The death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II this past week has me thinking about what it means to lose our mothers. Of course, in the case of the Queen, she was not only the mother of a quite large extended family, but the female figurehead of a huge Commonwealth of Nations. I cannot imagine the level of juggling it took for her to raise her own children, plus be a head of state with such enormous responsibilities. In addition, to have to live your life on such a public stage, to have your family’s every step and misstep scrutinized and judged; that no matter what you do, someone will think it is wrong. I think above anything else, her strength of character and fortitude are what I have admired most.
Tina Brown might have said it best when she wrote in her article Queen Elizabeth II Understood the Weight of the Crown in the The New York Times this past week, “Without the queen, how will anyone know how to be British anymore? …she was the last well-behaved person in our coarsening, transactional world.”
Losing this mother, this grandmother of the world, which she became to many of us, has naturally caused those of us who have lost our own mothers to remember that loss as well. And, I suspect, to experience fresh grief. This summer I’ve been writing my own memoir, and the time period I’m covering includes the time when my mother died, in the summer of 2007. Ironically, I wrote that chapter just about a month ago. Because my third marriage was unraveling on me during the final months of her life, the details of her illness are fuzzy in my memory. I had to make several calls to my siblings to write that chapter: Why did she end up in the hospital the first time again? What month was that? When was her first surgery and what happened after that? Why was she operated on the second time again? I was so caught up in the chaos of my own life here in Houston, that what was going on with my mom in Seattle was escaping me.
So yes, I’ve been thinking about my mother quite a lot this summer, and especially this past weekend. Most people who know me well know that my relationship with my mom was difficult and battle-hardened; I wrote about it in this blog post. But it started to turn around during a trip I made to help her have an estate sale in Apache Junction, Arizona, just before she moved in with my sister in the Seattle area. It was during those 5 days that I had to tell her that I was leaving my second husband, which came as quite a shock to her. But in the subsequent discussions we had, just the two of us, we made a fragile peace. When I opened up with her, she finally opened up with me. It never happened again, but it did happen that one time, and for that I am grateful.
Death has a way of making us take stock of our lives, of making us pay attention to what matters. As the world and Great Britain grieve for the Queen, it also may send us back into our own cycle of grief for our own losses. And that’s OK. Getting back in touch with those deeply held feelings is never a bad thing.
As I watch the royal family try to grapple with their obvious pain in public, I feel so badly for them. To have to hold it together in front of the cameras has got to be excruciating. Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald Reagan, wrote an article about understanding what it’s like to have to grieve in public when your very famous father passes away. In her article, The Royal Grief You Will Not See, she writes, “My hope is that people remember this about the royal family: In the end, though they breathe rarefied air, they grapple as we all do with life and death, with the mystery of what it means to be human. When darkness falls, and they are alone, they sink into the same waters that everyone does when a loved one dies. And they wonder if they’ll make it to the other side.”
My mother and Queen Elizabeth II were of the same generation; in fact, they were only 4 years apart in age. Two women, both born into free societies—one in Great Britain, one in America. Yet one was born into rare privilege and enormous wealth, and the other into abject poverty. I’m sure my mother wondered about that, as did many millions of other women of their generation: how does that happen? How did one get so lucky, and the other get the short straw? Or maybe I should put it another way. There was one incredibly long straw 96 years ago, and millions and millions of very short straws. Clearly, Elizabeth was chosen by God for this role she played, and she rose to the occasion and fulfilled that role to her very best. As Liz Truss, the new Prime Minister said, “Queen Elizabeth II was the rock on which modern Britain was built.” But she had extraordinary female role models before her in Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria; she stood upon their very tall shoulders. For centuries, strong women have served England well. All free societies should take notice.
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