I’ve lived long enough to complete crossing the arc of Harry Chapin’s iconic folk song, “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
Our son called the other night.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m just calling to check in on you guys.”
My wife and I put my phone on speaker so we could share the experience together. He’s crossed over his mid-20s but in our eyes, will always be the excited blue-eyed boy ready to greet each morning. As parents, memories of our children tend to suspend themselves in time like an insect trapped in amber.
Background noise hints he is in his car. The hours separating us are there, but he is always on our minds.
“All good on this end,” he said. “How about you?”
I’m convinced that no matter how many years go on our personal odometers, an unexpected call from your child will always magically refresh your soul like a cold drink of ice water on a humid Texas afternoon.
We barely get into the conversation when a pulsing sound between us indicates another call is coming in on his end.
“Hey,” he interrupts. “I need to take this call.”
It wasn’t necessarily the words themselves, but the phrasing and tone. Strong, firm, mature. In one moment, my wife and I both recognized the paradigm of parenthood shifting. Looking down at his photo on the screen looking back at us, the moment fused in our hearts.
Much like the song, our son had unknowingly crossed the line into full-blown adulthood by using the exact phrase easily recognized in our family — six words he’d heard as code for a highly important call related to work throughout his life.
“I need to take this call.”
In our home, this was a drop everything code for a storm hitting and the newspaper losing power, an unexpected call from a co-worker at a highly unusual hour, or one from someone we were urgently waiting on a return call from.
In our family, the phrase was sparingly used, but universally understood. No one’s feelings were hurt, but rather we all recognized as a family that newspaper life is fluid and unpredictable on each of us.
In Chapin’s song, the story arch goes from the young boy wishing for his father’s attention to a total role reversal, one where the father is now the child thirsting for a moment — any moment — with his son.
If you are a parent, it is hard to listen to this song without both your mind and body reacting to the deep and authentic emotions. From the young boy asking his dad to play catch to the closing where the son is telling the father he’s tied up with work and the kids have the flu, the words rip deeply into the listener’s heart. I remember doing the same as a kid with my dad, fighting to get his attention.
And like the day of his birth, our conversation this week will always be held closely as one I will never forget — and my world shifted.