The Treachery of Time

Diana, Princess of WalesI got word from a newspaper—the same way many Americans did—that Princess Diana had died. That morning, I got up and went out to my front lawn to pick up the thick hunk of Sunday papers, plastic-wrapped against the dew, and there was the picture and the headline, and I realized with a start that I was holding terrible history in my hand.

I felt what a lot of Americans felt: shock, of course, and then sadness, and then shock at the depth of my sadness.

Later that morning, at church, the priest asked for mercy for the souls of all the faithful departed. He named local people. At the end, he added, “And Diana, the Princess of Wales,” as if she were another woman in our community. Which, of course, in a way she was.

It’s odd to be so sad over the death of someone you didn’t know you cared about. To me she was mostly a beautiful blond blur, someone who wore spandex shorts to the gym and went to psychics and vacationed on yacht,. But she also had a lovely tenderness toward those who needed protection. She had beauty, and the consciousness of her own beauty. She married power, and not boring power, but glamorous power. Yet she was unfinished. She would have been an interesting 50. That was part of our sadness, that she died before she could become the person she might have been.

One thinks of her children. You could tell in pictures that Diana loved her boys, that she was delighted by them, that she was one of those mothers for whom children arc not only a gift, but also a vocation.

Do you remember the first photo of Diana the world ever saw, the one published as rumor spread that a young nursery school teacher had been picked for a wife by the Prince of Wales? She was round-faced with big waiflike eyes, and securely on her hip she held a child. You could see that she had a genuine affection for the child . . . and a genuine talent for the camera.

She grew up in public. She was a teenager when she became engaged to Charles; she was still in her 20s when her marriage unraveled. By then her power was not something she’d been given, but something she’d won. She wielded it with real daring. By the time she took on the House of Windsor, she was about as waiflike as a tank. She said she was fighting to win for her boys childhoods that were warmer than the Windsors believed in. If part of maturity is knowing what to fight for, then she was maturing well indeed. All she needed was time.

And that is why people are still feeling the wound. We all live as though we have tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Most of us go through our days in a distracted fog, ticking chores off our lists. But the essentials—loving people, knowing them—are never on these lists. We forget that surprise is the essence of life, that there are no guarantees, that we may run out of time.

I imagined this scene: A young couple is laughing and holding hands over dinner on a summer night in Paris. And then a robed and hooded figure carrying a scythe walks up to their table and announces, “In an hour your lives will be over.” They would reasonably reply, “That’s not possible. We’re not at the end, but the beginning. We still have time.”

As we all, of course, think we do. As Charles no doubt thought he did. Time to make things clearer and better between him and Diana. Time to help their children absorb the fact of their divorce, to make them secure in the world, to show them love.

But they didn’t. They were fooled by life. This happens to everyone, and you have to try to guard against it. By knowing that you must live life right now, that you have to do the essential things, the big things, right now. We know this, and yet we forget it all the time. We live each day as if it were an unbroken thread, endlessly unspooling when, as we were all so tragically reminded, the unspooling can stop at any time.

A friend mused, Do you think her children will ever get over it? People are like trees, I said. You can cut off a big limb and the tree will survive, but it is forever changed. It won’t have the same shape it was supposed to, and it will blossom in different ways, with an unexpected flowering here and empty spaces there.

And so with those boys. I suspect the only thing that will make mourners feel better is knowing that Charles is devoting his time to his children, giving them the time they will now not have with their mother. And here is a horrible irony: We will probably witness it in a series of photos taken without the subjects’ knowledge by the long-lensed cameras of the paparazzi.