My Uncle Ray died on June 22, 2010. He was one hundred years old.
He died on a Tuesday. The Sunday before, he drove himself to church and back. So his was not a lingering clinging-to-life ending. I do not believe he suffered pain or humiliation. To paraphrase Lucinda Matlock from Spoon River Anthology, at 100, he had lived enough. That’s all.
The country was not quite 134 years old the day he was born in January, 1910, barely six years after the Wright brothers lifted off the earth in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Flight is how I think of my uncle. He built his own airplanes, and, I don’t know all the details, but he was a part of the space program in the Sixties — from Alan Shepard’s 15 minute space flight to the landing on the moon. I believe he helped design components for the vessels.
My family lives a long time. My great grandfather married for the third time at 90 and lived to be 105. I last saw him when he was 104 and he regaled me with tales of traveling by covered wagon and chasing a horse thief when he was Marshall in the Oklahoma territory. He lived long enough to see the moon landing, the one my uncle was a part of. My grandmother lived to 99 and last year, her youngest sibling died just shy of 101.
Uncle Ray was the oldest of my grandmother’s five children, and the last to die. So my generation, the children of my mother and her siblings are now officially grownups. The oldest of us is 79, the youngest 57. Probably time for us to become grownups, but, when you have a generation between you and the great whatever, even if it’s only one person, someone still thinks you’re the kid.
None of this means anything in particular. It’s just a perspective. You would think that the death of someone at 100 is expected, that you wouldn’t be surprised, that you could dismiss it with a “well it was a long and good life.”
But that isn’t it. It isn’t shocking or tragic, like when a twenty year old dies before his time.
The surprise is you’ve come to expect that the person will live forever. Their passing is huge. You get that they take with them stories that are set in a time and place that you know of only through history books. Their stories personalize history. My uncle’s lifetime spanned a century that saw our world shrink to a spinning globe as we looked down from outer space and a message sent from halfway round the world being delivered in seconds through the Internet.
He was sweet, my Uncle Ray, and funny. He used to say, “I come from a very high-strung family, some were strung higher from the tree than others.”
Our stories are important. I captured my grandmother’s and put it in a book called, Kid, I Can’t Remember Nothin‘. I thought her story would be different than it was. Everyone said family was important to her, and it was, but her one regret was that she didn’t get the chance to do something she wanted to do: be a telegrapher, sending messages to and receiving them from the far corners of the world.
My Uncle Ray retired to Sequim, Washington — to property that included a landing strip. The planes he built himself are still in the hangars on his property, so for me, his story is about taking flight. I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to capture my Uncle Ray’s story. I wonder if taking flight would have been the story he told.
Whatever it would have been, I think he lived the story he wanted to live.
At 100, he lived enough. That’s all. And that is huge.