On the eve of the anniversary of Karen’s death — she died on August 12, 2009 — a look back at the eulogy at her funeral….
Karen Laub-Novak was laid to rest yesterday after her long fight with cancer. Her youngest child, Jana, delivered the eulogy during Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church in Washington:
(Photos below include scenes from the recent National Review cruise and Karen Novak’s artwork.)
Hi. My name is Jana, Karen and Michael’s youngest.
I thought that perhaps I ought to start by explaining why I’m wearing such a bright colored dress. No — much to my brother’s disappointment as well — it is not in honor of Syracuse University. Instead, I wanted to wear bright colors to honor my mother.
It’s not just about her art — though you can’t forget her love of bright reds and oranges in her paintings — nor about her personality — though you also can’t forget her bold and sunny personality — but also about her own fashion.
Honestly, did you ever spot her when she did not have on at least a splash of bright color?
Even when she wore more black in recent years, it was never without a bright scarf, large bold jewelry, etc. And certainly when she was younger…. The colors then were beyond, well… Let’s just say she had her own unique sense.
As a math and science chairman was quoted saying in a 1971 article about my mom: “Who’s the girl in the purple tights?”
So I found I simply could not wear black today. Her life was too bright, too “blazingly brilliant” as a friend of hers put it, to think about black.
And that is the point: We are not here today to mourn my mother — though we do do that — but instead to celebrate her. For hers was a life lived well — and well lived.
You can see that in the faces of each of you here today, in the passion in her artwork, and in the peace in which she left us. She did not fear death, she did not fear leaving this world to meet her God. She had always embraced struggle, even made peace with it — with chaos; with tension.
Hers was a life filled with joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, happiness, and yes, even mistakes. She had her flaws of course.
After all, did you ever know any one who worried so much? ….
… Well… besides my father that is?
But most of all, she had her strengths.
Like her unfailing good humor and spirit — which not only saw her through these last years, but, even more important, saw all of us through them:
* Her declaration that going bald was just her attempt to finally look like the avant garde “chic” artist she always was?
* Her insistence, till the end, that “dammit! She was picking the paint color!”
* Her impish suggestion that our cruise was a grand idea, because that way, if she died we could simply just throw her body overboard and not worry about the expense and logistics of a funeral.
* How about when I asked her what the top things were she wanted to do if she only had months to live? Spend time with your family, I guess? Her reply: “Oh, I think I’ve dealt with all of you long enough haven’t I?”
* Or perhaps my personal favorite, which is her reply whenever I told her I loved her. I was looking for an “I love you too” or some such affirmation. Instead, I’d say “Mom, I love you” and she’d say ….. “Thank you.”
But the truth is, that is what I needed, and need, to say to her: “Thank you.” For she is who made me the woman, the person, I am today.
And I have spent — and will spend — my life trying to follow her example.
Well, except that I do know how to throw things away….
Her example is so powerful: Her lessons are simple, yet profound, seemingly inconsequential, yet so incredibly significant…
For me as a child, she taught me creativity, encouraged me to think outside of the box — and perhaps most important to her — pushed me to draw outside of the lines.
For me as a teen, she taught me independence, encouraged me to think of the other side of every issue and person, and pushed me to conduct myself with dignity.
(Something she did so clearly during her first struggle with cancer, and this last one.)
For me as a young adult, she taught me perseverance, encouraged me to make blind leaps of faith, and pushed me to find my own path.
For me as a married woman, she taught me loyalty, encouraged me to be compassionate, and pushed me to be patient.
For me as an adult, in these recent days and weeks, she taught me strength, encouraged me to embrace suffering and darkness, and pushed me to look inwardly and reflect.
In that article I mentioned earlier (about the purple tights), a 1971 review of an art show and lecture by her in Florida, there were some wonderful comments about mom, and her art — for they cannot be separated.
In this article, they referred to her as a “Catholic mystic”,
… a painter who cherishes her midwestern Roman Catholic roots while seeking self-discovery in reading, domestic routine, Zen discipline and her own work.
They then discussed her artwork:
In looking over the body of her work she finds a few themes which are constant. She is fascinated with tensions in Western society — tensions between creativity and the disordered psycho, between verbal and nonverbal expression, action and reflection, inspiration and the discipline of one’s particular work, to name a few.
The tension is translated in the sinewy line, dramatic positions and charged color relationships in her subjects, nearly always based on the human figure.
You may look in vain for a figure in repose. Rather, they stretch out in fitful sleep, struggle to rise, lie moribund, huddle against each other or strive to fly on broken or incomplete wings.
How fascinating to think that was written about my mother and her art nearly 40 years ago — even before I was born. And it’s true. You can look for it at the reception, as we have a selection of her art displayed in the Auditorium.
But most of all, it is the description of dying and of death. Fitful sleep, huddling against each other, flying on broken wings. It is her own imagination — and it is her own reality…
Back in ’71, mom also gave a lecture to the students, emphasizing the critical points she wished them to take away from her, from her art, and from life. She spoke:
… about the importance of the final willingness to sit in the darkness; to live, if necessary, without resolution of tensions, without reconciliation, with death rather than resurrection inevitably ahead. She ask[ed] if in America we cheat ourselves of some of life’s richest, deepest experiences by turning away from the unpleasant.
Think about that. Then think about her art — bring an image to mind. And then think again about what she’s really proposing here:
… to sit in the darkness … to live with tensions … with death — to truly experience the negative …
So let us look at today as mom’s final gift to us — her final act to keep us from “cheating ourselves”….
… To wake us to the darkness….
… To assure us of tensions…
…. To emphasize the inevitable death ahead…
We are here to celebrate her life, her art, her self, her example, her inspiration.
So now let us honor her by embracing that darkness ….
— but also by lighting it through humor and good spirit, as she did.
Through that, we can tell her today, and every day, that …. “we love you.”
And I know that somewhere up there, in heaven, she’ll reply: “Thank you.”
So mom…. “I love you…”