Tuesday, February 16, 2021

On Dad

Given at Reception following Funeral on February 25, 2017

~ Michael Novak: September 9,1933 to February 17, 2017 ~

(officially died late February 16, but not legally declared until after midnight on 17th)


So much has been said about dad over the last week or so. And I can guarantee that he has loved every minute of it. In fact, before he died, I was reading him some of the emails – accolades – being sent his way, and asked if he was getting tired. He immediately replied – admittedly, haltingly – “enough about me, now let’s hear you talk about me.”
As we all know – as was always true with dad – clearly we can all do better / do more. 
So I will try to do more. I will try – as impossible as it is to follow all of those tributes – to follow my brother and my sister – I will try to think of something new and different to say about dad. As dad was…. Well, new and different. Professionally, and personally. 

He broke new ground. He influenced far beyond what a “simple Catholic theologian” should. Simply put, he was new. He was different. 
Part of what made Dad different was that he always interested in symbolism, and in ritual – yet also in forging new ground. He respected tradition, and yet believed in trying the new, and embracing the future. The last days of his life were no different. At different times, he had us take notes for him. As is probably unsurprising, the ideas kept coming, all the way up to the end. 
The themes he kept coming back to in these last days were this idea of “full circle” and of the masculine and the feminine as one. 
Both of those concepts had deep symbolism for him, but they also have deep symbolism for us as his children as well. 

Full circle for my father meant that he began his Bachelors of Sacred Theology here, at the Catholic University of America, and that he ended up here again. That it meant a great deal to him to be invited back here as a distinguished visiting fellow. 
For us as children, it is full circle in that I think all of us consider DC to be, in many ways, especially for me, our hometown. So it makes sense that it began here and that it ends here….
Just as it is full circle to consider the contrary yet complementary tensions of masculine and feminine that were another focus for him in his final days. It was full circle to the lessons our parents taught us. 
It is not just the obvious masculine / feminine dichotomy of our father and our mother – but the dichotomy within each of them. 
Let’s face it. For those of you who knew them personally, you know how helpless dad was around the house. Whether it was killing a spider, capturing a trapped bat, changing a light bulb, or – heaven forbid – anything requiring even greater handyman skills, dad was pretty much useless. Mom, on the other hand, was a master of all of the above – and so much more. 
Each of them were both masculine and feminine – each making a whole within themselves and – just as important, if not more important – together as well. In fact, they represented contrary yet complementary tensions in many ways. 
For example, they were both creative, artistic, passionate, people – who were ruled by intellectual, logical, and practical minds. 
From their family backgrounds and cultural backgrounds, they understood that life was just a fact of situation. It could be tough – scary – bad – unhappy – but that was simply a fact of life. No point in complaining. No point in “woe is me”-ing. As my brother Rich pointed out earlier – mom and especially dad taught us that “life isn’t fair.” That life is just life. 
I’ve often used that to explain the “why” behind a regular drill my father put me through as a kid. He used to take me outside, throw a baseball as high as he could – usually above the roof of our 3-story home – and make me catch it barehanded. 
It sounds crazy. Did I mention it was barehanded? Yeah. It was crazy.
But it actually made perfect sense: he wanted me to see that life was tough, scary, comes at you fast, and could be painful. But if you learned to just … see it as a fact of life… that is – to learn that if you just focused on the catch, learned to cradle the ball, cushion the handling, then it was actually a really easy catch to make. It wasn’t actually scary, or tough, or painful. Though it did still come at you fast. It was just… a fact of life. 
And that’s the thing about life. We can spend so much time on how hard things are, on how scary, on how tough, on how painful. But dad, especially, understood – his entire background had taught him no other truth – that that is just what life is. 
Our purpose in life is to accept that, and to accept it as no big deal, and then to focus on what we can do. On what we can control. On what we can accomplish. Not on the roadblocks in our way. Not on the negatives. Not on the criticisms. But on the possibilities within ourselves. 
If there is one theme I have been able to put my finger on over the last years, and especially throughout the last week of tributes to dad – tributes to him as an intellectual, a scholar, a game changer, a theologian, a mentor, a philosopher, a teacher, a man of big ideas – the one theme I have seen is this concept of focusing on the possibilities within ourselves. On being a teacher. A mentor. A coach.
He looked for – he demanded – the best out of those around him. It was once said about my mother that she “collected people” – but so did dad. He saw possibilities within people that they themselves – including sometimes his children – did not. 
Part of his romantic sensibilities to be certain, he did sometimes get carried away and certainly liked to idealize – my mother was far more practical in all matters. But, because of his rigorous and logical intellect – he never allowed himself to fully romanticize these possibilities. Whether any of us liked it or not, if he loved you – he demanded you lived up to what he saw in you. 
And we were all the better for it. Including – especially – myself. 
So, dad, I will continue to practice catching the ball barehanded. And I will continue to be the possibilities you saw in me. That you saw in all of us.