My kids and I were in the car when Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” came up in the rotation. “Listen to this,” I said, and I turned it up a little. “This is the saddest song ever written.”
“Why is it so sad?” my daughter asked.
Harry’s child arrived in the usual way, and he got about the business of paying the bills. His boy took his first steps while he was away, and I remembered watching my kids do the same. They’re in high school now. There are a lot of footprints between that memory and today, but I can still feel the sense of both thrill and dread. I was there for my kids’ first steps, but I knew that they were the first steps away from me.
The son in the song vowed to be just like his father, and my daughter said, “I still don’t get it.”
“You will,” I said. “Just keep listening.”
I wanted to be just like my father at that age. All little boys want to be like their dads because we don’t know what’s coming. Some of us get knocked around physically, others emotionally. Too many are simply ignored. My son wanted to be just like me when he was little, too. The notion scared me, broke my heart. It was just a matter of time before he realized that he hitched his wagon to the wrong star, but until then I’d be there.
Harry bought his son a ball for his tenth birthday, but there was no time for a game of catch. It’s tough going being a man—lots to do, lots to do. But the kid understood. They always do.
Then the boy was driving, and that’s just how fast it happens. My own son’s little league years seem like a month ago, and now I’m white knuckling it from the passenger’s seat. In the blink of an eye I went from teaching him baseball to teaching him to drive, and his sister will be right behind him.
Every ball game, concert, play, graduation, talent show, award ceremony, I was there. Well, not all, but almost all. Childhood flies past, and I wanted as many mental snapshots of my kiddies while they still wanted me around as I could get. We still go outside and throw the ball around, the three of us, but who knows how much longer they’ll want me there.
Back in the song, Harry was a granddad now. All he wanted was a little chat with his adult son, but the young man had no time for his old man—too busy with the new job, and besides, the kids were sick. The singer realizes that his boy has grown up just like him, fatherhood summarized in four devastating verses.
I didn’t say a word, just muted the radio and let the moment sink in while my insides turned into a blubbering seven-year-old. When “Cats in the Cradle” was released every kid in my neighborhood had a dad who was too busy, too tired, too whatever, so we just moved on. We embraced that song because it was our story. We vowed never to be that father, but at the same time it seemed inevitable.
“I still don’t get it. What’s so sad about that song?” my daughter said.
And that’s when I realized that my kids can’t relate to “Cat’s in the Cradle.” For seventeen years I’ve dreaded the day that they’ll hate me, resent me, or at the very least ignore me. I assumed that eventually I’d be the father in Harry’s song, the father that most every kid of my generation knew. Someday my kids would see themselves in the song just like I did, and they would long for the father they wanted rather than the invisible one that they had.
But now it’s just a song, and my daughter doesn’t get it and I’ve never been so happy. I may just have scared off the little black rain cloud of fatherhood, that inevitable downward slide into loneliness, with three little words.
I was there.