It is a busy day when my baby sister steps into my office. She has a question. I’m on deadline. I start postponing listening to her. Then I notice the crestfallen look on her face. It hits me. At the very least I could listen to her request and so I do. Then I ask her if we can talk about it in depth later as I have an urgent task to complete. She nods and excuses me. That, right there, was one of life’s unwritten rules.
It has taken me a very long time to learn it, and even now, I still forget. The law is simply; People first, and then activities later. In a world where action is valued over relationships, it is easy to put loved ones last, giving them leftovers of our time, energy and attention. We expect them to understand that we are quite busy, and once a slot opens up, we promise to give that time to them. You see it in the busy father who works all day, travels regularly and when he has a moment to spend with the family on Sunday, chooses to bury his nose in the newspaper. Or catch up with a football match. You see it in the working mother who postpones going to visit her ailing parents because her schedule is packed with activities for the children, her spouse and work.
We all have ‘good’ excuses or reasons for placing the people we love on the back burner. When we hold them to light, they are justifiable. We tell ourselves, “I’m doing it for them.” And to assuage the nagging guilt, we send them toys or cash, hoping it eases their disappointments in our absence. Musician Harry Chapin released the song, ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’. In it, he presented the dilemma that a working father faces when it comes to spending time with his son.
He wrote, “My child arrived just the other day, he came to the world in the usual way. But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay. He learned to walk while I was away. And he was talking before I knew it and as he grew he would say I’m going to be like just like daddy. And the cat’s in the cradle and silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon. When are you coming home, dad? I don’t know when… but we’ll get together then. You know we’ll have a good time then”. The boy grows up and his father still hasn’t made good on the promise he made to spend time with him.
Interestingly the father is aware of the milestones he is missing and the events in his child’s life. He is just not present to share them with him. “My son turned ten just the other day. He said, thanks for the ball. “Dad, come on let’s play. Can you teach me how to throw?” I said, “Not today. I got a lot to do.” He said, “That’s okay” And walked away, but his smile never dimmed. Said, I’m gonna be like him, yeah… Sadly, time waits for no one and eventually, the little boy leaves for college. “I’ve long since retired and my son has moved away. I called him up just the other day. I said, I would like to see you if you don’t mind. He said, “I would love to, dad, if I could find the time. You see, my new job is a hassle, and the kids got flu. But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad. It’s been sure nice talking to you”. And as I hang up the phone it occurred to me that he had grown up just like me. My boy was just like me!”
Life is full of noises and usually, the things that matter the most shout the least. When tempted to forget, remember… People first!