The news of Princess Diana’s death hit me like a brick in the face.
I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news that Princess Diana died in that Paris car crash—in my tiny Studio City apartment watching late night TV. I found it ironic that the most photographed woman in history, who shared the same name with the Roman goddess of the hunt, was herself hunted.
Thanks to the years I spent performing as Donald Duck, I experienced an unrelenting celebrity of sorts and understood what it was like to be a sitting duck for the onslaught of people demanding autographs. But my experience with celebrity differed significantly from Princess Diana’s in that with my celebrity I could leave that public persona hanging on a rack at the end of my shift.
Diana and I were born in the same year, which made us roughly the same age. With her sudden death, for the first time in my life I gave thought to my own mortality.
How had I impacted family, friends, and those I came in contact with on a regular basis? Had I inspired them? Had I been a source of emotional support to them in their time of need? Or had I been as cumbersome to deal with as a boat anchor in the Sahara under the noonday sun? What legacy would I leave behind?
I joined billions around the world and watched the live broadcast of the funeral in the pre-dawn hours of September 6. The royals never intrigued me, nor did Diana hold any particular fascination for me, but there in the solace of my darkened apartment, I was curled up on the sofa in front of my TV, weeping for a woman I did not know. I wept for Princes William and Harry, having their mother taken from them at such early ages. Future acts of consolation, encouragement, hugs, and moments when no words need be spoken—all lost forever.
I visited London once and toured St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey; otherwise, I had no real reason to be as riveted as I was to the funeral.
I thought about my relationship with my own mother and how different my life would have been if she had been taken from me at either of the Princes’ ages. What would I be like without the countless lessons she lived by example? My mother and I had always been close, but I liked to think that, thanks to my sense of independence, no one could say I was a mama’s boy.
My mother worked as a teacher in the Orange County Public School System for thirty-eight years. The first ten years of her career she shaped fifth-grade minds, then became an elementary school reading specialist for the following twelve years, and moved to the fourth-grade classroom, where she remained until she retired. She had a passion for teaching, which was no surprise to anyone who knew her. When she did anything, she did it well, a trait belonging to both of my parents. America has never given educators the recognition they deserve. My mother has always said, “Anyone who knows how to do anything, learned it from a teacher,” an observation with which I agree.
I am aware of the impact a teacher can have on a child’s life because countless witnesses all over Orlando bring it to my attention more times than I can recall. I can’t go to the grocery store, the gas station, the movies, the mall, anywhere without the following exchange taking place —
“Excuse me, but you’re Mrs. Rivers’s son, aren’t you?” someone several years my senior asks.
“Uh, yes.” I am so familiar with the conversation that I can recite my lines from memory, as well as those of the other person right along with them.
“She was my favorite teacher! How is Mrs. Rivers?” they ask, holding their breath in anticipation.
“She’s doing fine.”
“Is she still teaching?”
My response for a while was, “Yes, she is.” Then it became, “No, she’s retired now.” In either case, I know to issue the following prompt without a cue. “Which year were you in her class?”
They proudly tell me the year my mother taught them and recount a humorous anecdote that bear the earmarks of my mother. And without fail, they all end their stroll down Memory Lane with the phrase, “ . . . she probably won’t remember me, but please tell her ‘so-and-so’ said ‘hello.’”
“I certainly will,” I tell them and watch the former student continue on their way as if they’ve received an “A+” in Social Interaction from my mother.
The encounters never inconvenienced or embarrassed me. They instill a sense of pride that my mother had such a positive effect on so many people. I feel as if I have vicariously experienced in some of my mother’s glory and that always gives me reason to smile. And when I tell her of the “hello” and the student’s name, she too remembers and has an anecdote to tell about the former student that brings the transaction full circle.
One time I asked my mother what she sought to impart to her students over the years. Without missing a beat, she told me—
Respect: self-respect, respect for others, and respect for the law. And responsibility: for themselves and their actions.
What better lessons for anyone to carry throughout life?
I wept through Diana’s funeral procession and the service. I couldn’t help but notice the stoic and brave faces Charles, William, and Harry wore for all the world to see as they walked the streets of London. There was no way I could muster their fortitude, even though I was the undisputed master of the game face. I would be too distraught, too emotionally rung out to keep a stiff upper lip under those circumstances. I fell apart at my father’s burial and our relationship had been strained at best.
It wasn’t until I moved out of my parents’ house and got a place of my own and juggled the responsibilities of being an adult and taking care of myself that it really hit me. My parents just might have had more than a clue as to what they were doing. Working eight hours a day, coming home to take care of three kids, doing housework, the laundry, carting us to the doctor when we got sick, helping with homework, the involvement in after-school activities, ensuring sure we had clothes on our backs, cooking meals for us, and all the other stuff my parents did quite well for years—it boggles my mind.
The issue of parenting danced in my head off and on in the past, but it was while watching Diana’s funeral procession that I decided, once and for all, that parenting was not for me. I’m too selfish, too self-absorbed. I’ve seen what the demands of parenting did to friends and family: the late nights, the not being able to go and do what they wanted when they wanted, the having to put someone else’s needs in front their own. Ick. Regardless of whatever shortcomings (real or imagined) my parents may have had, I knew irrefutably that they did a good job. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to their efforts.
I watched Diana’s cortège wind through London as tens of thousands of people gathered in Hyde Park to watch the broadcast and the thousands more who lined the streets to pay their respects. Their grief as a whole would not compare to the anguish I would have felt if my mother had been taken from me decades ago.
Later that day, I called my mother and told her how much I loved her. It wasn’t that I sensed some impending doom on the horizon. I tell my mother often that I love her via cards, gifts, and on occasion I speak the words. So I know there’s no doubt in her mind that I love her a great deal.
But I had to say it again.
Excerpt from “Walking Tall: A Memoir About the Upside of Small and Other Stuff” by Clay Rivers.