If I want to make myself sad, I can just listen to the 1974 song “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin.
For years I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics, but now I know them by heart. It is about a father and a son who switch roles at different stages of life.
At the beginning of the song, the son – a little boy – needs attention, and the dad – who is traveling for work – is too busy to give him much. Then, as the father grows and wants company, the boy is a grown man with a family and career of his own and little time to spend with his father.
Baby boomers can relate to these lyrics.
“When are you coming home, son?”
“I do not know when…
“But we’ll meet then, daddy
“You know we’re gonna have fun then”
When the song plays on oldies radio, I turn it off.
Our eldest son was coming home from college the other day, just for one night. I cooked him a steak and we watched a hockey documentary on television.
He asked my opinion on a bank failure in California, and we talked about free agency in the NFL. Every dad and every son has their favorite talking points.
The next day, when he packed up and headed back to school in Alabama, I felt the familiar lump in my throat after our goodbye embrace.
The next day was a school party for our 16 year old son. I texted him while he was still in bed that morning.
“Do you want to go eat and see a movie with me in the late afternoon?” I texted.
“Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun,” he replied.
Since he started working part-time a few months ago, we haven’t had many father-son outings. But my eldest son who went back to college inspired me to plan time more intentionally to spend time with his little brother.
When it was time to leave that afternoon, he ran down the steps to his room. He had this 16-year-old look with tousled hair. Dressed in sweatpants and a baseball cap, it surprised me – for about the 100th time – that I now have to look up to him.
On the way to Northgate, we talked about some mysterious car stuff. We wondered if the new-look Toyota Venza would outsell the original, and we thought about how to load mulch into a Lamborghini.
We had lunch at Panera Bread.
“What do you want to drink,” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“You have to drink something,” I said, knowing he would insist on “not drinking anything” and change his mind later. It’s a model.
When he finished eating he asked me for my credit card so he could go back to the counter and get some water. I tried to suppress a smile as I handed him my card.
We decided to see “Champions,” a comedy that begins with Woody Harrelson and a group of intellectually disabled basketball players.
“You don’t want a drink,” I said, as he bought some popcorn before the movie started.
“No, I’m fine,” he said, chewing popcorn.
We watched the previews for 20 minutes, then he sheepishly asked, “Do I have time to go get a slushy?”
“Of course,” I said, leaning forward in my seat to reach for my wallet.
We enjoyed the movie, but several times he rolled up my shirt sleeve to read the time on my watch. It’s a big ask for a teenager to sit still for two hours.
“Thank you for spending time with me,” I said as we walked home.
“Yes, it was fun,” he said. “Thank you for taking me.”
As we talked, I realized that I felt both happy and sad. Happy for our afternoon together and sad that our days together are numbered – both by age and by life stage.
Harry Chapin, who had five children, died in a car crash aged 38 in 1981, a reminder that all we have is today.
So, breathe all your “todays”, parents. Cherish them. Drink them.
Even if you’re not thirsty yet.
One day you will be.
The Family Life column appears in print on Sundays. Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.