Some Last Questions79x561993

Some Last Questions, 1993, by Grace Graupe-Pillard. Pastels/cutout canvas, 79″ x 56,” 1993.

A few months before my father died, I completed a painting titled So Hard to Say Goodbye. Twenty-two years later, he still haunts my work. In the last two years of his life, he too had a hard time saying goodbye.

Like a battered boxer knocked down and counted out, he kept holding on. People commented on his “grievous quality of life” after a stroke narrowed his world, depriving him of the ability to speak or to swallow. He could never eat or drink again, and he was left so weakened that he could barely move. Yet I selfishly cherished those last two years.

After he had lost the power to voice his needs and desires, I became fascinated with the words he wrote on a notepad in a spidery, shaky hand, scribbling all over the page as if the ruled lines that he had always lived by were finally flung away, strange characters landing aimlessly on the page.

My father was an intelligent, unassuming, and gentle person who was not effusive with his affection, though he loved his family deeply. In today’s world of shifting alliances his overweening devotion to my mother would be viewed as unusual. Fleeing from Nazi Germany soon after he graduated from Berlin’s Technische Hochschule at a time when other young people were beginning their careers, he escaped to Brazil and from there emigrated to America. He was barely able to save his future wife and her parents, but, tragically, unable to get visas for his own mother and father, who were killed in the concentration camps. He discovered at an early age that the world was chaotic, so he became a careful man supporting his family as a lead architect, designing unglamorous yet much-needed middle-income housing in New York City such as Co-Op City, in the Bronx, Seward Park, on the Lower East Side, and Penn Station South in Chelsea.

Shortly after retiring, my father became ill and needed bypass surgery. During the operation he suffered a small stroke—all visible signs of which disappeared in the subsequent rehabilitation. It took another three years of TIAs (transitory ischemic attacks), during which my father would find himself on the ground wondering how he got there, before he sustained the massive stroke that landed him in the hospital for five months. An effort at rehabilitation proved futile.

During that time he would sit in the wheelchair and painstakingly attempt to communicate. Words were scribbled over sheets of paper, appearing in corners, running down the sides, sometimes repeating over and over the same half-completed thought, expressing the anarchy and jumble of his mind. Yet after deciphering the bizarre script, I realized that the words clearly articulated his tenuous situation in the hospital, where he could not even call out or ring for assistance. He railed against the staff: THEY CHANGED MY POSITION . . .FEEDING NOT CONSTANT . . . WHO WERE THE MURDERERS LAST NIGHT? . . . THE NOSE IS CLOGGED BECAUSE OF THE BARBARIC PUNISHMENT . . . THERE WAS A KNOT IN THE LINE  . . .  WHO MAKES ME SLEEPY ALL DAY?—and the denouement: THE HOSPITAL IS STEALING MY LIFE. Punctuated throughout were cries of HELP! HELP! HELP! My father was also able to convey a profound awareness of his existential crisis, writing: MYSELF, CRY-SELF . . . I CAN’T TALK – I CAN’T SMILE . . . AM I BEING PUNISHED? . . . I’M STUCK . . . TOO DARK . . . DON’T CUT ME OFF . . .

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  • anne June 28, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    Hi Grace, wonderful way to say, I love you Dad.

  • grace graupe-pillard June 24, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    Sandy and Susan – touched by both your words. Thank you.

  • Susan Seamn June 24, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    Lovely tribute, Grace. You father’s relationship with your Mom and his family must have provided so much comfort to him, having lost his parents in such a horrific manner. Such a testimony to the human spirit.

  • Sandy Gellis June 22, 2015 at 9:57 am

    So touching Grace…….a long time before I could even attempt to read it but beautiful and sad and familiar once I did. Such complicated feelings hard to find the words…….I find it impossible so am happy to have you helping.

  • grace graupe-pillard June 22, 2015 at 9:37 am

    I appreciate the comments that you have written – giving me insight into personal grief and joy.

  • grace graupe-pillard June 22, 2015 at 8:55 am

    Daria – So glad you got a chance to read the article and got to see those older works Thanks.

  • Daria Dorosh June 21, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    Beautifully written, Grace. I don’t know how we manage to endure watching a loved one struggle to stay on this side of life. But as you have shown, I think we learn a lot about the precious little things in life that in the end we try to hold on to. Its all good, I guess.
    And I love those cut out painting series you did in the 1990s! Always nice to see them again.

  • grace graupe-pillard June 21, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Thank you Diane for your kind words.

  • Diane Dettmann June 21, 2015 at 10:39 am

    What a powerful piece! Thank you for sharing your father’s tragic story. You captured the painful loss beautifully in words and through your art.

  • Patti Mason June 20, 2015 at 2:38 pm

    My own father left a long time ago but I still remember him, I wonder sometimes about what his thoughts were, you see he just never said very much a very quiet man as was my grandfather. I remember sitting at the dinner table one night watching the clock to see how long he went without words. 13 min then he said {Pass the meat} I laugh now when I think of that. My Mom use to say {Your Dad is a man of few words but he loves you. I lost them both by the time I was 22 but they did a great job as parents. I believe God gives us the parents he does so we can become the people we are. I hope to live up to their expectations of me. Love your article. Patti

  • Diane Steinmetz June 20, 2015 at 9:56 am

    Oh dear Grace!!! Your writing is so poignant! I love how you convey your feelings both in words and painting–simply outstanding.

  • grace graupe-pillard June 19, 2015 at 7:15 pm

    Frank – I remember in New Mexico you having similarly complex feelings about your relationship with your father. I think a parent’s presence in one’s life- like blood vessels can nourish or choke us but we cannot do without them.

  • Marcia G. Yerman June 19, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    There is nothing worse than watching the life ebb away from a loved one…regardless of the circumstances. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Lisa Lucas June 19, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Dear Grace,
    So sorry for your loss. You wrote beautiful words as a tribute to your beloved Father. The painting is amazing!

  • grace graupe-pillard June 19, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Suzan – beautiful response – thank you!

  • Annie Raulerson June 19, 2015 at 9:59 am

    Beautiful and heartbreaking piece. The art that came out of your experience is so personal but universally moving. Thank you for sharing!

  • Suzan Globus June 19, 2015 at 9:28 am

    Your eloquent and heartbreaking description about your father’s last months gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation of your powerful Word Portraits series which wonderfully illustrates the universality of human struggle.

  • grace graupe-pillard June 19, 2015 at 9:15 am

    Thank you Women’s Voices for Change for the opportunity to bring this personal story into public view. Much appreciated.

  • Frank Ettenberg June 19, 2015 at 9:00 am

    It is important to have read this Grace. Just this morning, before coming across your article, I was still – as ever – wondering about my father, who’d fundamentally remained an unsolved mystery to me and my life. My memory of him is so full of holes and unsolved mysteries. I’ve had to depend upon my sister, to flesh out my vision of him, because my own’s been cluttered with anger and resentment of him during the better part of my adult life. Now, 40+ years after his death, I begin to see him in a gentler light, while still experiencing his loss and my ‘lacking’ his good example, whatever that might have been. You are so fortunate to have experienced such substantial, wholesome feelings for him, Grace. It makes me further understand why you’re such a substantial, upright person.