Years ago, when my son was a baby, my father cautioned me make sure to remember that you get your kids for such a tiny portion of their lives, ultimately. Before you know it, they're in high school and college and they become more and more independent and you become a smaller and smaller part of their lives.
He also told me about how a song, Harry Chapin's "Cats In the Cradle," had had an effect on his life.
As my brothers and I approached college age, my father accepted a management position at the big computer company he worked most of his career at. The idea was that it would enable him to help us pay for college.
It was, in a word, horrendous. Because he was on salary, he went from working forty hours a week with either time and a half or comp time for overtime to a regular workweek that was sixty hours or more. He would regularly get phone calls in the middle of the night over some emergency or another. His health-- physical and mental-- was deteriorating fast. He was rarely around, and when he was, he was a mess.
Years later, he told me that he'd made the decision to leave management after hearing a song on the radio-- Harry Chapin's "Cats In the Cradle."
Most of you are probably familiar with the song. It's the tale of a father too busy with his career to take a meaningful part in raising his son.
My son turned ten just the other day
He said, "Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on let's play
Can you teach me to throw", I said "Not today
I got a lot to do", he said, "That's ok"
And he walked away but his smile never dimmed
And said, "I'm gonna be like him, yeah
You know I'm gonna be like him"
As the father misses one milestone after another in his son's life, the son grows up determined to be like him. As the father grows old and retires, he tries to make up for the time lost. But his son is busy with his life and doesn't have the time for him. At the end of the song, the narrator has the sad realization that his son has grown up to be just like him.
This was supposed to be a weekend with my son, but he had no fewer than three events for band at his high school. I managed to fit in a lunch-- our usual Chinese buffet-- on Saturday afternoon. Afterward, I realized that the time my father had told me about was here. From here on out, it'll be a struggle to get our time in together. It's the way of life.
After that lunch, I thought back to every time in his childhood I played with him-- Candyland, checkers, chess, Monopoly, basketball, baseball catch, Risk-- no matter how tired I was. I knew that my ex did none of these things with him.
From here on out, the other priorities are going to creep into his life-- school, band and eventually work and girls. As you might guess, I'm both happy and sad about it. I'm happy that after dealing with so much crap-- an ugly custody fight, particularly-- that he's an astoundingly normal and happy teenager. There are a million moments of his childhood that I remember, trying to connect them with the intelligent young man who talked about the "polytheistic religions that the Greeks and Romans had" in recent conversation we had. I'm sad to see my little boy fade away, but happy to see the young man who's ready to take on life's challenges. And I'm happy that I have no regrets. I'm glad I took my dad's-- and Harry Chapin's-- warnings to heart.
Here's a clip of Chapin doing "Cats In The Cradle" on Soundstage, here in Chicago, in the mid-seventies.