dad and daughter

A lyrical life lesson

I was lounging outdoors enjoying the sunny afternoon, listening to old tunes on the radio when Harry Chapin’s song, Cat’s in the Cradle, started playing. I was so moved by it, I had to hear it once more. Turning off the radio, I played it on YouTube. This time, with eyes closed, absorbing every word.

How could I have missed those heart-wrenching lyrics before that day? It was a simple and compelling rendition of a father’s regretful life lesson that carried such a profound message. With his little boy’s words—“I’m gonna be like you, Dad”—still echoing in my ears, I paused to reflect meaningfully on my role as a parent.

It revived my childhood memories and the lasting impact my Dad had on me, in the short time I had with him. He was my hero and I was his shadow, wanting to follow in his footsteps.

An inspiring role model

My Dad was a gifted writer. He was a man of the utmost integrity who pursued a career in journalism because he believed it to be a source of truth. Known by many colleagues as ‘Raj, the walking dictionary’, he was a master of words and an amazing storyteller. He inspired me with his love for the English language and passion for words.

From the time I was six, I often sat with him as he read the morning newspapers. I would listen with awe as he described his work as Sub-Editor for The Straits Times (Singapore) and how reporters’ stories were turned into catchy news articles every day. He could speak with authority on any topic I pointed to. Notebook in hand, I would jot down the meaning of words that looked important. I had to—because some day I was going to be just like him!

One day, he took me to his office at the Straits Times building and I felt an exciting buzz everywhere I turned. The clickety-clack sound of the typewriters. The lingering aroma of the printing presses. The thrill of being in the rooms where the next day’s news was being made. It was heaven!

“I’m going to be just like you, Dad!” I said to him, holding his hand tight as we left the building.

His eyes lit up with pride. When we got home, I smiled happily as I overheard him say to my Mum, “I want to live a long life and see my daughter become a writer.”

A twist of fate

A few months later, I waved him goodbye as he left for work as usual. He didn’t return home that night. When I saw him the next morning, he was lying on a hospital bed covered with a white sheet from head to toe. He had suffered a sudden stroke.

I remember tugging at the uniform of the nurse standing beside me and saying, “He can’t breathe, you have to lift the sheet off his face… now!” She turned to look at me and said two words in Malay that I will never forget— “Dia mati” (he’s dead).

Just like that. Two chilling words that told me life would never be the same again. I was nine years old.

Everything changed overnight for us—my mother, my older brother and sister, and me. Soon after, we left Singapore and circumstances forced us to move to several other countries, starting over each time. Meanwhile, I had started writing and my first story was published in the newspapers when I was eleven.

But time went by and my studies were constantly disrupted, my career took different paths, and I lost my sense of direction. Every time I saw my Dad’s photo I was ridden with guilt, feeling I had somehow let him down.

A compelling shift

Then in 2004, my son was born. Seeing his little face look up at me adoringly, I was reminded of my time with my Dad and my promise to him. I felt a strong urge to align my work choices with my earlier aspirations.

As soon as I made that decision, my career took a turn. I started moving into roles more focused on writing, editing, and publication layouts. And recently, I took the leap to start my own communications consultancy—to carry on working with words and bringing stories to life.

Today, I can finally pick up my father’s photo, look him in the eye and say, “I turned out just like you, Dad!”

And I say it with humility and pride, as I acknowledge the lifelong impact he had on me in the very short time I had with him.

A heartfelt message to all parents

  • You have the power to inspire your children for the rest of their lives—never underestimate the influence you have on them.
  • Be conscious of your attitudes and behaviour—your children may end up modelling you in ways you don’t want them to.
  • It’s easy to assume your children know how much you love and appreciate them—but sometimes they just need to hear you say it.
  • Be mindful never to compromise family time in pursuit of career success—you want to be left with fulfilling memories, not regretful missed opportunities.
  • Make the most of your time with your children, today and every day—who knows what tomorrow will bring? Or worse still, as in my Dad’s case, what if tomorrow never comes?

“Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big – because to them, all of it has always been big stuff.”

Catherine M Wallace