Family & Friends · Fine Art

Father’s Day: Words, Words, Words

The most poignant of written utterances occurred when my father was having difficulty completing a simple task in Occupational Therapy. Utterly frustrated, he scratched out on crumpled, stained paper: I USED TO BE O.K. . . . I AM A RETIRED ARCHITECT. Witnessing this encounter, I felt ineffable heartbreak, which reinforced my decision to do everything I could to facilitate his ability to express the anguish, despair, and still-flickering hope of recovery. When I asked if he wanted to continue living, he responded without equivocation: YES; he wanted to inhale the daily scents, sounds, and beauty of the world, with all its inexplicable enigma and spectacle. Of course, that made sense to me, since I remembered how much he enjoyed sitting on the back porch in the Bronx chuckling quietly to himself while listening to the feisty bluejays squawking, fighting, while singing their agitated songs.

We finally took my father home from the hospital, accompanied by drugs with exotic names such as Lanoxin, Procardia, Dilantin, clonidine, and Lopressor, as well as feeding-tube instructions, a wheelchair, and a lift to help raise and lower him out of bed. We were frightened by the responsibility of keeping him alive, though my mother shouldered most of the burden. The anxiety level was palpable, the task overwhelming, but a routine was soon established.

Slowly his spirits improved, and I often caught him smiling. Every day he was given The New York Times to read, a ritual established when he first immigrated to his adopted country. He read the paper from the first page to the last. When I visited, I usually found him tremulously grasping the paper, appearing to read every word even if the newspaper was upside down. In the evenings he lay in his rented hospital bed, arm outstretched, holding my mother’s hand while she rested in her bed as they watched television. I felt that he clung to life, even in the most dire of circumstances, just to get one more glimpse of her. [The author wrote about their enduring love in her Mother’s Day Tribute.]

The intense need to write words gradually diminished, because he was home in familiar surroundings, and later because he was depleted by additional strokes. Eventually the paper and pencils disappeared from his bedside. It was time to say goodbye when his body’s relentless breakdowns caused him to retreat into unconsciousness. My father’s face looked the same, but his gaze no longer followed me around the room.

I collected my father’s notations and took them home, isolating phrases and poring over the indecipherable marks. In my studio his attempts at communication were taking on a fresh presence, generating a new series of paintings. My artwork, which had always dealt with the figure, often depicting people seen as outsiders on the edge of mainstream society, now began to incorporate language. One canvas showed my father lying on his deathbed with unspoken words “tattooed” over a vitiated frame, giving voice to the pain, enigma, and poetry of his dying. I subsequently imprinted those silent cries on seemingly unrelated images, often dealing with political and social issues. Eventually this series came to be titled Word Portraits. The sources originating from my father’s inability to speak were now present or coming to light on their own, transmuting sorrow into visual existence.

 Andromeda 69.5x69 1991Andromeda, 1991, by Grace Graupe-Pillard. Pastels, cutout canvas, , 65 ½” x 69.”

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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.