Birthdays: A Hard Day to Be Estranged

It was my birthday this week. Birthdays are often a time of joyous celebration, a look back on the highs and lows of the last year, and anticipation of things to come in the next year. But if you are estranged from a family member, a birthday can be a difficult day, marking another year of an unresolved rift.

In high school, my birthday was always a moody day for me. It falls during the busy football season, leading up to Super Bowl. My father, George Michael, was just getting started as a sportscaster in Washington, DC, so he was either away or too busy to celebrate it in January. We usually celebrated my birthday in late March, jointly with my father’s birthday. In those days, it was my friends who made my birthday special, with a surprise cake, or one year, by filling my locker with balloons.

Later, after my father disowned me, I downright dreaded my birthday. New friends, who knew nothing about my family circumstances, thought my birthday angst had more to do with my age. It didn’t. It marked another year he didn’t want me in his life. It was the one day of the year I could not resist Googling my father’s name to see how he was doing. Or more painful, perhaps, watching one of his shows on YouTube.

And yet, it was this annual habit of mine that gave me hope. It was January of 2008 when I stumbled across a story in Washingtonian magazine in which my father mentioned me by name, Cindi spelled correctly with an i at the end. He was recalling his wedding day, his second marriage, when my sister and I were maids of honor. My father had recently retired and this mention seemed to reinforce my belief that much of our rift was caused by my father’s fame – that once he slowed down, he would realize all he was missing out on as a father and grand father. I didn’t know then that my father was battling cancer. Neither of us knew that he would die within two years, too late for a reconciliation in this lifetime.

He’s been gone seven years now. There is no new news about him to torture myself with. At most, I might see a reference to how he shaped the career of another sportscaster. This year, I stumbled across a few tweets about him, people reminiscing about how innovative his show was at the time. I don’t even know why I searched on twitter this year – maybe it was because the Packer’s game was more painful to watch. In an odd way, these new mentions comfort me as I am glad other people still remember him.

I no longer have to lament that we didn’t reconcile in the last year: he’s gone, he couldn’t. So my birthday is a little less painful. And my present family always knocks themselves out to make it special. This year, we went to see Carole King’s Beautiful on Broadway, the music moving and inspiring. And there’s cake, always made with love when the kids are home, or when not, bought with love as my husband doesn’t risk that undertaking on his own. Whip up a Beef Wellington, any day. Bake a cake, no way.


Where I Write: Planes, Trains, and Poolside


A few years ago, we were visiting Key West and I got to see where Hemingway wrote. It’s a cozy room, separate from the main house. A place of solitude and creativity. I wish I could say I wrote in an equally inspiring place, but instead, much of my writing is done on planes, trains, and poolside. If I waited to write until I was in more conducive surroundings, I would never write. If you have a New Year’s resolution to write more in 2017, that means writing whenever and wherever you can.

Hemingway’s Writing Room – Key West

I started my memoir, The Sportscaster’s Daughter, in 2009 with a New Year’s resolution to make more time for creative writing. I had made—and broken—this resolution before. My day job as a big data expert also demands writing, but of the technical kind, leaving little time or inspiration for the creative kind. By the end of 2009, I had a grand total of two chapters. Then, on Christmas Eve, my father, George Michael, died, suddenly and unexpectedly. He died without saying goodbye, not having spoken to me in years. I had been assuming our reconciliation was nearing both because my father had mentioned me by name in a recent interview and because he had just retired. I had long assumed that my father would only come to his senses and have time for reflection when he slowed down. I was wrong, devastatingly wrong. Or I was right, and my father ran out of time.  Writing helped me cope with the shock of it all. It helped me grieve and allowed me to spend time with him, reliving our happier times.  That year, Fridays became my designated writing and grieving day. On those Fridays, I tried to write from the sofa of my living room, gazing out at the Kittatinny Mountains of New Jersey. For sure, I could not write emotionally traumatic scenes at my desk with three computers beeping at me.

My day job also means I often travel to conferences and clients across the country. If I am traveling on a Sunday, I have the choice of curling up with a good book on the plane, or buckling down and writing.  A six-hour flight is a longer stretch of writing than I could ever carve out at home. I wrote the scene when my dad first told me never to come home again during a layover at Denver airport. In way, it was better I was not home that night to tuck my children in bed. I needed to be alone in a hotel with that painful memory, not wanting the past to contaminate my idyllic present.

As a swim team mom, I often took my daughter to swim practice at 7 a.m., Saturday mornings, a 45-minute drive each way. Parents weren’t allowed on deck to watch practices, so this became another window of opportunity to write. I’d drive to the local Starbucks, then return with my coffee and climb into the back seat of the minivan to write for an hour. For her swim meets, I often officiated, but for weekend invitationals, I would only work the meet one of the days.  On my off day, I would sit in the corridor between races, writing on the iPad. It’s distracting, yes, as there are dozens of parents to chat with, going back on deck to cheer for friends, and watching the clock to be sure I didn’t miss her next race.  And yet, for a half hour here and there, I would transport myself back to the 1980s to a first love, flirtatious banter, and a man who introduced me to country music, me the daughter of a rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey. No doubt, passersby thought I was streaming a comedy show, as I chuckled to myself at the dialogue I was writing.

Revising is harder to do on the go, because I prefer to revise from the printed page. I was speaking at a conference in Rome, and for the flight home, I planned to review several chapters. I was in the business center at the hotel, printing sections of my memoir. Another American came in to print his boarding pass, and I sheepishly apologized for my 25 pages. Thank goodness I hadn’t printed all 50 in one go! He struck up a conversation, as I tried to hide my memoir. It felt out of place in a “business center.” He said he was from Maryland, and I mentioned I had gone to high school and college there, but now lived in New Jersey. There are two things that tie people from Maryland and DC together: The Redskins and politics. He must have brought up the Redskins, because next the stranger said, “Oh, the best sportscaster we ever had was George Michael.” My father. Had he seen his name on the page? Subliminally?  The pain of his absence and our tragic ending was still raw.  Normally I would have just walked away, silently at that point. But it was Rome, and I had been to the Vatican that morning, and the whole exchange felt both surreal and divine. I acknowledged, then, that he was my father. The stranger shook his head in disbelief. “I taught your sister, Michelle, in junior high.”  I couldn’t believe it. The stranger added, “She had a tough time. Your father was never home, and the divorce was ugly, if I remember correctly.”

I ask you:  what are the chances?

So on that plane ride home, I made some major edits that had been troubling me for months:  how much to include scenes in which my father hurt my sister the most. I had wanted to paint a full picture of our family dynamics and to create empathy for my sister. But this chance encounter with a stranger reminded me that her pain is her story to tell, not mine; there were whole scenes I decided to cut on the flight home.

Would I have made the same edits had I been revising from the solitude of my living room? Maybe, but more likely, this chance encounter influenced the edits. It’s a good thing I write wherever I can.

Happy New Year!