I had two fathers: the famous sportscaster, George Michael, and the single dad who fought for custody of me and my siblings when I was eleven. He won sole custody in 1976, despite being a bachelor and rock 'n roll disc jockey in New York. The other father is the one who disowned me when I was eighteen. How could he go from the extreme of saving me, to so fully abandoning me, never again saying my name?
My father died suddenly on Christmas Eve 2009. I am not listed as a survivor in his obituary. I still wonder if that was my father's dying wish, or my step mother's final word. I only have the clues he left behind, and the jigsaw of his life that I am still piecing together.
My father and his Pop were never close. I was afraid of Pop, who Dad described as using the belt, a lash for each minute he was late for dinner. But Dad and Pop made peace when Pop was dying of cancer, or so I thought. It's only now that I wonder if my father never forgot Pop's remark, "You'll never amount to anything." Is that what drove my father to perfection and to work eighty hours a week? So many men do. Whether it's ambition or an attempt to fill a void that someone has left behind, I can only speculate.
My mother and father separated when I was eight and he was a disc jockey on WFIL in Philadelphia. The obituary in The Washington Post said my mother ran away to Mexico with an eighteen-year old, which was one of my father's embellishments, and a story the Post didn't bother to fact check. They both had their flings after they separated, but for sure, my mother broke his heart, and in return, he broke her. For three years, my mother neglected us and eventually she lost custody.
My father shined in those first years he had custody of my brother, sister, and me. Even though he worked in the city and got home after eleven each night, he made us pancakes and French Toast before school in the morning. He chaperoned my school field trips and came to my school plays. He taught me how to do laundry and clean the house. He taught me to be perfect. For a while.
When I started dating the vice principal of my high school, I embarrassed my father. I was eighteen and just graduated high school, but even so, he worried that our relationship would get picked up by the newspapers and sabotage his then budding sportscasting career. So he told me never to come home again, to pay for my own college, and do whatever the hell I wanted. I was stubborn, like him, and for two years, I survived without him. We reconciled, and I vowed never to piss him off again.
I reconnected with the only boy he ever approved of: a foreign exchange student from Switzerland. His name, coincidentally, was George. Oh, how my father adored him! Ambitious, smart, and a soldier, too. We dated in high school and had a long distance relationship for years. We planned to live in Switzerland for a few years while he finished college, then settle in the U.S. When I was twenty-three, George asked me to marry him. At this joyous news, my father said, "I don't give a shit where you get married. I'm not coming to your wedding."
Had I understood my father better, I would have recognized he was mad at my growing up, mad at my leaving him, and mad that this fairy tale relationship had become a reality. My father's temper is legendary, at home and in the studio, so I banked on its being just a matter of time before he got over his anger. After all, my moving abroad was not so very different than his leaving St. Louis at the same age. I didn't expect his anger to last more than twenty years.
Swiss George and I eventually divorced, but I don't regret the lessons I learned from that marriage. He was controlling and abusive. I was desperate for love and approval. Not a good combination. I wrote to my father for years. He never once wrote back. I wrote of my divorce, then of my remarriage, then the birth of his first and only granddaughter. I moved back to the U.S. and had a son. Still nothing.
As a mother myself, I started to wonder about family patterns. My father repeated so many of the same mistakes Pop had made, something he vowed never to do. And what of my father's oldest sister? She too had been disowned; my father never made peace with her, never said her name, even after Pop and she reconciled. Would I make a mess of things with my own children? I started motherhood as an over achieving workaholic, that part of the pattern is clear. So I hit the panic button and became a stay-at-home mom for two years. I imagined my father's disappointment if we had reunited at that point in time: I hadn't amounted to anything. It's been a bumpy journey to learn how to be successful at work and at home.
My father taught me how to be a good mother, the way he was the first three years he had custody of me. My children feel loved, as my father once made me feel. They know they come first.
I watched my dad's final broadcast on NBC4 in Washington, D.C., when he thanked his viewers for giving him the best twenty-seven years of his life. The remark stung. I wished his children or grandchildren would have given him the best years of his life, as my present family has done for me. But I get it now. Fatherhood is no match for success and fame, the frenetic pace of the sports world. It makes me wonder about that other famous sportscaster, Chris Berman, on ESPN. I've read he's the only one there whom my father respected. Interesting then, that Berman doesn't plan to be going at that pace well into his sixties. My father was sixty-eight when he retired. If he hadn't gotten sick, I have no doubt he would still be a workaholic.
I wish the ending between my father and me could have been different. I wish we had made peace before he passed away, just as he had done with his own father. Despite the years that he shunned me, it never would have been too late.
On Father's Day, then, I don't celebrate the sportscaster. Instead, I think of how my dad once was, the man who once said, "I may not have a lot of money, but I am the richest man in the world because I have my kids."