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Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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Time, and the tragedy of the unspoken word

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I WAS intrigued by the story of an American scientist who is trying to invent a time machine so he can return to see his father, who died in 1955. 

Professor Ronald Mallett was only ten when his inspirational dad, Boyd, suffered a fatal heart attack. ‘When he passed away, it was like this light went out,’ he says. ‘I was in shock. To this day, it’s hard for me to believe he’s gone, even after 60-some years.’    

The tragedy prompted him to launch a lifetime of research into how time travel could be achieved. If he could go back to 1955, he figured, he might even be able to save his father’s life.  

Now the 77-year-old astrophysicist from the University of Connecticut believes he may have the answer with a device called a ring laser, which can create an intense and continuous rotating beam of light, twisting space itself.   

On one level, his quest is a bit of a nutty professor story. Few scientists believe human time travel is possible. Even Professor Mallett admits there’s little chance he’ll see his father again. Even if his device worked, he could probably only go back to the time the machine was invented, not to 1955.    

Yet I admire him for pursuing his impossible dream, because I’m sure his idea resonates deeply with many of us – being given a second chance of talking and interacting with relatives and friends we have loved and lost. And even perhaps with those we didn’t exactly love.     

For, all too often, one of the great regrets when someone close to you dies is the things that you left unsaid to them while they were alive. And, of course, the things that you did say and do which may have caused hurt.   

It’s one of life’s great mysteries that many people find it hard to openly express affection, thankfulness or joy towards others, even though their hearts are filled with such emotions. The most articulate among us can become tongue-tied, awkward and embarrassed when trying to get our feelings across. Perhaps it’s a British stiff upper lip thing, or just a contrary aspect of human nature. Whatever the reason, once the moment is lost it can never be regained and another small notch of regret is etched on the soul.    

Like Professor Mallett, I’d dearly love some time again with my father, as well as my mother and grandparents. Not that there’d be fences to mend, but simply to talk to them about their lives – something I failed to do when they were here.   

When I was young, as much as I loved my parents, like most children I just took them for granted. And as I got older, I found much more interesting things to do than sit listening to their reminiscences, as I wrote in TCW a year ago. Now though, being old myself, I realise what I missed out on by not engaging more with them, delving into my family’s history and background, asking about their lives.  


It’s a yearning poignantly encapsulated by these lines from Tennyson’s poem Break, Break, Break – thought to refer to his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam, whose death in 1833 at the age of 22 deeply affected the poet: ‘But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand / And the sound of a voice that is still!’ 

A similar theme is expressed in the haunting 1988 hit song The Living Years, by Mike and the Mechanics, about a son’s regret at his estrangement from his deceased father

It shows that down the years the same sorrowful, remorseful lament is heard when someone dies – ‘I wish I’d  …’    

So with no realistic prospect of a time machine, despite the striving of Professor Mallet, the lesson is obvious for us in the here and now. It may sound trite, but in these increasingly troubled and uncertain times, it’s perhaps more important than ever to just say the things you want to say to those close to you while you have the chance. Remember: Tempus fugit – and you’ve got to catch it while it’s flying.   

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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