THE PARENTS: Debby Dowlin, 37, and Kenny Aral, 34, of Roxborough
THE CHILD: Kellen Kent Aral, born March 1, 2021
HIS NAME: Kenny’s mother is of Irish descent (thus the “Kellen”), “Kent” is Debby’s mother’s family name and “Aral” carries the heritage of Kenny’s dad, who is Turkish and still has family in Istanbul.
It was September, ideal tennis weather in Boston, and the courts at Tufts were so crowded that Debby and Kenny waited an hour to play. The first two sets went into tiebreakers; she won, then he won, and then they decided to call it a night.
“I’m just going to run to the bathroom,” Kenny said, but instead he dashed to the car for the ring he’d hidden, along with an extra tennis ball. He tossed it to her. The ball had a message written on it: “Will you marry me?”
Those courts were the site of their first meeting, a setup by a mutual friend, on June 30, 2012. That day, Debby brought Gatorade and nervousness. “At the time, I was the better player, but I lost pretty badly,” she recalls. They made a date for that evening, a rooftop bar in Harvard Square, and kissed there.
On the Amtrak train on her way back to Philly — Debby was teaching here at the time, while Kenny worked as a test engineer outside of Boston — she wrote him a letter. “I think he thought I was either really great or really crazy.”
Kenny says it was the former: “She was easy to talk to, and outgoing. I liked that she was athletic. I wanted to see her more.”
They shuttled back and forth on the eastern corridor for the next two years. In January 2015, Debby moved to Boston — a winter of colossal snows, they remember, in which they repeatedly shoveled Kenny’s old Toyota Camry out of giant drifts.
Debby had become the main caregiver for her father after he suffered an aneurysm in 2013, so she continued her frequent trips to Philadelphia. By 2017, she wanted to move back. Kenny agreed to come with her … and before she left, he arranged that evening tennis match at the Tufts courts.
Tennis infused their 2018 wedding (also on June 30) at the Germantown Cricket Club — a hashtag of “gamesetperfectmatch” and centerpieces with tennis balls piled under the flowers. A family friend talked about being a good partner on the tennis court and in life.
Debby’s father had been hospitalized that week with appendicitis; he was discharged in time to dance with her to Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” And the couple danced to a song about long-distance relationships, “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers.
They wanted kids. But first, they wanted to buy a house — not the easiest process during the early months of a pandemic. They found one in June. On the 30th of that month, their anniversary, Debby wondered if it would be safe to have a celebratory drink that night.
A drugstore test delivered an unequivocal “no.”
Around the same time, the couple learned that Debby’s father had been approved to move into a senior housing complex. “We were feeling like: Some wonderful things are happening in 2020 despite it being such a difficult year,” she says.
The pregnancy was uneventful: yoga sessions in Gorgas Park; weekends cleaning out her father’s basement in West Philadelphia; the ultrasound in August that told them they were having a boy.
Debby’s colleagues engineered a surprise Zoom shower — gifts left in her driveway and lunch delivered to the house — while friends and relatives hosted a garage shower in January, with staggered arrival times for guests and party favors wrapped to go.
Meantime, the couple watched birth videos and toured Pennsylvania Hospital’s maternity department from the comfort of their couch. “There was no social life,“ Debby says. “We were just at home every weekend. We had a lot of time to prepare.”
The baby was due March 2. The night of Feb. 28, Debby says, “I started to feel like something might be happening.” By 3 a.m., her hunch became a painful certainty. “We got to the hospital at 5, and the initial four to five hours were pretty rough. I was in a triage room and didn’t have any pain medicine.”
An epidural — and a nap — helped. She began pushing at 6:30 p.m.; Kellen was born at 7:08. “I remember all the hair, a full head of hair,” Kenny says — along with the honeymoon of a night with no wake-ups. “[Nurses] said, ‘That’s not going to happen again. Enjoy it while it lasts.’ ”
The first night home, Kellen cluster-fed every hour, leaving them ragged before the next day’s appointment for a bilirubin test. “It was all good, but so much to even get dressed and get in the car with your new child. Really overwhelming,” Debby remembers.
“I’d spoken with so many friends who had had children, and I’d tried to understand the difficulties of breastfeeding or child care — but you just don’t get it until you get it,” she says. “It’s so hard to understand until you’re up at 3 and 5 and 7 a.m.”
For Kenny, too, their son marked a new chapter in life. “Now you’ve got someone else who’s relying on you, and you know you have to be there to take care of him. Mentally, it’s a change; you can’t just do whatever you want.”
There are times when the best-laid plans implode: a Sunday when somehow, by afternoon, the dog hasn’t been walked and the grown-ups haven’t showered and the child is a wailing mess. Or a moment while, watching the Kentucky Derby, Kellen managed to spit up, poop, and pee during the span of a two-minute race. “A triple crown. A trifecta,” Debby jokes.
Kenny hopes to teach Kellen to play soccer and tennis. Debby, who studied in Ecuador, wants to speak Spanish with him. Right now, they’re captivated — enough to make videos for the grandparents — by his daily cooing.
“In the morning, when he first wakes up, he’s very happy, in a playful mood, and he smiles at you,” Kenny says, “like: ‘Oh, I know you. You’re my parents.’ ”