Today came news that Henry Allingham, at 113 the world's oldest man, has died. The BBC announced his death saying, “His life spanned three centuries and six monarchs and he had five grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 14 great-great grandchildren and one great-great-great grandchild.” They even published a timeline of world events, since his birth in 1896, which bizarrely neglects to mention the Second World War, but includes the death of Elvis Presley. It is, of course, a very public record of what this man has lived through: I don’t know anything about his private life (though it turns out a book about his life was published last year.) I can’t help but think, despite the fact that this man has seen the cruelty of war, he was a lucky, lucky bloke. For what about those people, who have died young, and barely had a chance to make an imprint on the world?
Now I know as well as anybody that luck is in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure Henry didn’t feel lucky, ooh, around 1914-18. But this is a man, given the evidence of his large family, who has surely known love, laughter, friendship and success, as much as pain, horror and sadness. I know I’m making a lot of assumptions, but most of them are pretty universal. He’s a man who has experienced the full pelt of life: had a childhood, whether rich or poor, easy or difficult; made decisions, some bad, some good; made mistakes and hopefully learnt from them, and grew up to be a man. Not just that, though. He grew up to be a man the whole country is mourning.
What a plentiful store-cupboard of memories Henry’s family will have to draw upon. When they feel sorrow in their hearts they’ll be able to dry their tears with an old family anecdote, or maybe by sharing one of Henry’s old jokes. By and by, the pain of his loss will be lessened by the familiar but comforting platitude, “he had a good life”. A long and active life and a legacy to leave behind has to be among many people’s dearest hopes and dreams. The contrast of Henry’s long life, however, with my daughter’s pitifully short one of nine weeks, is poignant. It’s not only the fact that Maia’s dead and our time with her was so short and tumultuous, that there are few happy memories to mine. Stephen Levine has written: “the death of a child is a fire in the mind. The mind burns with alternatives that never come to pass, with fantasies of remarkable recuperations, with dreams of adult accomplishment.” Maia will never grow up to be a woman. It’s the adult accomplishments we’ll never see that I miss today.