I’d been sober seven months by then. As a recovering alcoholic, I knew how important it was that I made amends to the people I had harmed when I was drinking. God knows, there was a long list of them. But I had to start somewhere, and I decided my father should be at the top of the list. He had tried so hard, loved me so much, given me so many second, third and fourth chances—well, there was no one I had disappointed more than my dad.
It’s not easy figuring out exactly what to say to someone you love dearly and have also hurt badly. But now that my thinking was clearing up, I really wanted to find the right words to make amends to this man who had meant so much to me.
I prepared for two solid weeks, trying to capture just the right words to express what I was feeling. I sat down, and I wrote up a whole speech. I had so much I wanted to say. My journey to the bottom had been a long and destructive one: years of lying, cheating and manipulating as I drained my father’s faith in me and also his checkbook.
I was committed to getting this right.
I called him and said I wanted to come see him.
He said sure.
I went to his house and joined him at the kitchen table, which in our family was always where important conversations occurred. He looked at me without saying anything, just letting me begin.
I took a deep breath and opened my carefully crafted speech.
“I want to tell you how sor–,” I began.
But halfway through the word sorry, before I could even complete a single sentence, my father cut me off.
“Stop talking,” he said.
I was momentarily startled.?
“Just stop talking,” he said.
“I don’t want to hear what you have to say,” my father continued. “Your apologies mean nothing to me. Absolutely nothing. Nothing you say means much to me because you are a liar and a cheat.”
How should I answer this? The thoughts were racing through my head. Should I argue? Should I plead? Should I just stop? Before I could settle on a strategy, my father continued.
“I want desperately to be judged by my intentions,” he said. “But the world continues to judge me only by one thing, and that is my actions.”
My father is a lawyer. He has spent his whole adult life representing clients. He is used to making arguments in court. But I never remember him speaking so firmly to me in such a deep, insistent voice.
“Don’t tell me what you are going to do,” he said. “Just do it. Just live it. I will know when you are living the right way. You won’t have to tell me. I will know. Great men never have to tell anybody how great they are. People know.”
And that, right there, ended my first, halting attempt to make amends to my father and to the rest of my family, as well.
I have just written a new book about my wild ride to sobriety and the life-changing lessons I learned as I pulled my careening life back from the abyss. “The Uninvited,” the book is called. “How I Crashed My Way into Finding Myself.” The bookrecounts an array of alcohol-fueled adventures I can hardly believe I lived through: Sneaking into the Grammys at Radio City Music Hall, then singing on stage with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. Driving in President Reagan’s motorcade. Getting stoned inside the Kremlin and marching in Moscow’s May Day parade. Hanging backstage with major rock stars at Live Aid and the MTV Music Awards. I wasn’t a celebrity or a VIP–just a booze-fueled jerk with a knack for smooth-talking my way into places I did not belong. I thought those hijinks made me feel good about myself. Really, they proved only that I could drown my low self esteem in gallons and gallons of cocktails, wine and beer.
It was only when my mother and father burst into my apartment one Saturday morning—their apartment since they were paying the rent— that I finally began my long road to becoming an honest and decent man. With the help of a brilliant shrink and the beautiful support of daily meetings with other brave souls on the same difficult path, I am proud to say I am twenty-six years sober now and feeling better all the time. That’s twenty-six years of acting—not just saying—my amends.
Earlier this year, as I was finishing work on the book, I wanted to do something special for my father, who is now eighty-three years old. I had spent a lot of time thinking about our relationship while I was writing the book. Since I’ve gotten sober, we really had grown extremely close. But I felt like there was still some unfinished business between us. I still had never said to him exactly how I felt or just how thankful I was for everything he had done for me. I called him on a Thursday morning, and this time I didn’t give him a chance to cut me off. I told him how much I loved him and what a wonderful father he is now and has always been. I told him I wanted to take him on a two-week trip to Israel. I’d pay for everything, I said. I wanted us to have that time together, just him and me.
As my words sunk in, my father started to cry on the phone.
Overcome with emotion, it took a moment for him to say anything.
Then, he answered that he would love to join me in Israel. He said he really looked forward to spending that time together and taking this special trip with me.
“For the last twenty six years,” my father said, “you have made me the proudest father in the world. You did what you said you would. You have lived the right way. You have become a man of honor, dignity and commitment. I told you, ‘Live it. Don’t say it.’ You have lived it, and I have watched everything.”
My father and I had a wonderful trip to Israel.
We walked together through the old city of Jerusalem and marveled, like millions of visitors before us, how the world’s three major religions all grew up there. How all these centuries later, the holiest sites of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, are just a short stroll apart. What a shame it is, we agreed, that these three great faiths can’t find full peace and acceptance with each other.
“They can’t just say it,” my father reminded me. “That’s not good enough.”
“They have to live it,” I agreed.’
CRAIG SCHMELL is a 25-year veteran of Wall Street and a successful
business owner in the fitness and food-service fields. He is a popular
public speaker and advocate on addiction issues and a dedicated peer
counselor. A graduate of Syracuse University and Touro Law Center,
he lives in Rumson, New Jersey, with his two teenage daughters.