All I wanted was for him to love me.
And I knew he couldn't. I reminded him
too much of himself: thin as tzitzit
with wispy hair and watery eyes.
I was always mommy's boy; Dad smiled
only for my rough and tumble brother.
Mom hung my watercolors on the fridge,
took me to the library on rainy days;
the two of them spent endless weekends
crouching in camouflage. They never asked
if I wanted to join. They knew I'd weep
the first time I turned a duck or a goose
from something living, flying, moving
into a limp pile of feathers and meat.
Then Dad got sick. His hornrim glasses
thickened til I could barely see his eyes.
His hands shook. He couldn't hold a gun.
My brother went out alone. I reread
books I already knew by heart, too numb
to imagine the change I knew was coming.
I never met my grandpa, though I heard
he went a little crazy once, almost
killed his younger son. I wish I could ask
whether Dad was scared, if he cried...
And now Mom comes upstairs, Dad's lunch
neatly arranged on a tray, the sweater
my brother likes best draped over her arm.
The wool is bulky and smells like smoke.
I barely recognize myself in the mirror.
I take the tray to the darkened study
where we've stashed the rented hospital bed,
I place it gently on Dad's bony knees.
When he reaches out I can't breathe.
I want him to know who's standing here
and to love me anyway. Is that you? he asks.
His voice is tremulous; I swallow hard.
It's me, dad, I tell him. I'm here.
The rest of my life I'll remember
his papery hand on my arm. I'll never know
whether he knew which son he blessed.
This poem arises out of this week's Torah portion, Toldot. It draws substantially on the Torah teachings of Aviva Zornberg; I drafted this after studying the chapter on Isaac's blessing of Jacob in The Murmuring Deep, which the local Jewish clergy Torah study group spent the last year reading together.
Our conversation, when we read Zornberg's chapter on this story, took us into some deep places: the nature of love and the nature of blessing, the essential tragedy of Jacob yearning both for his father to bless him and perhaps, also, for his father to recognize his deception and know who he truly was. What might it have been like to grow up as Isaac's sons, and to be the one who knew their father loved the other one better? Was Isaac's inability to love Jacob related to his own childhood trauma, the akedah?
As I imagined the scene, I pictured them as a modern family, and this is the poem which arose. All feedback welcome.
(If you enjoy this sort of response to the parsha, you might enjoy 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia in 2011.)