The other was when his own father died.
Wrapping his arms around my 6-foot son's neck, dad held him.
"My baby," he said. "My baby."
Last Saturday, Carson donned his cap and gown, and we all packed in at Rupp Arena, then came back to our house for a party. Most of his family was there. As joyful as the day was, I couldn't help thinking periodically of how I wished dad could have been there.
"This is my grandson," he would have told his buddies back home. "He's gotten a scholarship to the University of Kentucky."
Karla Ward: (859) 231-3314. Twitter: @heraldleader