Holding Onto Your Heart, not Hate, When You’ve Been Disowned

Printed in our church bulletin from Christmas Eve, 2009, is a quote from the poet Henry Van Dyke from The Other Wise Man: “If you truly believe that love is the strongest thing in the world–stronger than hate … then you can keep Christmas.” I didn’t see the bulletin until months later, the paper buried in our junk basket amid bills and condolence cards.

Instead, that Christmas Eve, when I was supposed to be tracking Santa on NORAD, I was reading my father’s obituary, George Michael, sportscaster and disc jockey, March 24, 1939 to December 24, 2009. It lists my father’s survivors. I am not one of them. NBC had also left out my brother, an omission that nagged at me all day. I waited until after my children were safely tucked in bed, milk and cookies left out for Santa, before plucking up the courage to call the news station to ask why.

I asked to speak to Matthew Stabley, the author of the obituary. He wasn’t there. I asked whom to talk to about an error in a news story about the death of George Michael. His name stuck in my throat for a multitude of reasons. Only then did I realize I hadn’t said my father’s name in years.
The pitiful reporter who had to work Christmas Eve, who happened to take my call, asked who was calling. I hadn’t thought about how to answer this. I hesitated, then finally said my name, my voice thick. “Cindi Michael … I’m—“
He responded with a hint of panic,“Oh, Cindi, jeez, I’m sorry.”
“So you know about me?”
“Yeah, yeah, we know about you.” He explained that my brother’s omission was an error in phrasing, as they offered condolences to their long-time employees, my step mother and sister. My omission, however, was intentional. They were respecting my step mother’s wishes on this point.
I wanted to know what my father’s dying wish was. Even with this brutal ending, I still held onto a thread of hope. I didn’t voice this, though, because I was trying not to crack.

My father hadn’t spoken to me in twenty years, not counting one letter. I hadn’t known he was sick. When he retired in 2006, I had assumed it was because of declining ratings, usurped by satellite dishes and ESPN. I imagined my long-hoped-for reconciliation was near as my father had finally been forced to slow down, to get off that treadmill of fame and success. He would remember the person he once was, the relationship we once had. Instead, a neighbor heard about his death on the radio and called my husband, who broke the news to me. Had my father’s hatred really outlasted my hope?

My father had disowned me twice in my life. The first time was when I was 18, a freshman in college, 1983. I was dating the vice principal of my high school, and even though my father initially tried to accept the relationship, after the rumors started, he feared news of the relationship would jeopardize his career. When you are an Honor’s student, Student of the Year, and all around goody-two-shoes daughter of a famous sportscaster, the fall from grace can be long and far. I didn’t think my father was being fair. He had always told me age didn’t matter, since there was 15 years between him and my stepmother. Even after the vice principal and I broke up, my father still wouldn’t speak to me, probably angry that I had written a letter to him and called him an a**hole. In the letter, I had told him I loved him too, but I guess that wasn’t enough. So I worked two jobs and managed to stay in college, without my father’s support. Like my father, I learned that work and success is a way to deal with pain.

I proved to myself and to my father that I didn’t need his support. But after two years, when my heart was breaking and my soul dying, it was clear the one thing I needed to survive was his love.
My boss called my father, told him I was desperate, told him I wrote to him in my journal every day, the only way I could talk to my dad. We reconciled for a few years, and in that time, I did my best to please him, to make him proud as I had always done. My father promised he would never turn his back on me again. Was I wrong to trust him?

Call it destiny or an attempt to recapture innocence, but shortly after I reconnected with my high school sweetheart, the only boy my father ever liked. He was a Swiss foreign exchange student, and our long distance romance was safe, up until the point it came time to make a commitment. He was in the army and still in school, so it seemed more practical that I should be the one to move to Switzerland. I tried for more than a year to get a work permit, and when one looked promising, my father remarked, “You know if you go there, you’ll only get divorced.” I thought he was referring to me, how I didn’t deserve this boyfriend, wasn’t good enough for him. I never considered that my Dad’s remark was about himself, and his distrust in the power of love. I didn’t get the work permit, anyway, and so our long distance relationship stayed long distance.

My second and final disowning came slowly, starting in 1988. It began over little things, including spilt sugar, literally. My stepmother, Pat, had spilt some sugar on the floor, and when I walked over it in my high heels, my father grimaced in disgust. He was a perfectionist in everything, whether sports highlights or cleaning. I said I would clean it up when I got home from church, that cleaning was not one of Pat’s strongpoints. How could it be? She didn’t grow up with a bachelor father like mine who had taught me at the age of nine to tilt my head to catch the sunlight to check for dust, to run my fingers along the floor, the dresser, the counter, for any spots I might have missed. After that, my step mother never really spoke to me again, and made sure to point out my flaws to my father.
So when my boyfriend had been visiting the U.S. for three months, and we announced our engagement, my father said, “I don’t give a s*** where you get married, I’m not coming to your wedding.” Would it have mattered if my fiancé had asked my father’s permission first? It might have helped, but he was so like my father, too proud to think he needed to. My father’s temper is legendary. He has thrown a carousel of music tapes across a room, broken a foot while kicking a chair in the studio, and ripped up a new suit in a store when the tailoring hadn’t been done perfectly. My father was mad at me about a lot of little things, but I believed it was just a matter of time before he got over whatever I had done to annoy him.
That could be weeks, months, or as I learned in my first disowning, years.

My fiancé returned to Switzerland and the army, so we planned our wedding in Switzerland, during his next military leave. We sent an engagement announcement to my father. He didn’t reply. I called my dad a few weeks before I was due to move overseas. He didn’t offer to take me to the airport. I knew by then not to ask.

The day of my wedding was a sunny day along the Lake of Lucerne, laced with snowcapped mountains. A friend’s father offered to walk my down the aisle. I declined. I didn’t want anyone occupying my father’s place next to me. Either my dad would be next to me, or nobody would.

I walked down the aisle alone, the chords of the old organ carrying me forward. When I got to the alter, I heard the church door bang. I turned, hoping to see my father rushing in. It wasn’t. It was the door being closed.
I called him a few days later, but there was little to say, the pauses on the phone wider than the ocean that separated us. I held fast to my hope though. I just needed to be upbeat in the letters and postcards I sent weekly, and eventually my father would soften.

When my husband first hit me, the first month I was there, I knew not to go crying to my father.
My father sent me a card the first Christmas, but never otherwise wrote back or called. When I called home to plan a visit a year later, he told me not to bother, saying simply it was easier if I didn’t come. He suggested I could keep writing, though, “It’s nice to know what’s going on.” So I wrote of my work, of my travels, of learning German. I didn’t write about when my husband left me out of anger for days at a time, the blue marks on my legs when he tickled me too hard. I only called it quits three years later when he drew blood.
I wrote to my father to let him know we were divorcing. It was my younger sister who wrote back, telling me never to come back to the U.S., saying I had hurt her father. I heard from a cousin that the extended family was told not to talk to me.

I eventually remarried, and wrote to ask my father if he wanted to meet him or to be involved in the wedding. He didn’t reply. Nobody did. When our first daughter was born, my father’s first and only granddaughter, I wrote to him again and included baby photos. I suggested that if he didn’t want a relationship with me, I would accept that and would ensure he could still have a relationship with his granddaughter. He never replied. When my son was born two years later, I tried again. I suspect my second husband, a kind and protective man, silently hates my father, having watched him nearly break me multiple times. And yet still, when I share the happy stories about my dad, he listens quietly, not understanding how a father could ever treat a daughter like this.

Instead, he let me introduce our children to my father through my eyes, taking them to his favorite bakery each summer, sharing his traditions, but never revealing his fame. I never wanted my children longing for him through the TV or Googling his name the way I sometimes did. I believed my father would just pull up my driveway one day, comment on how green my lawn is, and ask for a cup of coffee, black. On that day, I wanted my children to be able to open the door to him, to their grandfather, not for him to be a stranger to them.
Perhaps I should have given up after my dad didn’t show for my first wedding. Perhaps I should have hated him. Hate would have hurt less, but how would it have changed me, changed my children?

Certainly, there have been days when I didn’t think I could go on living with this hole in my heart. There have been years when I blamed myself, for some flaw in me that I just didn’t see but that my father clearly did. Always, though, I remembered the man my father once was, the person who once fought for custody of me, my brother and sister, when my mother and he separated. He had only one condition for us to move in with him that October of 1976: we had to stick together. He was a bachelor then, a rock and roll disc jockey at WABC in New York, play-by-play announcer for the Islanders, and yet he still won custody of us. It was during these years Dad would often say, “I may not have any money, but I am the richest man in the world, because I have my children.”
My father taught me patience and determination, so I could wait a lifetime to see that person again.

I have tried to trace the exact moment when my father so hardened his heart. At first I thought it was when he was fired from WABC, November 17, 1979, coincidentally on his first wedding anniversary to Pat. He cried that night, saying he would never again have money or success like he did in New York. I tell this story often to my children, that sometimes you have to hit bottom and work your dreams from every angle before they come true. It was in his firing as a disc jockey that he became free to pursue his dream of sportscasting, a dream that had eluded him since college, when the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t hire him to do play-by-play. In 1962, he was too loud for their tastes.
It was only after my father died that I understood my disowning was in the works long before I was born. I can go back to my grandfather, Pop who lost his first wife in a car accident, discarding all pictures, and never telling that son that his mother died when he was baby. And then there is my father’s oldest sister who was disowned when she was 18 for getting pregnant out of wedlock. My father would have been about seven when she was banished, her name never to be mentioned. No wonder my father often said, “Never bring up the past,” because his past taught him to bury the pain, no matter who you shut out in the process. That my mother and he separated must have further shrunk his heart. It probably never helped my cause that I have her smile.

I don’t know if my father hated me in the end or simply never thought of me again. I have only clues and uncanny coincidences since he died. In his eulogy (a eulogy I watched on Fox News since it was made clear I was not wanted there), Joe Gibbs described my Dad’s final words in the hospital. “He said, ‘I’ve made some mistakes … I have to get stronger. I have to get out of here. There are some people I need to talk to …’” Did he mean me, or am I deluding myself?
Why after 19 years of not speaking to me and just after he was diagnosed, did my Dad mention me by name, spelled correctly in an interview with Washingtonian? And then there is the poem I read at the private service we held for my father, copied in my diary when I was ten, written by someone I thought was a classmate, “Time is too slow for those who wait … too long for those who grieve … but for those who love, time is eternity.” Eventually, after finding the church bulletin, I learned that the poem was written not by a classmate, but by Henry van Dyke.

Christmas Eve is no longer the joyous day it once was for me. It’s a day of mixed blessings, of trying not to lose myself to grief. And yet, I know I still have so much to be joyous about. On the first anniversary of my father’s death, sitting around the dinner table with my family, I raised my glass of wine for him, and started a toast, “To my father, may he rest in peace, and …” My voice clogged. I could not continue.

My husband encouraged me. “It’s okay.”

I took a breath and tried to continue. I had made it through the day without shedding a tear, but now they spilled over. “I can’t.” I whispered. My father was truly gone, and I could no longer hope to see him again.

My husband raised his glass. “To George. For all he did right, to make you the kind of person you are, for making you–you.” We all clinked our glasses together then in memory of my father, for the person he once was, for the man they never met.


Copyright, Cindi Michael, 2012