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

Reasons to Disown a Child

Is there any valid reason to disown a child? I can’t think of one, not even murder. As a mother, I have brought my children into the world, and I feel responsible for them, forever. This is not to say that I am responsible for their actions or decisions, but that I will always, always be their mother … to love them, to guide them, to hug them when they make mistakes. I don’t see it as my job to control them (unless of course we are talking about a 3-year old having a tantrum). And yet here are some reasons why people have been disowned:

  • Marrying a different race
  • Marrying a different religion
  • Being gay (see this awful letter)
  • Not taking care of their parents in the way their parents expect
  • Getting pregnant out of wedlock
  • Choosing to pursue a music career rather than devoting themselves to religion
  • Being born a boy when the father really wanted a daughter (and vice versa)

I still cannot readily say why I was disowned. I have sometimes told people it was because I grew up. The reason is true enough. When I got married, I moved to Switzerland. My father adored my husband, but I don’t think he wanted me to move overseas. He never told me this, of course. Would it have mattered if he did? So I think it hurt him that I moved and my father’s way of coping with hurt was to cut me out of his life. Ten years after my disowning, he wrote me a letter. I had been writing to my family for ten years, postcards, pictures, any little thing to keep trying to reconcile. They had never once written back. But this time, I had written to my younger sister, suggesting that our father was repeating a family cycle, since he had a secret older sister who had also been disowned (for getting pregnant). It was my father who replied, and it was a letter that nearly destroyed me. He said I was disowned because he and his wife (my stepmother) were happier without me. At the end of his letter, my father he told me never, ever to contact anyone in the family again. I know my step mother was glad to have me out of their lives, because I don’t think she is a very nice person. She brought out the worst in my father. But I kept these opinions to myself, because my father loved her. So what should I say—that I was disowned because my stepmother didn’t like me? Because my father was happier without me around? Or because my father couldn’t cope with losing me so he had to hurt me in return? Or because my father failed to understand how his own upbringing tainted our family, causing him to repeat the terrible cycle his father had started?

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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.

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.