the fifth anniversary of the funeral of my sister, Karen Levy. Last night as I was re-reading the eulogy I gave at her funeral, the thought occurred of posting it here in her memory. I had some misgivings about posting something so personal, but it felt like the right thing to do, so here it is.
Eulogy for Karen Auster Levy
May 6, 2003
When I was a child, Karen, who was ten years older, was my great booster, always talking me up, making me feel that I was somebody. I remember a game we sometimes played in our house in Suburban Road in Union. I would be going up the stairs from the living room to the second floor, and she would sit in the middle of the staircase blocking my way, and I would have to try to get past her, around her side, under her arm, and she kept blocking me and tickling me, as we kept laughing.
It was a great advantage to have such an older sister because it meant a house full of books and someone home from college or graduate school telling me her advanced ideas, like the time we were talking in her pretty bedroom overlooking the front yard of our house and she told me in her very knowledgeable way that since movie stars enjoy their work and garbage men don’t, garbage men should get larger salaries than movie stars. I must say that some of Karen’s ideas left me unpersuaded even then.
When I was 12 years old, Karen gave me serious books to read, like The Lord of the Flies. I began listening to classical music around that time because Karen and Jim, both in college, listened to it and had many great records in the house. Once I was sitting in the den on the floor near the stereo set and Karen was sitting on the couch behind me, still and quiet, her eyes shut, listening intently to the music. I was struck by the unusual seriousness of her attitude and saw in that moment that classical music was something different from other things in life and required a different kind of response. As a result of this beneficent influence of an older brother and sister, I spent my junior high school and high school years listening to classical music rather than pop, and classical music was important to all three of us.
In earlier years, Karen also loved Christmas carols which we would sing together when the family was driving in the car and the carols were being played on the radio. She conveyed that enjoyment to me, which became a part of me.
Her whole life was a campaign of enjoyment, a cheerful battle, and, more and more as she got older, she was a warrior, grabbing on to each day and each experience, always a spark, always talking, sometimes outrageously bossy, sometimes furious against stupidity in high positions. Her long illness and the heroic war she waged against it were thus the worthy climax of her life. All of her smarts, all of her incredible ability to scope things out that sometimes the professionals hadn’t thought of, all of her will power and courage, all of her indignation at incompetent or indifferent authority, were engaged in it. She carried out that campaign with what seemed to me like the brave calm determined air of a general in the midst of a mighty battle, bullets flying over her head, her horse being shot from under her, and she would jump on another horse and call another brigade forward and carry on the fight.
But then, finally, there was a battle she couldn’t win or even fight to a draw. On Sunday last week, she was lying quietly on her side in bed, a quilt draped over her head, she was no longer the battler, she spoke in the small sweet vulnerable voice of a child from a place far away. She said, “It’s expanding, it keeps expanding, so many people coming to see me. It’s so incredible, you’re all so kind.”
But then she got up from bed and kept fighting, though uselessly. All the sad difficulty of those last days was her still fighting, striking back in rage at the encroaching signs of defeat, wanting to live. And I was still praying for her to live, despite all the evidence that it was too late for that.
Last Friday evening, the evening before she died, she lay quietly on her back sleeping in her pleasant hospice room. Her face had become calm, her skin clear and smooth, the signs of illness and struggle gone; she looked like herself again, younger than she had looked for a long time. The only signs of effort were a slight wrinkle between her brows and that familiar strong impatient expression around her jaw. Though she slept, it seemed to me that she was still there, still deliberating, still figuring, still fighting, still exerting her will to hold on to the life she loved so much. But then she quieted more and her face became more composed, more dignified, and more withdrawn from this world; and I thought how incredible it was that such a great-hearted fighter as Karen could ever finally lose, be ever beaten by anything.
As I stood on Lyons Avenue outside the hospital waiting for the bus that would take me back to New York City, I recited the 27th Psalm:
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
But though prayers were of no avail in a material sense in this case and Karen is gone from us, I still feel that it is disease and death that have been beaten here, not Karen, and not us. The peacefulness and self-possession of Karen’s last sleep were like the promise of something that can’t be stopped by death, and that forever brings forth the joy of life that Karen embodied.
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the strength of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes,
came upon me to eat up my flesh,
they stumbled and fell.
Though a host should encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear:
though war should rise against me,
in this will I be confident.
One thing have I desired of the LORD,
that will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD,
and to inquire in his temple.
For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion:
in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me;
he shall set me up upon a rock.
And now shall my head be lifted up
above mine enemies round about me:
therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy;
I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the LORD.