By Wolf Pascoe
My father was named after Isaac, the biblical patriarch. It was a name he disliked, so he reversed the order of his first and middle names. If his full name was called for, he never spelled out Isaac, inscribing only the initial, I.
He was gone — a heart attack — before I was nine, leaving me to imagine the relationship that might have been. So I imagined a thousand Isaacs and a thousand histories. That was his gift to me, and his curse.
I’ve made the best of the bargain, pushing on in a restless way. But wherever I go, when I pause to reflect, I find to my surprise that I’ve circled back. A part of me will always be an eight-year-old boy who simply stopped, frozen in time.
To be defined by an absence is to spend one’s life pursing a mystery. I look and look, finding, in place of an answer, merely that my eyes have grown more accustomed to darkness.
The Book of Genesis tells us that Jacob, the younger son, stole his father Isaac’s blessing and then fled from the land of his birth. Jacob’s elder brother Esau — the blessing rightfully his — pursued Jacob, vowing to kill him.
Jacob did not have an easy time. He wandered for many years, spending one particular night in the middle of nowhere wrestling with an angel, who defeated him and gave him a new name: Israel. Of this wrestling match, the poet Rilke has written: This is how he grows, by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.
What’s a boy of eight to make of all this?
Let me just say it: the crux of fatherhood is to bless. Most men I’ve met, whether they grew up with a father or not, live their lives longing for this blessing. The longing leads down varied paths, but is always grounded in the same question: Father, how shall I be a man?
When I was well into adulthood, my mother gave me my father’s wallet. It contained cards from various venders, a driver’s license with a thumb print, a rail travel card, a blood donor certificate, and three insurance policies. As policy holder 201A-10212 of the Mutual Benefit Health and Accident Association of Omaha, my father, should he become injured at any time, was entitled to receive $200 in expenses.
These are the instructions for manhood he has left me. Of course, to be blessed one does not need to be instructed, but to be seen.
I have for many years sat in a room with a group of men every fortnight. It is, simply, to this room where my path has led.
The angers, joys, terrors, shouts, tears, laughs, prayers, poems, incantations, whispers, stories, songs, blows, gestures, and embraces that have filled the room have ground and polished the walls to an adamantine brilliance.
On the evenings we gather, we begin sitting in darkness without words. It’s not a complete silence or darkness, because there’s a candle and the sound of breathing. I’ve learned to drink the breathy stillness in. It leaves space for the mystery. I’ve come to see it as the reason for our being together.
My son, now eleven, is my greatest teacher of manhood. Nearly every day he approaches me and asks for a hug. I take him in my arms and for a moment we breathe together. Because I’ve drunk stillness and breathing for many years, I manage to rest and receive him during our embrace. It’s only for a few seconds, but enough to make a home in the world.
A living man is blind and drinks his drop, Yeats tells us in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” and goes on to catalog his sins and curses.
Then he offers this prescription for the lost:
I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
How shall you be a man, you who have lost your blessing? Forgive yourself as I have, Yeats says. Bless.
Strange to say, I rarely dream of my father, but do remember an image from one I had a few years after he died. We’re in a tiny amusement park in the neighborhood I grew up in, a place he took me to on occasion. A small, red roller coaster went round an oval, its top barely ten feet high.
All this is background. In the dream, it’s only his face that I notice, and the blue of his eyes. His eyes were in fact blue, though not very. But in the dream everything else pales before their vivid turquoise. I stare and stare into them. He looks back, watching me. The intensity of the blue is first shocking, then hypnotic.
It’s as deep as the sky, as wide as the sea.
© Wolf Pascoe
Wolf Pascoe is a poet, playwright, and physician. At Just Add Father, he blogs about mindful fatherhood and his attempts to get the problem right. Breathing for Two, his short, poetic dissection of life at the head of an operating table, is available as an ebook, a paperback, and an audiobook. If you’re curious, you can watch the brief trailer he made.
Part 2 in a series on father-son relationships.
Stop by and visit the series on mother-daughter relationships.