Monday, March 20 2017
You likely know the song “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin.
“Cat’s in the cradle, and the silver spoon, little boy blue, and the man on the moon...”
For the seven or eight of you in the world who aren’t familiar with it, the song chronicles the relationship between a father and a son over a lifetime. At the start, the father is perpetually too busy to spend time his young son, whose life goal is to be just like his hero, his dad. The father repeatedly assures the son of a vague “soon” in which he’ll have the time for him.
“When you coming home, dad? I don’t know when. But we’ll be together then, son. You know we’ll have a good time then...”
Midway through the song, the perspective shifts, and the now adult son has built a life too busy to make time for his aging father. In the end, the father realizes that, indeed, his son has grown up to be just like him.
I can’t listen to this song.
Even before I became a father, this tragic, but all too relatable, story would cause my throat to tighten. I’d turn it off immediately should it come on the radio. It evokes an undefined and aching regret about the times I had been that son to my own father, or been that father to my own son.
And yet neither the father nor the son are failing in their familial roles in this song. This is life. Nearly everyone has no choice but to work and that inevitably takes us away from our sons and daughters, our aging mothers and fathers. For better or worse, it’s the way us civilized folks have decided we need things to be.
Our professional lives and our familial lives are nearly always mutually exclusive. If we are lucky, we are able to fit enough of both into our days.
Joe O’Brien is lucky.
He might not feel that way today, but he is. For twelve years, Joe spent most days working closely with his father, Joe. Now, many fathers and sons work together, but in most cases this involves some sort of family business or mutually beneficial enterprise.
However, these are not your average Joes.
“There’s times where I’d look back on my day and realize, ‘Wow, I just kicked in a door with my father!’ We just executed a search warrant together!” O’Brien recalls.
“My father liked sports, sure, but didn’t really know the ins and outs. This was his sport. Police work was his passion.”
O’Brien’s father, also named Joe, was a detective the majority of his thirty year career, but in a weird twist of fate, his son eventually found himself as his own father’s supervisor at the Police Department in Needham, Massachusetts.
“Just on paper,” O’Brien insists. “We always joked that I’m the boss from eight to four, but he’s in charge after that. In truth, I learned from him the whole time. He would offer his advice, but just situationally. He was never overbearing, never put me under a microscope. He wanted me to make my own mistakes and blaze my own trail. I got to learn on the job from one of the best in the business.”
In my estimation, it was this characteristic of Joe that was paramount in the success this unique father/son/officer/detective dynamic. With a lifetime of experience, wisdom, and insight in the career, it must have been difficult for Joe to allow his son to take the risks and make the mistakes that all individuals must make in this field as they find their way. It would have been easy for Joe to try to guide his son’s path, and venture into controlling and micro-managerial territory.
But he didn’t. He understood the importance of the journey itself.
“Growing up, he was just a regular guy to me. A dad who took us camping and to Red Sox games. He talked about his work, but not in any sort of heroic way. To us it was his job. But I remember when I started at the Academy and all of the instructors would say ‘Oh, you’re Joe’s kid. What a great guy. What a great cop.’ Everyone always told me about his high energy, how his motor never stopped running.”
“Then all of a sudden, I’m the one who has to try to slow him down!”
Regardless of how close a son might be with his father, I can only speculate about the depth of that relationship when expounded by the duties and responsibilities that come with police work. The amount of collaborative problem solving, moments of adrenaline, periods of monotony filled with stories and conversation, and the nature of having a shared peer group lends itself to a father/son dynamic that I can only imagine the depths of.
In 2014, after a long career, Joe retired from the Needham Police. Around that time, O’Brien had volunteered for Haymakers for Hope a number of times. Another officer from Needham was fighting for Haymakers, and O’Brien had been toying with the idea of signing up one day, though at the time, he didn’t have a reason strong enough to push him to do it. Finally, he threw his name into the ring. It was a long shot. Finding the right person to match up against in a pool of hundreds was no sure thing.
Then, in May of 2016, Joe was diagnosed with cancer. O’Brien remembers visiting his father in the hospital during treatment and telling him that if he was accepted, the fight would happen sometime the following May.
“Great,” his father had replied, “I should be feeling better by then.”
The calm and optimism of that response calls to mind O’Brien’s answer when asked about the most important advice he had received from his father.
“Don’t panic,” he states, “Whether being a kid in sports or as a police officer. Don’t panic. Take a breath and let everything slow down. Sparring the first time, getting punched in the face, it’s real. But I hear that voice in my head. Don’t panic.”
Joe passed away on December 18th, 2016, just a little more than 6 months after being diagnosed. His son found out a few days later on New Year’s Eve that he had been selected to fight.
O’Brien was heartbroken, is heartbroken. The man he was fighting for wasn’t here anymore, isn’t here anymore. Even as he and I talk about his father, it’s difficult for O’Brien to not let the emotion take over. He had always been someone able to compartmentalize things, but the power of this loss is more than he’s ever taken on before. He cites his wife, children, sister Kelly, brother Tommy, Uncle Jimmy (who was the donor for Joe’s bone marrow transplant), and especially his father’s wife, Beth, as the reasons why he’s able to keep it together and carry on.
“I remember when I found out that I was selected for Haymakers, I was an absolute mess,” Joe recalls. “I just kept saying how my dad was supposed to be there.”
“He will be,” Beth insisted. “He will be.”
Today, Joe O’Brien is in the early stages of his training at the Nonantum Boxing Club, training under Joe Penta (bringing the grand total of Joe’s in this story up to three). This type of physical regiment is still new to O’Brien, and something that the physical training involved with police work had not prepared him for.
“There are definitely those days where you want to give up in the middle of class. You don’t want to finish out the burpees or leg lifts, but then I think about not only my dad, but Beth and my family and I keep going. They get me through it.”
O’Brien is the father of four young children for whom he coaches their sports teams. As he talks about them, it’s clear to see the ways in which his own father’s influence expresses itself in his parenting.
“It’s hard not to always want to correct them or give them too many tips,” O’Brien says, “but I remind myself that they are eight or ten years old and this is about the experience of having fun. Also, they are each so different, you really have to raise them in different ways that match who they are.”
Should O’Brien ever find himself one day in the future working alongside any familiar O’Briens fresh out of the police academy, I think he’ll know exactly what to do. Either way, while I don’t imagine that that simultaneously beautiful and awful song by Harry Chapin is one that O’Brien is listening to much these days, he can rest easy knowing that it definitely is not about him or his father, Joe.
If there’s one thing each had for the other, it was time.