“Cats In the Cradle” and a Note for a Father

As uncritical as I may write this, the years after my father’s death was spent in trying to “unravel” him further, for he seldom showed out; and hardly ever showed off. The growing feeling that I, myself, am a “lot like him” has been carelessly tossed about by relatives and friends; but, this connection, I have felt, is not entirely without basis.

Harry Chapin’s “Cats In the Cradle” is a song about a father who is too busy to share his time with his young son. The song, as Chapin admits, is inspired by a poem his wife Sandra had written, from which he claims he “stole” some of the lines. In the song, a young boy keeps asking the father to join in a range of activity and play while growing up, but the father keeps procrastinating and postponing their having a “good time” to the “future”.   With time, the child – who is brought up on the father’s vague promise – grows up to be an adolescent and a young man. The narrator/writer, then, realizes that his “little boy” had “grown up just like [the father]”. The song ends with the father – much later – asking the son, now grown up and moved away, to visit him. But the son responds that he is now too busy to find the time for his father and that they will meet soon in the “future”.

In a live performance in 1974, Chapin admits that the song “frankly, scares [him] to death”. While the song remained his only number 1, Chapin dies in 1981, aged 38, in a motor accident. The song was later covered by Ugly Kid Joe in 1993, for it to reach a number 6.

Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin

When my father passed away in September 2004, I was three months into university, with my immediate younger brother three months from his O/L exam. My youngest brother was 14. My father’s death was caused by a cardiac seizure on a Sunday morning as he was gardening. He had returned the previous evening from attending a wedding at Nuwaraeliya. I, who at the time was in Colombo, had been away for the week and had returned home on the Friday – two days before the death – but had had not enough time or stamina to speak to him properly. At time of death, my father was 52 – Shakespeare’s age, when the bard had died – and had just begun to relax after a lifetime of toil, loans, working away from the “hometown” etc. His eldest child had just graduated from high school, but two others were still in their secondary studies. He had spent 7 years away from the family, travelling weekends, before re-transferring himself to Kandy in 1998. He built a house all by himself, working his way up his profession in a bank where he was employed for 24 years. A few years more would have been a well earned “rest”, perhaps, in a life spent in gradual building – generally taking the longer route and the due process.

“Cats In the Cradle”, as Chapin admits, is a song that “scare[d] him to death”. On the contrary, for me, it is a song that always moved me to a deep, confused state of mind; almost to tears, at times. While I prefer the Ugly Kid Joe version of it, the Harry Chapin edition, for me, makes the “father” and “son” connection, as he dedicates the song to his son Joshua: a dedication which makes the song less impersonal, when listened to from my youtube, 40 years on. My father’s demise happened, I believe, at a time where we were just getting to know each other. He moved to Kandy with his family in 1984 – months after my birth – and was transferred to Colombo in 1991, when I was 7. For 7 years he becomes a “weekend fixture” – a much looked forward to weekend, I may add; given the strict discipline of a well meaning mother being a tad too monotonous for five days of the week – and when he “returns” in 1998, I am 14. Another 6 years lapse before his death, and with age and maturity I was just beginning to chip the outer layers of the aloof, silent, at times gloomy man. I fear that neither of my brothers would have known him; both being too young to “get to know him” when he passed away, as one might get to know a person as your years advance.

The writer in 2012

The writer in 2012

My father was known to be a less spoken person, who rather stayed on the sides and kept to himself. Yearly Christmas parties at his workplace – to which we, much against our wishes, were dressed up and taken – was always a bore and his silent “ordinary” role there, amid showing off managers and eager to please clerks was something that still rings back to me, as sharp as bells. The same effect was there in reunions of the extended family, where he would hold forth in silence among a neat assortment of idle talkers and show offs (of which my extended family has its own sweet fill). He was, however, a man with a very sharp wit and sense of humour, a deep mathematical and analytic mind; though, perhaps, a bit inert and skeptical at taking initiatives and always unpredictable behind his beard, which only kept getting thinner with the passing of time.

St. Benedict's, Kotahena, where the father was a student for the main of his high school career.

St. Benedict’s, Kotahena, where the father was a student for the main of his high school career.

I remember my childhood days, where he would occasionally – very rarely, I should say – bowl orthodox right arm off spin to me, off a short, brusque but busy run up. He batted with a heavy bottom hand and whipped the ball, rather than push it gently as Boycott would have preferred it. When I had mumps at the age of 6, I was confined into a separate room where my father spent each night for two weeks or so with me. One night he was eager to watch a movie shown on Rupavahini (the state and only channel available in 1989) in which he insisted there is an “exciting car chase”. However, I had fallen asleep half way through and the next morning I asked him what happened to the promised chase. He said that it had happened and (predictably) that the villain was caught. In 1997, while washing the house prior to a new year, I was playing the Bee Gees on tape, of which father was quite impressed that I was listening to the music of his generation. His favourite song, I later learned, was “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (by Simon and Garfunkel) and in 2002, when he underwent a surgery for hernia he was found to eagerly read Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Penguin Popular Classics), while getting us to do everything for him. The medical advice had been not to move a muscle, where possible.

Father reading Bram Stoker's "Dracula" during a rest period following a surgery in 2002.

Father reading Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” during a rest period following a surgery in 2002.

His end came quite suddenly – much, perhaps, in the same way Chapin’s own death, which happened at the age of 38. A line of analysts even hint that Chapin would have had a heart attack while on the highway, for it is reported that he had flashed his lights several times and slowed down the vehicle before going off the lane to be rammed into an oncoming trailer. As uncritical as I may write this, the years after my father’s death was spent in trying to “unravel” him further, for he seldom showed out; and hardly ever showed off. The growing feeling that I, myself, am a “lot like him” has been carelessly tossed about by relatives and friends; but, this connection, I have felt, is not entirely without basis. There are some aspects in which I, myself, see my doings reminiscent of the old man – sometimes, to my utter dismay, I should add. My father’s own father had passed away in 1967, when my father was 15 – the age my youngest brother was, when father breathed his last. From what available “legends” are left of my grandfather, I see many anxieties that have passed down the genes – one gaping aspect being the almost morbid obsession for “cleanliness”.

While “Cats In the Cradle” always leaves a lump somewhere down my throat, I also must admit that my coming to terms with the father’s demise (which happened a decade or so ago) has not been satisfactory, though it has not made me depressed or traumatic. I dream of him infrequently – more often different versions of the same plotline – and I carry his photograph in my wallet. I am very uncomfortable when his friends and colleagues meet me and invariably say that I look like him; or when they say he was a “good man”, that I give the silliest possible smile and quickly change track. Being unmarried and without any children, I wonder how my future years can be related to Harry Chapin’s song. But, I wonder – hypothetically – whether it would ever be any different, to where I am now, being who I think I am, thinking of my father for whom he may have been?

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