An epic song from his childhood helped one dad understand what it means to leave a legacy.
One of the most influential songs in my life hit #1 on the Billboard charts 3 years before I was born. In December 1974, Harry Chapin’s Cats in the Cradle soared and the single rapidly became the anthem of a generation of fathers and sons. The lyrics inspired countless articles, interviews, and church sermons. It was truly a remarkable song, sung by a remarkable artist.
I want to tell the Cats in the Cradle story from a different point of view. It’s personal and vulnerable and it caused me to learn something heartbreaking. Before you read any further, please listen to the song and follow along with the lyrics.
My mom and dad were teenagers when I was born and their brief marriage lasted until I was 4-years-old. There are tons of stories of absent fathers, abusive fathers, and such, that make my story look like a Disney movie. But that doesn’t mean I can’t share it.
In 1981, my parents agreed on a 50/50 split of their only son. I was with Mom for the school week and my Dad picked me up for a few hours Wednesday nights and every weekend.
Since my Dad was so young and full of energy, he played EVERYTHING with me. He was the original Dadnamics Dad. We explored, climbed rocks, hiked, played sports, went off-roading, chased geese, built forts, you name it … we did it. I was so fortunate. The weekends were wonderful and they culminated at 7:00 p.m. Sunday night as we watched Jim Hensen’s Fraggle Rock. Oh, I can still hear the theme music as I picture Gobo bobbing through the cave. What an awesome show.
But then, something not awesome happened. As the final credits rolled, my heart dropped to my stomach as I realized what was next. Within 25 minutes of the closing credits, I stood, tear-stained at the front door of my Mom’s house, watching tail lights as my Dad drove away.
I will never forget the emotional highs and lows from every weekend growing up. Divorce does that to a kid. Around this time, two poems came into my life. One was called I was Dying, from Chicken Soup From the Soul, and it was pinned to the fridge at my Mom’s house. The other poem was Harry’s song. As I was feeling the pain of Sunday nights, the words of these two poems formed a single word into my childhood consciousness. I never understood that word to be “legacy,” but I felt it. I made a promise that I would never be the Dad in that song. I would never be the man in that poem. And I would never be the Dad driving away from my son on Sunday night.
I’ve never been much of a song lyrics guy. I just liked music for the harmony and beat. Somehow, the words of Cats in the Cradle got through. Every time that song would play on the radio, I would stop what I was doing and listen. Like clockwork, I would sob every time Harry gets to the last verse.
About a month ago, I listened to the song at work on YouTube. My emotions went through the familiar arc, but this time, something different happened. I cried, but not because of my own pain, but that of others. You see, I’ve made sure to NOT BE the Dad in the song. I’ve done it to such a point that I’ve been given the desire to help other Dads NOT BE that Dad either. It’s the basis of DadnamicsTM and everything I’m doing to help Dads connect with their kids. As the twangy guitar ended its final riff, I wiped away my tears and did something I’d never done before. I googled “Harry Chapin.” Maybe I could find him and tell him what his song has meant.
Within a minute, I was crying again and I felt terrible. I had NO IDEA that Harry’s life ended in tragedy at 38-years-old (my age now.) I had no idea that the man’s song was taken away the same year my parents were getting a divorce. I slammed the table, tears still streaming down my face.
“It’s not fair!” was one thought, while the other fixed on the next piece of information that ‘Dr. Google’ told me. He had two small children, Josh, and Jen, that were left behind. Now the real pain set in, feeling an incredible grief for those kids, for they were my own kids’ ages when Harry passed.
Why did I have to look this up? I could have remained in my ignorance and just enjoyed the song. Once I was done with my selfish streak, I decided to do the next best thing to emailing Harry. I wrote and sent a heartfelt email to his daughter, Jen Chapin, and a few days later was thrilled with her reply. She thanked me for my message and then told me something amazing. It’s already public knowledge, but I never heard the “story behind the song.”
Harry sang the song, but his wife Sandy wrote it. Sandy’s first husband was the son from The Cats in the Cradle and Sandy’s first father-in-law was THAT DAD. Sandy witnessed first-hand the relationship between her first husband and father and wrote about it. I’m sure Sandy and Harry had no idea that this father/son story would temper a generation.
I want to end this with LEGACY. Most men struggle in the day-to-day until one day in their late 40’s or 50’s they begin to think about what they want to “leave behind” for their kids. The prevailing thought is that you start thinking about your legacy later, once you have it all together. I challenge this mindset! I believe every man leaves a legacy with every decision, good or bad, with their kids from the day they are born. I believe that if you don’t make a decision for a good legacy, the decision of a bad one may have already been forged. This is what Harry sings at the end of the song that gets me every time:
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me
I have to go now. It’s Sunday night and Fraggle Rock re-runs are on Amazon Prime. Because of my choices, I don’t ever have to drop off my four kids to their Mom’s house. She lives with us and I spend a lot of quality time with them all. That was the legacy I always wanted.
Photo: Getty Images