WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
It has been 13 years since my father died and he still haunts my work. I am an artist who spends most of my time being captivated by the ability of visual imagery to make sense of the ups and downs of living. It was not until my father suffered a stroke that I realized the power of the human need to communicate through language. People commented on my father’s “quality of life” after a massive stroke narrowed his world, depriving him of the ability to speak or to swallow, thereby preventing him from ever eating or drinking again, and leaving him so weakened that he could barely move. Losing the power to “voice” his needs and desires, I became fascinated with the words that he wrote on a notepad in a spidery, shaky handwriting, 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 a gentle person who was not effusive with his affection, though he loved his family deeply. 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 was 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 an architect designing unglamorous, yet much needed middle-income housing in NYC.
Shortly after retiring at the age of 75, my father became ill and needed by-pass surgery. It took another three years before he sustained the massive stroke that landed him in the hospital for 5 months. It was during that time that 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…WHO WERE THE MURDERERS LAST NIGHT?…THE NOSE IS CLOGGED BECAUSE OF THE BARBARIC PUNISHMENT… WHO MAKES ME SLEEPY ALL DAY..and the final denouement THE HOSPITAL IS STEALING MY LIFE. My father was also able to convey a profound awareness of his existential predicament writing: MYSELF, CRYSELF…I CAN’T TALK – I CAN’T SMILE…AM I BEING PUNISHED…?
We finally took my father home from the hospital to die. When I visited, I usually found him tremulously grasping the NY Times, 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. I felt that he clung to life, even in the most dire circumstances, just to get one more glimpse of her. The intense need to write words gradually diminished. Eventually the paper and pencils disappeared from his bedside. It was time to say goodbye when his body retreated into unconciousness. My father’s face looked the same, but his gaze no longer followed me around the room.
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