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  • Rachel Burchfield

Diana would have turned 58 Monday

Diana at the Taj Mahal - built because of love - in 1992, the year her marriage to Charles crumbled.

Diana, I remember exactly where I was the night you left us. A hotel room in San Antonio, lying in the same king size bed as my mother, one of your biggest fans, and, as such, the reason why I am one of your biggest fans (and, because of you, I am a fan of the Royal Family and even have a blog like this at all). That night we had eaten at Sea Island – still one of my favorite seafood places ever – and had swam in the hotel pool on that hot, sticky August night before retiring to our hotel room. I was only 10 – 11 in 26 days – so I went to bed relatively early. My mother had the television on in the hotel room, where news was breaking as I fell asleep that you had been gravely injured in a Paris car accident. I fell asleep, and in the middle of my slumber, awoke to the sounds of the news and the soft, intentionally muffled heaves of my mother’s cries. Dodi, your companion for most of the final days of your life and the man sitting beside you in the backseat of that Mercedes, had been pronounced dead. For some reason, this jarred me. His death told my 10-year-old brain that the accident was much more severe than the press had originally portrayed it to be.

“He’s dead?” I said to my mother, baffled.

“Yes, honey, he’s dead,” she said, knowing, surely, what was coming. I didn’t know yet.

Then, another startled break of my fitful sleep. This time, it was you they said was dead. I couldn’t believe it. Refused to believe it. How could such a young, beautiful soul, one who I didn’t know at all but felt like I did as I read about you in People magazine and saw you on the front page of tabloids as we checked out at the grocery store – how could you be dead?

You were the first significant loss in my life. No one I cared about had ever died before you. And I was gutted.

Now, I know there are some of you reading this who say Rachel – you’re crazy. You didn’t even know this woman. Not only did you not know her on a deep level, you’d never even met her. You can’t be sad about someone you’ve never met. And, to that point, I respectfully disagree. No, I never met Diana. But I knew enough of her story, even then, to resonate with it – to feel the burden she felt every day of feeling like she was too much and not enough, all in the same instant. Anyone who ever felt insecurity, anyone who ever felt abandoned, anyone who ever felt unworthy, knows Diana. And, as I get older, I feel even closer to her. As I learn more of her story, and as I learn more of my story, I feel so much empathy towards her, having to grow up – literally – on the world’s stage, being scrutinized not just by your husband and his family but by the entire world. When I was 10 on August 31, 1997, 36 – the age Diana had just turned when she died – seemed so old. Now, at 32, I realize how painfully young Diana was, how, really, she was only just beginning her journey of self-discovery, how she had every bit of hope and happiness and rebirth ahead of her and yes, it was tragic that she died, but it was even more tragic that, just on the verge of discovering herself and living a life that truly mattered to her and finding out that if you love yourself you’ll never be alone, it was over in a tunnel in Paris, just like that. It wasn’t fair. She deserved more time. Her sons deserved more time with her. We all deserved more time to learn from her imperfect example.

Diana, as I watched your funeral the following Saturday, and watched your sons pretend to be okay as they walked behind your casket, I saw millions of people mourn you who had never met you but who felt the same way I felt then and still do today – connected to you. You represent all of us who’ve ever been hurt. And your life was not all doom and gloom – you were the Princess of Wales, after all – but you did experience more abandonment, loss, heartbreak, and pain than most people do. And I am so sorry you had to endure all of that, but you represented all of us who’d ever felt that way and that is why, when you left us, a world mourned.

Had you lived, you would turn 58 years old on Monday, July 1. You would be a grandmother now, a grandmother of four. Jackie Kennedy Onassis once said “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” Well, good news, Duch – you didn’t bungle it. William and Harry are lovely, and they married lovely women who match their loveliness and will raise lovely children who will just keep making the monarchy more and more like you – kinder, more human, more relatable, willing to attack issues that are controversial and not pretty, willing to lead with the heart instead of the head. God, you must be so proud! I know you were the most famous woman in the world, the “People’s Princess,” and your charity work made an impact on millions – but those boys were your life, and your life’s work endures every time William tells the press, like he did this week, that he would be okay if one of his kids were gay (can you even imagine a Royal of a previous generation even broaching that subject?) or when Harry continues the controversial work with landmines you began over 20 years ago in Angola. You did a great job. They have you written all over them.

When Diana was a child, her mother walked out on the family. Not a great student, Diana loved to dance and wanted to make a career of it, but, at 5’10’’, everyone told her that she was too tall and she’d never make it. At 19, she got engaged to the Prince of Wales, the most famous bachelor in the world, who really wanted to marry someone else but couldn’t, and at her engagement interview, she looked at him lovingly as he said that he is in love with her, “whatever ‘in love’ means.” (She’d later say that comment rang in her ears eternally after.) Just 29 days after she turned 20 years old, and after wanting so badly to back out, she married the wrong man as the world called it a fairytale. One of my friends said this once to me: “At your absolute best, you still won’t be good enough for the wrong person. At your worst, you’ll still be worth it to the right person.” Charles wasn’t a bad man, he was just the wrong person for her. Completely. She needed someone who could lift her up; she had so much to give, and with just a gentle, loving encouragement she could (and eventually did) move mountains. She was all about feelings and love and romance; he was raised in a family that abhorred all of the above. Pregnant with William at only 20 years old and feeling so unloved by her husband and outright hated by the Royal Family, she flung herself down a staircase because, as she later said, she was “feeling so inadequate.” (Thankfully, William was fine.) She suffered from depression, rampant eating disorders, and self-mutilated in private, yet in public visited hospitals when no one knew it, touched a man who had AIDS without gloves before the public understood that you couldn’t contract AIDS through a handshake, and walked through active landmine fields to prove a point. She was not perfect; not the Mother Teresa the world tried to make her. (Ironically, she, at 36, and Mother Teresa, at 87, died the same week.) She was human. Flawed. Scarred, literally and proverbially. Too much and not enough all at the same time, or so she thought. Trapped in a loveless marriage and stuck with in-laws who tried to snuff her light out so theirs could shine brighter – but they failed. She rose above. And that’s why I loved her. Why we all loved her.

Diana, this picture of you is truly worth 1,000 words. There you are, at the Taj Mahal, the center of excess and opulence and beauty and wealth and privilege and luxury and magnificence, a structure built to be a tangible representation of love. And yet, there you are, so very, very, very alone. Your life was glitter and gold, surrounded by all of the palaces and castles and tiaras and jewelry money could buy, but you were so, so, so alone. And because of that, your surroundings didn’t mean one damn thing. All you wanted in this world was for someone to sit on that bench with you, to be brave enough to penetrate your soul, to peel back the layers of you to see you at your core. Instead, in the background of your life you have lavishness, and in front of you the press, taking your photo – always the press – but right next to you, nobody. And that’s why, I think, you spent your whole life making sure others didn’t feel alone, because you’d tasted loneliness, you’d tasted shame, you’d tasted the deep, dark pits of sadness and tried, as best you could, to not let anyone else feel that way. Only a hurt person can connect to hurt people like you did. It’s because you knew hurt. And when we lost you, we didn’t just lose royalty; we lost the only person in that family at that time who could relate to us on that level, the only one who ever dared to relate to us on that level. And that’s why we mourned you.

But right now, today, we celebrate your life. Happy birthday Monday, Diana. Thank you for giving us all of you – even the ugly parts, hell, especially the ugly parts. You live on through your sons. Your life is not forgotten. And that 10-year-old little girl in San Antonio is glad you were born, but this 32-year-old in Birmingham is even more so glad our souls shared this earth, albeit for a brief time. May we all pack as much into our years as you did, and may we all strive to love a little more, help our fellow man feel less alone, and remind others, always, that they are neither too much nor not enough, but beautiful, just as they are; because in the broken pieces of us, well, that's where the light gets in.

The Duchess Commentary will return on Monday, July 15.

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