As photographs go, the quality of this one leaves a lot to be desired. It was taken with a cell phone camera. The light in the room was bad and the flash did not fire. The focus is slightly off. The subject is back-lit. The original picture, when it was sent to me by email, was very dark, and I spent a fair amount of time bringing out the detail with editing software, and the process left it grainy. But despite its many flaws, it has become my favorite photograph, because it is the last one ever taken of my father.
My daughter took the photo on October 22, 2011. She had driven to my parents home in Arkansas with her new baby because she was so excited to introduce him to his great-grandparents she simply couldn’t stand it. At the time, I thought of a dozen reasons why the trip wasn’t a good idea. I worried the baby was too young and the seven hour drive would be too much for him. What if her car broke down? What if there was an accident, or they fell victim to some other kind of tragedy? So I suggested she wait a few months. I’m very glad now that my daughter doesn’t approach her life in the increasingly cautious way that I approach mine. To her credit she didn’t listen to me. Despite having a family and a career and two dogs and a cat and a car that was mechanically suspect, she found the time and made the effort. And because she did, I have the picture. It could only be better if I had been there to take it myself.
The last time I saw my father was in April, 2011. I made a detour to his house while driving from Dallas to Nashville on a business trip. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Looking back almost two years later, I can only imagine how badly I would have beat myself up if I had kept on driving, just for the sake of saving a couple of inconsequential hours. I hear Cat’s in the Cradle playing in my head when I remember how I almost did just that.
While I was there, we made plans for my parents to spend Christmas at my house in Kansas City, but when the time came, my father’s titanium knees were bothering him so much he couldn’t sit in a car for long periods, so they cancelled. The back-up plan was for us to visit them the following June. We were scheduled to arrive on June 27. On June 19, my father died in his sleep.
I wrote a post for this blog just a few weeks after his death, and I said I felt lucky that, when it came to our relationship, I had no regrets. Now, nine months later, it appears one has found its way to the surface. I regret that I didn’t visit more often. In retrospect, once a year was not enough. Seven hours, it turns out, is not such a long time. My job was not as inflexible as I thought. Schedules could have been adjusted. Activities of children could have been worked around.
It seems so obvious in hindsight. Time can and will run out. There won’t always be a next month or a next Christmas or a next year. It’s a hard lesson that I hope I have learned, because it is something that I don’t want to repeat with my mother. I won’t let Cat’s In The Cradle be the theme for my relationship with her.
Harry Chapin’s sad, classic song is about a father, a son and regret. My father was never, in my memory, like the father in the song, and in my mind, I’m not at all like the distant, self-absorbed son, but I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t confess to sharing some of his faults. I had my priorities in the wrong order, and now, at least where my father is concerned, it’s too late to fix it. So there is regret and there is some guilt. There have even been some times, especially since June 19, when that damn song would come on the radio, and it felt very much like Mr. Chapin was pointing an accusatory finger squarely at me.
“You see the new job’s a hassle and the kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”