The other day we were sitting around the dinner table and my ten year old son announced he had never seen his father cry.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I cry at movies all the time.”
“That’s not the crying I mean. Your eyes water, but I’ve never seen you like, really cry, like loud crying,” he said.
I never imagined myself as one of those stoic and unfeeling dads and I didn’t want my kids to think that crying was a bad thing for a man to do. In fact, I always thought it was OK to cry even if I hadn’t done it in a while. My parents used to play a record called Free to Be You and Me, and on it was a song sung by 1970’s NFL star and tough guy, Rosey Grier, entitled “It’s all right to cry”. There was a line about how ‘crying can get the sad out of you’ and I took this to heart so much I used to cultivate my tears and hope that my sad feeling would go away faster. As I grew up it became less and less appropriate for me to cry in public, and I was no longer eager to show off my sadness to the world when things got tough. I realized that my son was right, he probably had never seen me really cry.
Now I was determined for my kids to see me cry. After all these years of witnessing their teary tantrums it seemed only fair that I show my weepy side too. Luckily, there was an easy way bring me to tears.
“There is one way to get me crying,” I told them and thought about how we could access this weakness of mine after dinner so I could show them I cried.
“What?” all my kids asked at once. They were getting excited.
“There is a song – Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle,” I said. “Just let me listen to that song and I’ll start crying.”
My wife laughed because it was funny and corny and because she knew it was true as I had admitted this weakness of mine to her years before and she had witnessed it herself.
“Why?” My daughter asked. My kids thought it was hilarious.
“What makes you cry?”
“It’s just the words, the story of the song, it’s right up my emotional alley, I guess, it gets to me everytime, ever since I was like sixteen, I remember the first time it made me cry when I was away for a summer working in Maine.”
“So we just have to play that song?”
“What is it about?” my son asked.
“How does it go?” my daughter wanted to know.
“The cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man on the moon…” I sang.
“What?! Why does that make you cry?”
“It’s about a father and a son,” I said. And here I was with my two sons and my daughter looking at me around the dinner table. “And it’s really about fatherhood… and growing up…”
“Well, what does it say?”
“It’s about a father and he has a kid,” I looked at my kids gathered there looking at me and I couldn’t go on. The next thing I wanted to say was that the song was about a son who wants to hang out with his father more but his dad never has time. Just that day I had spent the afternoon cooking dinner and shooing my kids out of the kitchen when I could have been spending time with them instead. And that’s when I felt the tears coming but I continued,
“It’s about a father who does not really have time to hang out with his kid, and then…” I had to stop. Now the tears came and I started to cry right there at the dinner table.
“Are you crying?” my ten year old son asked. My five year old son was watching with a look of concerned curiosity.
“See,” I said, trying to take deep breaths, “I told you, Cat’s in the Cradle,” I said.
“Is that it? What else happens?”
“The son grows up and he has a kid and he doesn’t have time to hang out with his old dad,” I stammered, hardly able to get it out. My wife scooted over and put her arm around me as she was tearing up now as well.
“Must be getting worse as I get older,” I said, still crying, “I just have to think about the song now,” Now I was half laughing and half crying. While my older son and daughter looked bemused, my five year old was looking increasingly disoriented by my emotional state and I decided I better get it together. But seeing him there made it all the worse because I thought of how he always wanted to spend time with me and it hurt me to think of all the times I was not able to play with him for whatever reason. And then there were my older kids who had already started to distance themselves from me as they got into their own things and they were hanging out more with friends. That is what kept the tears going a while longer. These childhood years with my kids were some of the most precious moments and they were disappearing right before my eyes. So many parents of older children gave me the same advice to cherish these years with little children, but even as a stay at home dad, and someone who tries to spend as much time as they can with their kids, I still take these times for granted too often. I miss out on so much when I do. It takes Harry Chapin to remind me.
I did not explain all these reasons for how the song made me cry. My kids weren’t ready for all that, and I was having a hard time getting a word out anyway. Although our food grew cold and dinner went on a little late that evening I did hope that my kids learned an important lesson that day from their dad. He thought it was perfectly all right to cry.