DEAR AMY: I am a 71-year-old man, retired and happily married for 44 years. We have a son, age 45, and a daughter, age 43. Do you remember the Harry Chapin song "Cat's in the Cradle"? That song describes our relationship with our son perfectly. When I was working, it was go, go, go — lots of travel, building for the future. When I was home, I thought I gave enough of my time to my son and daughter, but looking back — maybe not. Today, our son is very successful, but, just like me, it is go, go, go — he is always at work. He and his family live 2,500 miles away. We try to see them at least twice a year. In the interim, the only time we have with them is a once-a-month Skype session with our grandchildren. Our relationship with our daughter and her family, who live within a three-hour drive, is much closer. I want a closer relationship with our son, but I just do not know how to draw us closer. Any suggestions?
DEAR WAYWARD: Thank you for the reminder of the Harry Chapin ballad, which tells the somewhat heartbreaking story of a too-busy father who raises a son who then adopts his father's values and is subsequently too busy for his father.
I'd first like to suggest that you be the patient, present and attentive grandfather that your grandchildren deserve to have. Given the extreme distance between your families, this would ideally involve summer visits where the children travel to be with you. Establishing family-centered and low-key rituals with them might lead to more than monthly Skype calls. For now, write letters to both of the children regularly.
In terms of your relationship with your son, it is hard to establish a closer relationship without spending one-on-one time together. Even an annual short holiday or weekend trip with just the two of you would advance your relationship. Ideas include traditional father-son activities like fishing or camping, to taking weekend cooking classes, performing a service project or attending a weekend of TED talks together. Ideally you would choose an activity that has some open-ended and unstructured time, where you two would basically get to know one another. If this very-busy man wants to spend time with his father, he will pry open his schedule.
I also suggest you send him a completely sincere letter stating your wishes, along with the lyrics — or a link — to Chapin's ballad; the idea being that if you had known then what you know now you might have done things differently. Say that you would like to be a different kind of parent, now — and that you hope it isn't too late.
DEAR AMY: We have good friends who invite my husband and me to the same restaurant on the same night every year during the holiday season. It is their tradition to go there, and invite other friends to join them. We have gone with them several times, but the truth is I don't care for this restaurant and have actually become sick after eating there. They have invited us again this year. I would like to decline in a nice way, but don't know how. I don't want to lie and say we have other plans when we don't. What should I do?
DEAR RELUCTANT: Ideally, you would find a way to attend this annual dinner without consuming foods you don't like. Otherwise, don't lie. Simply cop to some awkwardness. You can say, "This is a little embarrassing, but I just don't like that restaurant. Aside from great times there with you, I've had a bad reaction to their food. We love this tradition, but I think we need to bow out this year. We'd love to see you; can we make a plan for some time just after the holidays?"
DEAR AMY: I have a big problem with your answer to "Anxious," who wanted to tell her daughter about her father-in-law's suicide. I couldn't believe that you advocated continued secrecy about this! Suicide tends to run in families. The girl should be told.
DEAR UPSET: I advocate for being truthful and transparent about suicide. But this girl was in primary school. The child's father (not the mother) is the one who should lead this disclosure, because it was his father who died. This family should take time to come to terms with this loss, and then disclose it with honesty and compassion.