When my friend Karen Takacs passed away on Aug 17, 2015, she was 54. That age, by any standards nowadays, isn’t old. It isn’t a lot of time to have lived. When someone you admire and love dies, and dies young, you naturally turn philosophical, and think hard about what it means to have been born a human.
Karen was one of those people who had life-long friendships, with many circles of friends she stuck by for decades, and they gathered around her many times in the last two years during her pilgrimage — as she called it — with cancer.
It’s cliché to remember a person who has just died as the most remarkable person to have ever lived. So when a truly remarkable person dies, it’s not easy to pay tribute to them in a way that doesn’t ring hollow. But I was in awe of Karen, something I shared with her before she passed. I was inspired by her and felt that, at every turn, I was learning valuable things about the meaning of life from her.
Karen was born and grew up in Montreal, and came to Toronto as part of an exodus of Anglophone dykes in the ’90s, when finding jobs in Quebec as English speakers was becoming difficult. According to her long-time confidante, the partying, canoeing, bad-ass buddy Maureen Fair, executive director of West Neighbourhood House, Karen used to say that she came to Toronto for “jobs, gals and gays.”
My partner Deborah and I met Karen and her long-time partner, Pam Joliffe, when we left Toronto to live in Prince Edward County. Pam and Karen lived in Toronto at the time, but had a holiday home in the County where they spent almost every weekend. It’s not easy to separate the partnership that was Karen and Pam. It’s not only because this twosome was together for many years — and not only because they cut quite the handsome, almost poster-beauty, image of lesbian chicness — but because they, as a couple, had a huge, important impact on the lives of boys and girls in Canada and the US. Karen’s work at Crossroads International in particular, which she spearheaded for several years, had an impact for kids around the world. When Deborah and I first heard of their work, we recalled the old distrust we’d sometimes felt for people taking care of underprivileged people, both at home and in far away places. But the fact is, while we were out on the streets shouting and marching, Karen was working away with her organization, actually making a dent in the system where it could have an immediate effect — for instance, helping to ensure that girls in Swaziland and elsewhere had food, shelter, clothing, access to books, were able to attend schools, and that their families were able to afford their education.
Karen was one of the most responsible and serious people I’ve ever met — when it came, that is, to social justice issues and to local politics. She knew Canadian politics, she knew many of the politicians in office and, as head of Crossroads, had meetings with the highest officials in office, and wouldn’t let an off-handed, ignorant or prejudiced comment from anyone go by without a rejoinder. She could speak to anyone — to a group of 6-year-old children at the Reaching for Rainbows group here in the County, or to a nun next to whom she was captive on an international flight. That poor nun. The story goes that as the nun regaled our Karen with a particularly unbelievable story, Karen, rapt in attention, kept responding, “Oh. My. Fucking. God!” Of course, she’d quickly catch the potential for offence and apologize, only to say it again. And again. Well, she obviously wasn’t to be pitied, this nun, because the good sister kept on regaling her attentive new friend. But that was Karen. Herself at all times, and loved for it by anyone she met.
She was an unusual and enviable mix of seriously responsible — socially, spiritually (though not exactly religious), morally, civically, environmentally and politically — and immensely passionate, especially about the material and sensual pleasures of life.
There are stories about canoeing, camping, travelling and wild partying that I don’t know first hand, but to hear those stories regaled by Karen, Pam and their friends would have you in stitches and tears. Those two loved having people over to their house and could fit 16 people, and even more when they wanted to, at the table in their dining room. Karen had a sense of taste and smell to equal that of any sommelier, and could give you the ingredients in a dish just by tasting it. She had a particular bounce in her step, which always read to me as belonging to a person who was immensely confident and comfortable, who was always moving forward, always ready to meet, to greet, to know, to participate. I’d see her walk like that, eager to meet the owner of this café, that artist who made a particular thing, this vintner or that entertainer. I listened to Karen speak at the dinner table about having taken part in key moments in Canadian feminist and lesbian and anti-poverty history. She’d have been up all night partying hard, and then be off the next morning on an important mission, able to do everything well and to the fullest. She was a handful of years younger than I, and how I admired her and quietly took counsel from her.
Then, of all people, Karen was diagnosed with cancer when she was 52. It had to have been a blow to a person who loved life as if it were the most vital and intoxicating drug. It was a blow to the rest of us, to all of those who were part of her life. But it was in the last two years that I found myself really learning from Karen.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been confounded by the fact of human consciousness, trying through art-making and writing to make order out of the impression that intelligence is the downfall of this accident of evolution that we happen to be. I am deeply drawn to this project of trying to find meaning in life, very afraid of death, and yet somewhat driven by the fear of it. Perhaps because of this, I was keenly attracted to Karen’s response to having a terminal cancer.
She had to leave her job at Crossroads, and decided to remain in the County rather than do the weekly trips between the city and here. Down here, together with her friend Agnes van’t Boscht, she took a course in encaustic painting. When I found out, I said to her, “Karen, promise me one thing, promise me that you won’t ever, ever, make encaustic paintings of poppies,” for that is the trademark of the hobby painters in the County. She answered that poppies were, in fact, the subject of her paintings. I’m happy to report that Karen’s subject matter turned to country fields with barns, fields of flowers, abstractions, and trees, large paintings of trees — a subject her sister Linda remembers her drawing and painting ever since she was a child. Karen made art like she did everything. She became extremely accomplished in those two years, and was critically hailed with her first art exhibition, held in my studio, and — weeks before she died — work in her first juried show, here in the County.
At the one year mark of the cancer diagnosis, Karen wanted to do more than just have fun: she wanted to continue with her work agenda. She volunteered as a big sister to children aged six to 10 at the local afterschool program, Reaching for Rainbows. She built her treatments, and her fun and rest, around this program that became so important to her. The other volunteers, the staff and the children just absolutely fell in love with her.
There were dinners. There were parties, there was travel. And even as the cancer progressed, Karen still showed up. She and Pam still opened their home to us all. People came from Ireland, Vancouver, Ottawa, Swaziland and Toronto to tell her what she meant to them, to celebrate her and, nearer to the end, to say goodbye. As Pam says, Karen wasn’t afraid of dying, but she didn’t want to die. Even as her body broke down, she was saying, “We must have another dinner party soon.” It’s not that she was in denial, but she wasn’t dead, so there was, therefore, life to live.
We visited her as she sat in her wheelchair, under the black walnut tree in the yard, a citronella candle warding off the beelzebugs. We listened to her hard, we laughed hard, we told stories fiercely, and so appreciated the smallest word she uttered, as if it were gold, and we left in awe, inevitably a little angered by the reality of life, despite what she was teaching us all the time.
One night, we were all at a pub celebrating the opening of the juried art show. Karen was in her wheelchair. There was the usual noise of a pub, and her voice was low, but she made herself heard when she demanded that the rest of us do something about Syrian refugees, that we find a way to sponsor a family and bring them here. She would have understood the complications with this, but she was not one to shy away from complications. There are some people who were at that table who are currently looking into such sponsorship.
Karen died with her amazing partner Pam, her very special mother Lauretta, her two sisters Donna and Linda, her best friend Maureen and her dog Ceili at her side. She had, fortunately, lived her life well, but what I was deeply moved by was how she made dying part of that entire project of living. About 16 of us gathered at her house that night, and sent her off with reminiscences, celebration, and tremendous appreciation for having had the honour of being in her midst.