Private Pain / Public Scrutiny

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and this November marks the same number of years since my mother’s death. I wrote this piece in 1998, pondering the connection between the two and my own journey a year into grieving. Looking at it after all this time, I ache for the person who wrote it. I’m well past active grief now, but I can hear the pain I felt coming through my writing voice. And yet, much of it is still the way I feel today.

What a difference a year makes. Last September I, like so many others, sat glued to my television set watching blow-by-blow coverage of Princess Diana’s death. I watched Diana’s funeral, not once, but many times. I listened to Charles Spencer’s eulogy over and over, and cried every time, as if repetition could somehow make it all true. Why did I do this? What was I waiting to see, to hear? What emotion locked deep inside was this spectacle tapping into? Flipping back and forth between channels for coverage and critical comment, I told myself that my interest was media deconstruction and trying to attach some meaning to the phenomenon of millions upon millions of mourners displaying emotions that they’d perhaps bottled up for months, even years. Feelings maybe not even their loved ones knew they possessed.

When I spoke to my mother about it all her attitude struck me as somewhat cynical and I was bothered by that. She was critical of Diana’s public persona, her courting and shunning of the media. And although she also watched, she seemed unaffected and unimpressed. But then my mom was no stranger to grief. As a young child she had lost her mother, then later, her oldest daughter before her youngest were grown, and two siblings far too early. All too often she’d been attending funeral after funeral as family members and friends succumbed to age or illness. Of course, she knew then what I know now – something that my multiple viewings of Diana’s funeral was in some strange way foreshadowing. Once you’ve lived through the real thing, you have little or no appetite for voyeuristic viewing of death via “breaking news” broadcast venues.

It never occurred to me last September as I watched and participated in the Diana display, that two short months later I’d be sitting panic-stricken at my own mother’s funeral mass. Nothing in my life could have prepared me for standing in a room full of caskets choosing one for my mother’s dead body. Or greeting every single family member and friend at her visitation – their presence creating a domino effect of memory of her life and my own. Nothing could ever be further from my mind than the few torturous minutes it took me, on rubbery legs, to walk up the church aisle behind her coffin. The fact that my private feelings would be publicly seen felt overwhelming and I remember trying to hide my face even from the familiar and also grieving gathering of people who knew and loved my mother.

Watching anniversary commentary and coverage of Diana now is excruciating to me. Suddenly my tolerance for anything funereal is drastically diminished. Reality, after all, is not at all entertaining. It’s painful in a way that only becomes obvious in the many months that follow – even almost a whole year later when I no longer expect to still remember the details so acutely. When what has forever changed my life is a faint memory to those around me. When nothing and no-one can relieve the emptiness of not hearing her voice for so many days in a row. After weeks and months of the processing and reprocessing that it takes to fully understand that the kind of comfort her voice provided is no longer available to me. The refuge of my mother’s love, custodian of my memories, champion of my successes, holder of my tears, my own personal spin-doctor, will sadly never be enough as a mere memory.

Remembering how much courage I had to muster for my brief walk behind my mother’s casket makes it impossible to think of what it took for Diana’s young sons to walk through the streets of London behind their dead mother. In order to purge a collective grief that probably had nothing whatever to do with the woman in that box, we forced two terribly impressionable boys to experience an extremely private moment right in front of far too many hungry eyes. Who can ever forget the picture of the word “Mummy” peeking out among the flowers atop Diana’s coffin? Not at all lost on me then, it has since taken on a much more poignant significance, and beauty.

For me, the death of my mother means the loss of my main relationship, my closest friend and my strongest connection to my personal history. But by this time, this is not outwardly noticeable. Inside me, however, everything has shifted so that even the tiniest occurrence takes much longer to process, leaving me with a block of confusion in my brain. I still need time and space to adjust to profound and unalterable loss. This fact is difficult to articulate in the real world of grief, where people need to see that you’re “coping” well. Sometimes I think we have more empathy for the loved ones of dead public figures because we can measure their loss without asking questions whose answers make us afraid for ourselves. It’s less messy with the protection of a television screen.

Ironically, I would have shared these observations with my mother first – a person whose point of view was both familiar and surprising, my daily breath of fresh air. Had I more experience with the extremely personal after-effects of losing her – or any such profound grief – I would have agreed with her about Diana. So, now when I reflect back on our differing opinions on the subject, I just know my mom is up there somewhere beyond the ether hearing me say: “Hey Mom – how come you’re always right?”

– August 1998 –

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The Vault: the best of herkind.com/ What I Learned from Kate Middleton

In honour of Kate’s 31st birthday today, here’s a piece I wrote in July 2011, just after the newlyweds took their first trip abroad to Canada.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM KATE MIDDLETON

The other day I tripped on a busy city sidewalk and fell in plain public view. I can only hope my skirt didn’t fly up as I landed. At the time I was too busy trying to buffer myself from too much injury to notice. Now, anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m clumsy, so tripping and falling is not all that unusual; the one and only time I’ve ever broken anything – my foot – was during a fall from two harmless and not even steep concrete steps.

But, my recent tumble is different. It happened because I was trying to BE Kate Middleton.

Kate walks with confidence

One day after the Duke and Duchess left Canada, and following days of my obsessive royal watching, I tried to emulate Kate’s flawless, confident walk. Instead of the normal cautious stride of a serial klutz, head down, carefully watching my step for any potential risks, I breezed along, head high, looking forward. I wish I could tell you my heels were too high, or my shoes were too tight, but no – nothing. Just klutziness and, well, the sidewalk might have been uneven. Something the Duchess likely never has to worry about, what with all the planning and inspections and all the practicing and coaching that goes into being a royal on display to the fawning public and unforgiving media.

So, why had I taken up the mantra of “what would Kate do?”

“it should have been me”

Well, because there’s a little bit of Kate Middleton in all of us, isn’t there? Sure, she’s a Duchess now, married to a prince who will one day helm one of the most influential monarchies around. She’ll likely produce a child who will also one day inherit the throne.  Her parents are now millionaire entrepreneurs, but at the time of her birth in 1982, they were airline employees. She’s what is known in British circles as a “commoner” – not so different from the women in the crowd that lined the royal wedding route with signs on their backs reading “it should have been me.” It well could have been.

Kate’s 29, born in 1982. I’m 50, born in 1960. There’s no way I could ever be her at this point in my life, but watching her reminds me of  the promise that life holds in your 20s, when anything is possible, everything achievable. Life before too much heartache; thwarted dreams, lost jobs, men, parents, friends; events that can affect even the way you stand, and walk in the world. I realized, watching Kate, that I’ve developed a hunch – part weariness, part self-protectiveness. It’s been awhile since I approached my life with the confidence I once exuded, with the poise my mother insisted I learn, with the spark constantly remarked upon and admired.  And, I honestly never thought life could drag me so far down that it would show in my countenance. In fact, my mantra has always been, “just keep moving forward.”  Yet somewhere along the way, I stopped doing it, no matter how often I give this advice to others.

Of course it didn’t immediately occur to me why the royals gripped me so strongly. But now I see that they look exactly like I used to feel. Happy, friendly, looking out, focused on the moment, ready for anything, generally game for life.

Prince William is compelling enough on his own – born and bred to one day be King, adored and protected by his mom, Diana, Princess of Wales, he was probably one of the most photographed babies ever. Who can forget his silent, heartbreaking walk behind his mom’s coffin after her tragic death? We felt invested in his growing up, his success at school and his struggle to learn to live within the stricture of his destiny. We watched and waited to see who William would choose for a partner. And though we saw all the tabloid “waity Katy” fluff, depicting her as a woman he trifled with and didn’t intend to marry, when they finally became engaged after eight years of dating, living together and one very public break up, everyone began to focus not just on what Kate wore, but on who she really is. Who is this steady, calming influence on our beloved Wills?

We caught glimpses of her on their wedding day – elegant and glowing, she looked to the entire world nothing but ready to become the Duchess of Cambridge, with all the attention – positive or negative, and service that is involved in being a member of the British royal family.

partners, lovers, friends, royals

But, it wasn’t until she stepped onto Canadian soil for her first official Royal trip abroad with her husband that we saw her true nature. Leading up to the wedding I wrote a number of feature articles on the plans and preparations and I’ll admit it, I kind of fell in love with them. Now, since I’m a journalist I’m supposed to be naturally wary, or jaded or something that I can never quite pull off. So the thing is, they looked and seemed so down to earth, that I believe I was seeing one fairly normal human being, who just happened to be born Royal and bred to be King. And one natural beauty that just happened to appear in his sphere and become the object of his affection.

Some have said Kate Middleton quite strategically became Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. That she set her sights on William at St. Andrew’s university where they both studied, and manipulated her way into his heart, that her mother helped her come up with ways to ensure she’d one day marry that prince.

Tell me, though, what teenage girl doesn’t dream of marrying a prince, real or figuratively? And if you happen to live in England and are around the same age as him, sure you’d have his photo on your wall.  “Harry Hunters” have had the “spare” prince squarely in their sights for years. These are girls, mostly from abroad, who enroll in British universities and then track down Prince Harry in clubs for a chance to meet him.

At 20, when Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married, the younger Prince Andrew attended an Ontario boy’s school in Lakefield, where my best friend lived. We weren’t aristocracy like Diana, but we felt sure we had a chance with him.  We may not have had the breeding but we did have the poise, the manners and, most important, pureness of heart. The princess dream starts early and dies hard, or never.

Now, I’m not looking for a prince. One good man will do. And that’s something else about Kate and my sidewalk tumble. The dapper Prince is entirely protective of his bride. Never too far from her side, he often extends a reassuring hand to her back. Since royal protocol restricts too much, or any PDA, this is his way of letting her – and us avid watchers looking for signs of affection – know how he feels (I don’t want to even talk about the adoring and knowing looks that pass between them). They are obviously in a true partnership. They are clearly there for each other.

I’m here for you

Since stumbling is par for the course for me, I’m usually pretty good at catching myself before I fall. This time however, I walked beside a male companion – someone I’ve spent a good deal of time with, whom I trust and care for. As I began to fall, I reached out for assistance, grabbing his arm with my hand as I went down. He let it go. He didn’t catch me; he said he thought I would catch myself.

Come to think of it, if there’s anything strategic about Kate Middleton’s behavior it’s that she was smart enough to leave a man who exhibited ambivalence about her. And he was clever enough to look inside his heart and out at his options, and see he had a good thing going and went back to get her.

So, what I learned from Kate Middleton is something I used to know. A little thing called confidence goes a long way to achieving the rewards you want, and deserve.