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FIRST-PERSON: Hurdle of Olympic proportions: Every little girl wants a daddy

SALT LAKE CITY (BP)–The five intertwined and colorful Olympic rings inlaid beneath the surface of the ice were obliterated at times while ice dancers glided, spun and arched. But that was okay — it was only momentary and nothing could diminish the glow I felt, the appreciation, the awe — as couples representing nations from around the world took to the ice to showcase their talent and reach for the gold.

I realized a lifelong dream Feb. 18 when I sat perched on the edge of my seat at the Salt Lake Ice Center watching the final freestyle competition of the 2002 Winter Olympics ice dancing competition. Having arrived in Salt Lake City just a few days before to write about what God was doing through the witness of various Christian ministries, I was already resigned to the fact that high prices and other priorities would preclude me from watching most events — especially ice skating — the sport which has the capacity to thrill crowds of all ages and passions.

My thrill was renewed only a day later as my intern and I looked through pictures we had taken from our lofty perch. Surprisingly, the long camera lens had done the job well and captured the action of the skaters, the ambiance of the arena. Those images and live ones tucked away in my heart will forever bring me hope and inspiration. Dreams do happen.

There’s another dream that has entailed a lifetime hurdle of Olympic proportions, however. It is represented by an open letter sitting face-up on my computer table at home. The return address is Honduras and the writer of the letter is my father.

I have only seen my father a few times in my life. Each time has been painful — it has been like the practice of an athlete preparing for competition. But instead of lasting for a few years or even decades, it spans all the 40 years of my life.

Every little girl wants a daddy, but mine has been elusive. It was February when I got the Christmas card, just a week before leaving for Salt Lake City. It was a response to a graduation announcement our family sent out last May. Our youngest son was graduating from high school and I pleaded with my father to at least consider coming to this important event. Just two years before, he missed my daughter’s high school graduation, and he has never celebrated any event in any of our lives or sought a relationship past a few sporadic letters, a lone Christmas check, and a visit I arranged for the children and I when they were 6 and 7.

My father is a charmer and an alcoholic. He has chosen to live in a Spanish-speaking culture where he can daily “practice” his perfect command of the language. His current wife is younger than I, and he assures me his favorite pasttime still is dancing.

This imperfect but smooth man deserted our family just after I was born. Having had affairs with other women while married to my mother whom he regularly physically abused, he reacted a smidgen strongly to her ultimatum — and he made sure to stay of the fabric of my life and my sister’s forever. It has been an unwoven thread, the lost hope for a medal, the missed dream.

In the letter, my father told me he was turning 70 and was sorry he had missed most of my children’s lifetime. He also asked if I could search for a phone number for his daughter the same age as my 18-year-old son. I never even knew she existed. Hot tears of betrayal painted my face, my sense of disappointment ran deep, my heart ached for peace.

Almost a world away, serving as a missionary in Czech Republic, my older sister read my e-mail and replied, “Joni, I’m so sorry. I know you are disappointed. It’s wrong of our father to be that way — but I realized a long time ago that he was not a person of integrity in whom I could trust.”

Ramona’s words were strangely comforting. We had been through this before. It is really nothing new; it is only the pain of being confronted with a new game, a new opportunity, and wondering whether it is worth training for.

I came to the realization a while back that what makes us weak also makes us strong. In writing, in communication with others and in being a sympathetic listener, I have opted to use the gifts I feel that God has bestowed upon me. But those very gifts make it difficult, almost unreasonable or unresourceful, to block out my very real pain when it comes to this fragmented family relationship.

All the counseling in the world, all the common sense advice makes little sense to me when I realize the love I have for this man whom I am so like in many ways. My father loves words. He loves people. He has taught both English and anthropology at the college level.

Similarly, my love of people and of words drives me. Like Olympic gold medallist runner Eric Liddell of “Chariots of Fire” fame who said he felt the pleasure of God when he ran, I feel the pleasure of God when I write.

Whereas my father has made a mess of things and has turned to the bottle to find comfort and hope in life, I have turned to the Book of Life. The living, breathing Word of God that brings peace, comfort and solace at a time when there is no reasonable explanation.

Even at this time, knowing not what lies ahead, I will still press on. But unlike my disappointed father, I will not go it alone without supernatural intervention.

God sustains me daily. He is my Father, my protector and my solace. And it is into his arms I throw myself to weep for my lost hope and to gain strength for the next round.

    About the Author

  • Joni B. Hannigan