It’s quite profound, isn’t it? — Helen Fagin, aged 100
Every time I open my laptop to discover a friend posting a vintage photo of their parent as a beaming bride or saucy sailor boy in lush black and white or gold-tinged Kodachrome, I know the deal.
Another elder has left the building.
With luck, I’ll have at least two or three decades before my kids start sniffing around in my shoe boxes of old snapshots.
In the meantime, I’ll wonder how much of the emotion that’s packed into those memorial postings gets expressed to the subject in the days leading up to their final exit.
Seems like most of us pussyfoot around the obvious until it’s too late.
There are, of course, medical situations that force us to acknowledge in a loved one’s presence the abyss in their immediate future, but otherwise, Western tradition has positioned us to shy away from those sorts of discussions.
Perhaps our loved ones prefer it that way.
Perhaps we do too.
It’s clear that author Neil Gaiman enjoys a special relationship with his 100-year-old cousin, Helen Fagin, a Holocaust survivor and professor of literature.
He has shared memories of her with those attending his public appearances and in honor of World Refugee Day.
His wife, musician Amanda Palmer, included a verse about Helen’s 98th birthday in her song “A Mother’s Confession,” below, fleshing out the lyrics with footnotes on her blog.
In celebration of Helen’s centenary, Palmer asked Brain Picking’s Maria Popova to recommend a poem that Gaiman could read aloud during another in-person birthday visit.
Popova settled on “How It Seems To Me,” a late-in-life poem by science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, a close friend of Gaiman’s who died in January of 2018, 12 years shy of her own centenary:
HOW IT SEEMS TO ME
In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.
It’s a hell of a hundredth birthday gift, though far from a one-size-fits all proposition.
Perhaps when you are a nonagenarian, you’d rather the young people err on the side of tradition with a comfy new robe.
As filmed by Palmer, Helen seemed to receive the gift in the spirit it was intended. Life equipped her for it.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. See her onstage in New York City in February as host of Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.