Farewell to the Queen of Hearts

Farewell to the Queen of Hearts

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Farewell to the Queen of Hearts

She was only twenty-one years old, a royal rookie on her first visit to Canada, when I met Diana, princess of Wales. Her style at that time was House of Windsor rather than cover-girl glamour. She tended to fold her fingers inward to hide the fact that she bit her nails. But the essence of the woman was as apparent then as it was throughout her public life. She was vulnerable, compassionate, willing to break the rules, take a risk and do what she thought was right.

When I heard the terrible news about her death, and while photos flooded the television screen and commentators serialized her life, I remembered a story about her that I’ve often shared with family and friends. Although I’d been fortunate enough to meet Diana during royal tours in the 1980s, and later at 24 Sussex Drive in 1991, there was never a story less public or more telling about who this young woman really was. It took place in Halifax in June 1983, just hours after her plane had touched down from England.

The official welcome was being held at the Garrison Grounds, a huge field that on that sunny day was jammed with an estimated 10,000 cheering royal watchers. The crowd was pressed into a U-shape around the edges of the field. The centre was reserved for the trappings of pomp and ceremony. The royal couple was to do a walkabout around the edges of the crowd before proceeding to the centre for the ceremony. I chose a spot near the end of their route and watched what would become a vintage Princess Di walkabout. It turned into a love-in.

Seated near my vantage point were three rows of senior citizens in wheelchairs, who had been positioned to ensure a glimpse of the prince and princess. In the second row, and closest to where I was standing, an elderly gentleman in a pale blue sweater caught my attention. He was watching the princess with enormous pleasure. As the royal couple approached, I thought wistfully, Too bad, old man. You’re in the second row. Royalty only stops to speak to people in the first row. As Diana approached, he was straining from his wheelchair so forcefully, I was afraid he might tumble to the ground. Like everyone else on the Garrison Grounds that day, he was transmitting waves of warmth and welcome to the young princess.

Then, as if by telepathy, she saw him and apparently couldn’t resist returning the warmth. In a rather unroyal style, she reached her arm in over the heads of the people in the first row to shake his extended hand.

That’s when it happened. Suddenly, his arm began to flail. A spasm had overcome the old gentleman. His arm was swinging wildly, to the right and left and over his own head. Everyone was watching the discomfiting scene. For a split second Diana looked stunned and then, when an attendant rushed to the man’s side and calmed him, she withdrew her hand and returned to her royal walkabout. My heart ached for the old man. He looked so dejected, so disappointed in himself. Now his head drooped down, his shoulders stooped over. It seemed obvious that he knew he’d missed his chance to greet his princess.

Diana continued along the row but kept looking back at him. Was she concerned? Could this young woman who was just days short of her twenty-second birthday have any idea how he felt? Would she dare to risk embarrassing herself by returning to the man’s chair? Surely not. But then there was a space between the wheelchairs and she started moving back toward him. I wondered what she was up to.

You have to imagine the scene: the stiff formality of the entourage, the split-second timing of a walkabout, the royal handlers (aka Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers), the royal household (aka ladies-in-waiting)—all standing around while Diana tiptoes through the uncut grass and takes her royal self to the second row. Although enormously grateful for the bird’s-eye view I was getting, even I was bowled over by her decision. The entourage would be held up. The world was watching. It could all go terribly wrong.

When she got to the woman sitting beside the old man she stopped, knelt down and chatted to her for a long time. By now I was certain that she had a plan. The old man was watching her, wringing his hands and still looking distressed. Suddenly, Diana stood up and stepped sideways to his chair. She put her hand on his shoulder, leaned over close to his face and said, “I’m glad to see you. I hope you haven’t had to wait too long on this hot day. Maybe they should bring us all some ice cream.”

The old man gazed up at her from his chair. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, and his face was wreathed in happiness. She’d touched his heart. And she’d risked a disaster in decorum, not to mention protocol, in the process.

When her life turned upside down in the 1990s, she told a television interviewer she’d never be queen of Britain, but she’d like to be queen of people’s hearts. She already was.

Sally Armstrong
Toronto, Ontario

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