Happy Birthday, Dad

Happy Birthday Dad.

You would have been 75. I feel your presence constantly, but more so around your birthday. Is it because you died before your time and before we had made peace?

There have been some uncanny coincidences in the last few weeks. A mention in USA Today, a call about one of your horses being inducted into a hall of fame. Then, I’ve worked with a man for 20 years, and over drinks a few weeks ago, I learned that he was once an engineer at WABC in 1980, just a few months after you were fired. He worked in the same studio, with the same engineers and disc jockeys that you once worked with. It was the same studio I once spent my Friday and Saturday nights in, coloring in my coloring book while you worked. This colleague and I swapped pictures, and I was a child again. I cried with a longing that I normally keep tightly tucked away.

He connected me with another engineer, Mike, one of your favorites, and my favorite too because he was always so nice to us kids. Mike spoke of the time Michelle, age five, went to school in her pajamas, before you got custody of us. I called you at work, while on the air, upset that Mom let this happen, frustrated that I hadn’t been able to take care of my sister. I was only ten myself, and I left for school before she did, before I could be sure she was dressed.

How were you able to take my call, then return to the mic to introduce the next song, and still sound upbeat?

A few months later, you got sole custody of us, marking the beginning of the time that I consider our family’s golden years.

So I have to wonder: is this what you do in heaven? Do you remember the good times and send messages to be sure the living remember them too? You don’t need to, Dad. I have always held those memories close in my heart, because those were the years when you were at your finest. Life was crazy, and crappy things happened, but you were there for me.

The same was not true when you became the famous sportscaster. I only wish you could have been both.

Had you lived to your 75th birthday, retired, and lived at a slower pace, would you have come to your senses and made peace? Or would fear and pride keep us divided?

I like to think we would have reconciled. I would have baked you a cake—probably Magaha apple cake—one of your favorites, and the same cake that I now bake for my own children on their birthdays.


Books That Have Helped Me Cope With Being Disowned

Here are some books that have helped me understand why I was disowned, why it was not my fault, how to cope, and specific strategies for healing and reconciling:

Healing >From a Family Rift by Mark Sichel. He’s a therapist who was disowned. It was in this book that I first learned the word narcissist as a more specific parenting problem.

The Narcisistic Family by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman. Your parent doesn’t have to have narcissistic personality disorder for this book to apply. Instead, it’s more about families who put the parents’ needs ahead of the children’s.  Reading this book gave me a lot of aha moments – why I push people away, something the authors call plastic walls and why children who have grown up in such families have symptoms similar to those of children of alcoholics.

Children of the Self-Absorbed by Nina Brown. Full of self diagnostic check lists and patterns of how children react to these parent types. Some rebel and some do everything to please. I fall into the pleasing camp.

I did recently order I Thought We’d Never Speak Again by Laura Davis but haven’t read it yet. Will update this post when I do.

I didn’t find anything in my local library but I think some can be borrowed through inter library exchange.

And then because my faith has given me strength throughout my life, a friend gave me Jesus Calling which are daily reflections. When God Winks at You is a good read on the meaning of coincidences (there were a lot around the time of my father’s death!) as well as Unfinished Business. If  you believe in Karma or the after life, this last book is full of stories that will make you determined to reconcile in this lifetime. And if you have tried and reconciliation is beyond hope, then it’s really for the people who have disowned you to resolve and make up for their failings.

The online group and non profit http://www.EstrangedStories.com has also been very helpful.

Please do let me know if there are books you too have found helpful.



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

My Father Could Deny My Existence But Not Our Resemblance

I thought of my father this morning, as I do most mornings. Today was different, though, because I was nervous about a keynote I was doing on cool technology. Every good presentation starts with an attention grabber, a hook to make a connection with the audience. So I had planned to walk on stage in my very conservative black suit, donning a cool 70’s style dress beneath it. Trusting that there would be no wardrobe malfunction, I would drop the suit, as music from Queen, “I want to break free” rose up, and my inspiration for cool, “The Mod Squad” showed on the screen behind me.

I was nervous. It was a conservative crowd. Would they find my stunt too edgy … too silly … too unprofessional?

So I thought of my Dad in circa 1983, then a rising sportscaster in Washington, DC. He was interviewing a few Redskins players on his show, pool side in Miami ahead of the Super Bowl. At the end of the interview, the two players tossed him into the pool, expensive sport coat and all. Some people in journalistic spheres criticized him then, noting that his shoes were coincidentally not on him when the football players spontaneously threw him in the pool. Had he staged the act for the sake of entertainment? Of course he did. It was his hallmark: to entertain while also delivering sports news.
He taught me well.

To educate and inspire people, it’s more effective to make it also entertaining.
I wonder if he was nervous when he staged this event? Surely, he couldn’t rehearse it, as I had done with my suit a dozen times in advance. There were other times though that I had heard him rehearse, usually before announcing a baseball or hockey game, memorizing the visiting team’s numbers. Who inspired him on that day, on so many days? He would have been 43 when he was launching that part of his career. I am now 47, and somehow, I still feel like a child, in awe of my father who was larger than life.

My father may have disowned me, refusing to acknowledge me as his daughter, but in my work, there is no denying the resemblance.

Is Hope a Dangerous Thing?

I hate movies like The Bucket List, Last Song, or Peace Love and Misunderstanding that promise a happy ending to being disowned. In real life, there is no reconciliation, most of the time anyway. Actually, I’ve only seen the Bucket List, long before my father died, when I was still filled with hope, a hope that survived for more than 20 years. It was that hope that kept my heart open and spirit alive.

But then my father died, with no warning to me and certainly no reconciliation. His sudden death nearly destroyed me and everything I believed about him . . . about love.

There are some that would say that I was wrong to have hoped for a happy ending. If I hadn’t deluded myself about my father, then I would not have been so devastated. Are they right? Sometimes I think they are. I could have hardened myself 20 years ago and been spared a lot of pain. But I think that would have changed me as a person, as a mother.

My father had it in him to love and to forgive. It was his choice to hold a grudge. It was his choice to ignore the patterns of his past and of our family. It would have been difficult for him to reach out to me, and I can understand he would have been afraid of the pain. Would his daughter still love him after all that cruelty? Certainly there would have been consequences with his wife, my stepmother. But these were his choices. He could have chosen differently.

So I think I was right to hope, and I would never tell a person estranged from their family to give up.
I think those Hollywood happy endings are rare, very rare, but I have sometimes seen them. Consider this:

  • My grandfather reconciled with my aunt, who had been disowned for more than 20 years. Pop was dying, and it took a lot of lobbying from another aunt to bring peace.
  • A reader on this blog whose father disowned her brothers has reached out to them after decades. I hope her father will not maker her choose.
  • My nephew sent my daughter a facebook friend request … a nephew through my brother who has not spoken to me in 20 years.

So perhaps the healing happens in the next generation. I will remain forever hopeful. It's dangerous, I know.


Where do you visit a loved one when there is no grave?

My father died Christmas Eve 2009. He was cremated. I do not know where his ashes are. My step mother would not want me to know. My Dad was raised a Catholic and once read the Sunday sermons at mass, but he was not a practicing Catholic at the end of his life. I don’t believe a person’s spirit stays in one place, but I would have liked a place to lay flowers and to sit and talk with him.

Instead, I visit our 3 homes in Northern New Jersey, the places where we were once were so happy as a family.  I start at the home where we first lived when my Dad got custody of us in 1976. The house looks the same, with the boardwalk to the front door. I study the yard to the side of the house, where he taught me how to throw a softball. I ring the doorbell to ask permission to walk around back, but instead, the present home owner invites me in.

He is my age and says his family is fourth generation from the town, Oakland, New Jersey. I walk up the stairs to the family room. Some things have changed (the hardwood floors). Some things have stayed the same (the mirrors my father hung on the cathedral ceiling). We walk onto the back deck that has since been rebuilt. I look into the back yard where my brother and step mother once crawled with our cat’s bell, trying to catch our mean neighbor. We think the neighbor hit our cat with a baseball bat. I share this story with the present owner, and he laughs. The nasty neighbors are still there, and he’s had his own run-ins with them.

I didn’t know if the neighbor on the other side would still live there, but I baked him cookies just in case. His wife, deceased 10 years at least, had once taught me how to soften the butter when making chocolate chip cookies. Her cookies were the best. I still follow her technique, and my children do the same. I see him outside, and I step over the little rock wall that I had once stumbled over when I was 12.

He remembers our family. He remembers my brother, who had once been his son’s best friend. He knows my Dad passed away. We laugh about the party my brother once had when Dad was at work. The woods were littered with beer cans. My Dad got mad at our neighbor for not having noticed, for not having stopped it somehow.

It felt good to remember those times. It felt good to visit a place where my Dad was just my Dad and not somebody famous. It felt good to talk to someone who remembered I was his daughter.


Christmas Eve: The Ending I Would Not Have Written

Christmas is the hardest time to be disowned. It’s when I miss my father the most. I often think about our best Christmas as a family back in 1979. My father had just lost his job, and yet it was a rich, happy time. My aunt and cousin took the train from Chicago to New York to join us for Christmas. I baked Christmas cookies from early morning to midnight for three days straight. I saved my entire baby sitting money to buy special, meaningful gifts for everyone. For my father and stepmother, it was a copper art work of lions that my Dad had admired while Christmas shopping. He said he couldn’t afford it that year, but that one day, he would get it for him and his wife. I worked extra jobs to be able to buy it for them. My Dad shed a tear when he opened his present.

This year will be the hardest. Can it be any worse than last year? My father passed away unexpectedly Christmas Eve 2009. He had battled chronic Leukemia for three years. I never knew. Nobody told me. My husband got a call mid morning, so he’s the one who actually broke the news to me. That’s the other painful dimension to my disowning: my father is famous in certain circles so the news of his death reached the radio, the TV, and the Web before it reached me.

Later that night, when I was supposed to be tracking Santa on NORAD, I read his obituaries. I was not listed as a survivor in any of them. I would later learn that this was intentional, at my step mother’s request. I would like to know what my father’s dying wish was.

Did he really never think of me again? Or could he simply not get out of that cycle of how he dealt with pain. If something hurts, bury it, and bury it deep. Be an ice cube and nothing hurts. That was always his way. I suspect that even if he wanted to reach out to me, my stepmother would not have allowed it.

Christmas Eve will forever now mark the loss of my father. It also marks the end of 20 years of hoping for reconciliation. How does one recover when hope is lost?

I cry at the worst moments, unexpected times, and even at what should be joyful moments. I pray for the pain to go away so my children and husband don’t lose to me to sorrow.

For so long, I imagined a happy ending to the situation with my father. I never imagined this one.


Living with Being Disowned

When I think of someone who has been disowned, I picture a drug addict, a murderer, or a prostitute.  Someone who has been disowned must have done something awful to deserve to be cut off by their family. I do not picture a successful career woman, with an MBA, happily married, and a loving mother. Yet behind the smile of my present life, there is the pain of loss of my father, my sister, my brother.

I have likened being disowned to being caught in a rip tide. The ocean waves sparkle with energy in the sunshine. My children and I love to jump the waves together. I only get pulled under when someone asks me about my father.  The pain pulls me to a darkness where I assume the world would be better off without me. It’s logical, right?  if my birth family is better off with me, then my children and husband would be too?

And yet, there is that ocean floor, so solid, my child hood. I used to scoop the baby clams, tiny dots of orange and purple and would wonder at God’s palette. My family had its golden years, a time when we were close. How, then, could my father do this to me?