Caulfield South, 2014
I’m driving my son to his mate’s house and he’s flicking through stations on the car radio, trying to find a decent pop song to listen to – something that doesn’t sound like it was composed using sampled microwave keypad beeps. Something that doesn’t have lyrics that rhyme the word “girl” with “world”, and the word “ohhhhhhhh” with both “whoaahhhhh and “youza ho”.
Then he’s accidentally flicked onto a golden oldies station. He’s keen to flick off, but I tell him to wait a sec. A song I know is playing…
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon….
Cats in the Cradle. The Harry Chapin song that makes grown men knot-up around the neck-muscle, that makes rugged blokes seep from the eyeball-glands, that makes dads and sons everywhere do that stifled painful ACHHH ACHHH throat-noise like they just bit into a cardamon pod.
Instantly I’ve got that cardamon-burn in the throat, eyes misting up. I turn to my boy and say “Do you know what this song’s about? It’s an incredible song about a dad who’s always too busy to hang out with his son, then time passes and when he’s old, he finds his son is too busy to hang out with him, and it’s got this killer punchline where the dad sings “He’d grown up just like me, my boy was just like me”, probably the most heartbreaking song-punchline of all time. At least since “There was an old woman who swallowed a horse, she’s dead of course”. That wins, but only just.
Now I’m getting twitchy round the eye-ligaments, going all Renee-Zellweger-squinty, as I tell my son about my own dad. How he was a great dad but he never hung out with me when I was a kid, didn’t even remember the names of my friends – I mean, how hard could that be? I only had one, and how hard is it to remember “Marcus Farkus”. And he never came to any of my footy games either – sure I was on the bench all year peeling oranges for halftime, but he could’ve watched me peel. I was an outstanding peeler, always there for my teammates who couldn’t take the pith. My boy just sat there silently, listening to all of this, pondering whether to open the passenger car door and roll out of the car at 70 kilometres an hour, but changing his mind, because it might damage his phone.
And he walked away but his smile never dimmed, and said, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah, you know I’m gonna be like him” …
Okay, getting full-on tear-dribblage down my cheek, something yolky is emerging from my nose like a Moray eel peeking out of a cave. I tell my son that’s why I’ve decided to be such a connected, involved, always-there dad – I don’t wanna miss a moment of his life, so I come to all his sporting things, take time off on school holz so we could be a coupla dudes together, hanging out. Hey maybe we could play a bit of tennis tomoz and he says “Please don’t say tomoz” and I say “Soz’” and he says “Don’t say soz either”.
I pull up outside his mate’s place and my son looks at me and says “Actually dad, y’know, you’re a really good dad and all, but, like, you’re kinda, well, in my face a bit, you’re kind of, y’know, a little try-hard sometimes, y’know. You don’t need to be there for everything, it’s like, annoying, so just uhhhh, give me a bit of, like, space, ‘kay?” He climbs out of the car and I yell “When you coming home son?” and he says “I don’t know when. But we’ll get together then dad…… you know we’ll have a good time then”.
And as he walks away, it occurs to me, I’m the reverse of Cats In The Cradle. Just like so many other dads of my generation. All of us, annoyingly try-hard pains-in-the-arses who’ve gone too far the other way. I am Danny Katz in the cradle, and as I drive back home, I hum that song over and over again in my head: “Don’t grow up just like me son…please… don’t be a dad like meeeee.”
© Danny Katz. First published by Fairfax Media.
Danny Katz is a Canadian-born author and newspaper columnist who writes for The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The West Australian. He is the Modern Guru in Good Weekend Magazine. Danny is passionate about getting young people reading and writing for pleasure (it’s his obsession!). He’s also passionate about The Beatles, good comedy,and canned beetroot.
Danny was part of Stereo Stories In Concert at Write Around The Murray, in Albury on Saturday evening, 16 September 2017.
This story was also broadcast on ABC 774 Melbourne on The Friday Revue program on 6 October 2017.