When does a father's Blessing cease to matter?

It isn't a new question. It isn't an original question. But it's a question that sears its way through generations, that brands every new Esau through time and time and time.

Books have been structured around it, some of them holy.

The cry is ancient, anguished, wounded: "Bless me -- me also, O my father!"

Now it happened, as soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, and Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of Isaac his father, that Esau his brother came in from his hunting.

He also had made savory food, and brought it to his father, and said to his father, “Let my father arise and eat of his son’s game, that your soul may bless me.”

And his father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?”

So he said, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau.”

Then Isaac trembled exceedingly, and said, “Who? Where is the one who hunted game and brought it to me? I ate all of it before you came, and I have blessed him — and indeed he shall be blessed.”

When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me — me also, O my father!”

But he said, “Your brother came with deceit and has taken away your blessing.”

And Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright, and now look, he has taken away my blessing!”

And he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”

Then Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Indeed I have made him your master, and all his brethren I have given to him as servants; with grain and wine I have sustained him. What shall I do now for you, my son?”

And Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, my father? Bless me — me also, O my father!”

And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.

I am an Esau.

Whatever else I may be in life - wife, ex-wife, writer, sister, friend, lover - it will all be predated and superseded by that eternal fact: I am an Esau.

My father is, among other things, a gifted photographer. Much of my childhood was documented by the chill eye of his old Nikon. Most of those pictures were posed shots of me and my sisters.

We were beautiful children, beautiful girls: two angelic blondes and one rogue pixie brunette. In pictures I am most often standing behind them, supplanted these two times. I am the tallest blonde. I am smiling desperately, my eyes mutely pleading: Bless me -- me also, O my father!

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

When I was growing up, my father and I fought. I had no reference point to gauge whether those fights were normal. They weren't. As a child and on through my adolescence I had no way of knowing that the fights my father and I had were anything but normal.

When I was older I read something that blinded me with stinging tears: A family is only as sick as its secrets. I had been out of my father's house for years, but I had failed to escape the role my family had placed on me, failed to shake the sickness in which I'd grown up.

My family's secret - its sickness - was this: I was the scapegoat.

scapegoat: One that is made to bear the blame of others.

My father carried his own blame for many poisonous years. He was an Esau too. It took me many years to realize this, many more to allow that knowledge to soften the toxic knot of bitterness that's tangled deep inside my stomach. I will be thirty-six in six days, and the knot is still there. Sometimes it tightens.

I think I now understand that the things my father was forced to carry were too complicated and enormous to bear, that he was forced to turn some of his self-hatred outward and onto me. He had to do this so that he could survive.

He almost didn't.

My father tried suicide three times. None of them were minor attempts; all were savage and lacerating lunges toward oblivion. The soft insides of his wrists are ruined, thickened with shiny, lurid scars. His neck is encircled by what looks like a permanent rope burn. His third attempt was with gas, so I can't see those scars. Those scars are inside him, where the self-hatred lives.

When he stopped trying to kill himself, he started trying to kill me.

For a long time I thought I was exaggerating, that the anger and pain and fear I experienced on a regular basis was some sort of perverse overreaction. I thought that it must be normal to be thrown against walls, to have the breath choked out of me, to be hit with fists. These things happened. That is how my family was unhappy.

There was a sort of method to the abuse. It amazes me how long it took for me to be able to call it what it was - to call it abuse. It took longer for me to stop blaming myself. There were patterns.

Weeks, sometimes months would go by between episodes. My father and I would function in an uneasy truce. My mother and sisters would warily abandon their constant vigil. My family would relax around me like an exhausted muscle. All of us would stop reading the tea leaves and entrails of my father's moods.

Then it would happen again. There were always bruises, and sometimes there was blood.

But we never talked about it, not ever.

Here is how to make a rat psychotic.

Take a normal, healthy rat. Put it in a cage. Give it a lever to press for food. Let it learn to trust the lever. Let it learn to trust that when it presses the lever it will find nourishment.

Let the rat become dependent on that Blessing.

Then, one day, shock the rat when it presses the lever. Make sure the shock is incapacitating and brutal. Allow it to shudder and cower in the corner of the cage until it is hungry again. Next time it presses the lever, give it food.

Shock it some more. Let it get hungry again, hungry enough to brave a shock. Give it food.

Shock it. Feed it. Shock it.

Presto: you've driven the rat insane.

When I was fourteen I made a halfhearted attempt on my own life. I wound up in the hospital for several months. In the relatively less crazy atmosphere of the hospital it began to dawn on me that maybe - just maybe - what was happening at my house, in my home, inside my family, was not normal. That it was brutal. That it was incapacitating. That the lever I was pressing was dangerous and crazy-making.

And even then I could not stop wanting the nourishment, the Blessing, that I needed. No matter how many times I was shocked I could not stop pressing the lever. Even still, even at my age, there is an unkillable voice inside me. It always cries the same words from the same corner of the same cage: Bless me -- me also, O my father!

Please give me what I need. Please love me. Please touch me with the consistent and expansive gentleness with which you touch my mother, my sisters, our family dog. Please, please, O my father: Bless me also.

Over and over I tried to find substitute Blessers. Men. Women. Teachers, friends, lovers.

Mostly men. Mostly lovers. Twice, husbands.

Sometimes I realize that it is my hunger and need that drove them away, and when I realize this it is like trying to breathe underwater, it is like choking on ashes.

My latest substitute Blesser turns thirty-six today. He is three thousand miles away from me, safe from my bottomless needs and insatiable hunger. He was my husband for a while, my friend a little longer than that. Now all he wants is to be a stranger.

He's an Esau, too.

People who are not Blessed cannot easily be Blessers. It isn't their fault. It's an ancient and unslakeable thirst, and they are thirsty all the time. The desire for the Blessing isn't a want. It's a need.

The cruelest joke life has ever played on me is that my husband needed me to Bless him as much as I needed him to Bless me. We were two survivors of the same shipwreck; we were sinking in a bottomless ocean of raw need; we were clawing at one another for safety. I couldn't hear his screams because my ears were filled with my own.

I love my father.

Someone said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past. I believe this because I have to believe it. I believe it because now, at thirty-five, the bitterness and need have eaten a hole in my life so deep and wide that only forgiveness is thick enough to fill it back up.

So I love my father. He is easier to love these days. He is kinder, greyer, slower, happier. He is a blurry rendition of the man who hurt me all those years ago. I think that part of him recognizes the magnitude of the hurt he caused, and I think that he is inexpressibly sorry that he was unable to love me the way I needed to be loved. I am learning that the only way I will ever be able to move forward is to come to peace with who he is and who he is not.

I am learning to press other levers for nourishment. I am coming to terms with the fact that I am one of the Unblessed. I am learning - oh god, I am learning - to quiet that frantic, whimpering voice inside of me.

It has taken years, this learning. It has required medications and doctors. It has caused incalculable, irreparable damage to many people who tried their best to meet my unmeetable needs.

It isn't even finished yet.

My youngest sister is not quite thirty. She was very tiny back in the days when I was abused. I didn't think she understood very much. I thought she was mostly unaware of the abuse, protected by the fact that the worst years ended while she was still very young.

I was wrong. I underestimated the acute sensitivity of the Blessed to the Unblessed. I didn't realize that she watched me struggle from her position of safety. I didn't know how much she hurt for me, how complicated and fraught her love for my father actually was. I didn't realize that the Blessed suffer too. They just suffer differently.

We've never talked about it, not really.

But my father and I had a fight last week, a bad one. There was no violence - of course there wasn't - but the echoes of the old abuse lingered in the air between us like the smell of decaying flesh. After the fight I was shaken and disproportionately upset.

So I went to Elizabeth's house. I asked her to take me for a drive. She didn't ask why I'd been crying. She wordlessly picked up her keys and escorted me to her car.

We drove in silence for a long time. I cried a little, mostly for the misspent time, the lost loves, the years I spent looking for the Blessing in places I'd never find it.

After a while we pulled back into the driveway of her house. Elizabeth turned off the motor and gazed out the window for a while. The coyotes were howling, and their cries made me feel small and very alone.

Suddenly Elizabeth said, I have a song I want you to hear. Will you listen?

I nodded, and she reached into her CD case and retrieved a disc. She nudged it into the player, fiddled with the controls, sat back. She closed her eyes. So did I.

A song filled the car, and it was simple and sweet.

I know a girl
she puts the color inside of my world
she's just like a maze
where all of the walls all continually change

I've done all I can
to stand on the steps with my heart in my hands
Now I started to think
maybe its got nothing to do with me.

So fathers be good to your daughters,
daughters will love like you do,
girls become lovers who turn into mothers
so mothers be good to your daughters too...

On behalf of every man
looking out for every girl
you are the god and the weight of her world
on behalf of every man
who's looking out for every girl
you are the god and you are the weight of her world.

So fathers be good to your daughters,
daughters will love like you do,
girls become lovers who turn into mothers
so mothers be good to your daughters too...
so mothers be good to your daughters too.

It took me a long time to finish crying, but when I was done it felt as though I'd finally laid something down, something heavy and broken and debilitating.

Elizabeth touched my knee while I cried. She cried with me. She said I know. I know. She said it over and over again, said it softly and gently. She said it until I could hear it.

Those were some of the most healing words ever spoken to me.

I know. I know.

I can't listen to that song again. It's done all the work it can do. But it did a good work. It cleansed something inside me, debrided something that had been festering for years.

It didn't Bless me, not exactly. I don't know that I'll ever feel completely Blessed.

But maybe, just maybe, I can be Healed. Maybe I can learn to love in a different way. Maybe I can even learn to Bless someone else one day.

So fathers be good to your daughters,
daughters will love like you do.

There isn't anything I can add to that but my own tiny yes. yes. yes.

Lyrics from Daughters, by John Mayer

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