Grief at a Distance My Mom, Princess Diana, and Me
At what point does someone we’ve lost become only a story we tell, more myth than memory?
This is Grief at a Distance, a column by Matt Ortile examining his grief over his mother’s death in the Philippines during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I remember the day she died, I think. She passed away as I slept. I was on the other side of the world and had to wake up to the news. I have this image in my head: It was dark out, so it must have been early in the morning. The television blaring with noise. A sense of disbelief. Dread. I would have been five going on six in 1997.
My mother, if I remember correctly, was sitting at her vanity. We were in the bedroom we shared in the Philippines. She was getting ready for the day, to go to work. Or had she just come home and was preparing for bed, to rest? But her eyes were glued to CNN, definitely. She tried explaining to me what had happened. I didn’t yet know how to process all the details. I only knew to be sad because Mom was sad.
However, the more I turn this memory over in my head, the more unstable it becomes. I think I asked Mom, “Was it an accident?” I recall not grasping the magnitude of what she called a tragedy. If my brain squints, I remember the scene on the television: smoke pouring out from a skyscraper, dark blood from a wound. It’s possible I’m recalling instead the morning of September 11, an otherwise ordinary evening in our window-scarce house in Manila. My memory fails me, now more often than not. It tries to substitute for what’s missing, makes use of what’s within reach. The seepage is to be expected, I guess. There is bound to be bleeding where there is grief.
That’s where I was when Diana died. Wasn’t it? Maybe my brain so badly wants to remember a time when she lived because there is a romance to having something taken from you, to being aggrieved. But I don’t know the feeling of losing her. She has always been dead to me.
It was through photographs that I got to know her. Well, “to know her”—how we all did. The cult of Diana has had no shortage of iconography to cherish and interpret. There’s the 1981 portrait by Lord Snowdon , commissioned by Vogue ; the newly engaged Lady Diana Spencer’s beautiful head glows against a white backdrop and equally white blouse, as if floating, decapitated. There are the 1986 photographs by Terence Donovan, my favorite of which shows her at ease, in a henley and overalls, as Her Royal Sportiness. And there’s this 1988 portrait by David Bailey , one of her favorites, where she’s absolutely beaming, wearing a white blouse and pinstriped trousers—an outfit Mom would have loved to borrow.
The cult of Diana has had no shortage of iconography to cherish and interpret.
The National Portrait Gallery in London is a trove of the stuff. Many of the photos are allocated to the museum’s primary collection, which features images of people who, according to the gallery, have shaped British history and culture. When I visited in 2 017 with my friend Célina, we found ourselves before one of the last Diana portraits , lensed by Mario Testino in 1997. It was prominently displayed for the twentieth anniversary of her death. In the photograph, she’s looking at something out of the frame. She appears to be midlaugh, caught at her happiest.
“I want to show my mom,” I said to Célina, and I gave her my phone. “Take a picture of me contemplating her.”
Diana occupies a good deal of real estate in my head for someone I’ve never met. She and her life are easy metaphors, all-purpose in their utility. Dead or alive, she has long been a canvas for ideas about marriage, motherhood, the gilded nature of royal life, the toxicity of celebrity. Too great is the irony that the most photographed, most hunted woman in the world shared a name with the goddess Diana, the huntress, who vowed to never marry. The people’s princess has fascinated the popular imagination for so long that, even twenty-four years after her death, many artists continue to mine her life for content, yours truly included.
This year’s Spencer , a film written by Stephen Knight and directed by Pablo Larraín, imagines Diana in 1991, at Christmastime, and her decision to leave Charles and his royal family. It saw a wide release on November 5; there’s already plenty of Oscar buzz for Kristen Stewart in the titular role. Also, there’s Diana: A True Musical Story . The 2019 La Jolla Playhouse production received mixed reviews ; the recorded staging, now streaming on Netflix, was panned . The gays are trying to redeem it as camp . (An actual lyric: “It’s the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ but with Diana and Camilla.”) Nevertheless, the Broadway production opens on November 17. As for me, I am writing this essay—and have tickets to both adaptations.
So, you can see, I’m not sick of it, not totally. But I can only imagine how Diana’s son Harry must feel about it all. He severed certain ties with the monarchy to protect his wife, Meghan, from the bloodthirsty press, from a racist public, from other allegedly malevolent actors . To an attentive viewer, the couple’s choices regarding privacy are influenced by the circumstances around the death of Diana , who was literally chased down by paparazzi on a boulevard in Paris until her car crashed, until the end.
And now, everyone continues to squeeze as much juice from the fruit of her life and legacy as possible. In Harry’s position, to see Diana made into media—let alone by hands other than his own, by people who did not know her as he did—must feel like a gutting, a hollowing out. She may have been our princess, but she was his mother. I don’t presume to be overly familiar, but Harry especially has my sympathies.
I see so much of Mom in Diana, and Diana in her. Start with the photographs, the few I have, shared by my godmothers when she passed away: the Lady May Manahan, breathtaking in white chiffon, hair up and eyes downcast; Mrs. May Ortile, in a navy shift dress, at the beach alone, contemplative behind dark sunglasses; May Manahan-Lagdameo, radiant in a blush gown for the photographers, her second husband on her arm. She and Diana were contemporaries, two years apart in age, similar in their styles: sharp blazers, revenge pearls, feathered hair at mom-appropriate length—elegant as they were sensible. They are, to me, so alike in their beauty, each with noble symmetries in the face, a smile treasured and hard-won.
Even their marriages I could not help but compare. Two women in unhappy arrangements who chose freedom at all costs, considered their children gifts—never consolations. When Mom took me with her from Manila to the States, she didn’t bring along many photographs. The albums and souvenirs remained in that window-scarce home with my birth father. She left so much behind. I didn’t quite know why she did, when I was younger, though I always assumed. Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other , I thought. That’s why you get a divorce . Little me gleaned as much by looking at Diana and Charles.
Perhaps I linked Mom and Diana in this way because I was not privy to all the details of my parents’ relationship. I only understood their pain insofar as I could feel its aftershocks. The annulment of their marriage hinged on their “irreconcilable differences.” I knew that much but never the specifics—only whatever the adults whispered. On the other hand, we the public learned eventually of the deterioration of Diana’s marriage to Charles; never forget her landmark interview in 1995 with BBC’s Martin Bashir , where she famously said, “ there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded .”
A compassionate woman and a callous man, expecting to fulfill familial and societal expectations, enter a marriage turned cage—it’s a trope and a template legible enough for any precocious child. It certainly was to me, even at five years old when Diana died, at eleven when Mom brought me to the US, at fourteen when she happily married Dad. I was (am) her son; she would not tell me the horrors she endured, tried to protect me as any mother might or should. As recourse, I looked to Diana as a mirror and, in it, tried to see Mom.
Photograph courtesy of the author
I do not want to say that Mom, in my imagination, was overshadowed by Diana’s death. That would be to diminish my mother, so very alive then, and her own unique glow, so well remembered by those who still love her. But my psyche always attached to her the loss of Diana, not mine and yet simultaneously everyone’s. (Though I’d venture Harry feels somewhat differently.)
Mom’s comment on my Instagram from the National Portrait Gallery : “@vibrantlifeat60: Great timing you were there for her 20th anniversary…you were only 5 yrs old then ??”
That I was five at the time seems significant; it is around the age by which, researchers say , children begin to understand death’s finality. Over time, the bittersweet linkage between the two women only calcified in my mind. Whenever I “missed” Diana, I knew, one day, I would have to miss Mom too .
I remember, absolutely, the day she died. She passed away as I slept. I was on the other side of the world and had to wake up to the news. I have this image in my head: a bright summer morning, my apartment peaceful, as quiet as Brooklyn could be. My phone, which ran out of battery the night prior, alight with fifty missed calls from Dad alone and ten more from my stepsisters. My screams, unlike any I’ve heard. A sense of disbelief. Dread. I was twenty-eight.
Not a car crash, but cancer. Not in Paris, but Manila. She was with her beloved too; Dad held her hand, felt her slip away on June 13, 2020, at 3:24 p.m., Philippine Standard Time. The last time I saw her in person was six months before, in January, when we cautiously planned for me to visit in March. I have not been home since, not held Dad in my arms for nearly two years, never paid my respects where Mom rests. I miss her every day.
Whenever I “missed” Diana, I knew, one day, I would have to miss Mom too.
We make myths to better understand our baffling world. The Romans first conceived of Diana as a numen—a divine will—linked to the hunt and wilderness. Eventually, they conflated her with Artemis of the Greeks and connected her to virginity and inaccessibility, the chase and the moon. She was a patron of hunters and protector of childbirth, ever safeguarding the dawns and dusks of life. All the more ironic then that the mythic Diana of our age is so wedded to tragedy, a life cut short.
But unlik e her namesake, this Diana, Princess of Wales, was no numen. She was human. In her words : “Don’t call me an icon. I’m just a mother trying to help.” Even so, in her absence, her legacy has only grown. Unsurprising, given the extraordinary circumstances of who she was. Yet there is something in how artists and the public remember her that speaks to how we remember all our dead. At what point does someone we’ve lost become only a story we tell, more myth than memory?
As a child, I turned to myth to better understand Mom’s life, her pain. As an adult, I am writing about her to pin my grief as it shape-shifts, to keep and archive whatever I can of her, before my memories fail me entirely. I don’t want to leave her behind. At the same time, it’s not lost on me that, in doing all this, I’ve also been mythologizing her; the mother in Groom is not her in total, nor is this Mom in Distance . But I hope it captures—no, not captures . I hope, in my writing, to share with you how I love and carry her, to honor her always. In recompense for this grief, I get to tell stories, as best and truthfully as I can.
If Mom has her way, I will live my life without her for longer than I ’ve had her. I’ve always said that my “okay to go” age is eighty or thereabouts; I have fifty-ish years left without Mom. I fear I might live so long that I forget the pain. When Diana died, Harry was twelve; it’s been twenty-four years since. I’d love to hear his advice, if he has any. I’ve always appreciated how openly he misses her . Seeing him do all he can to act with Diana’s spirit—in taking up the mantle of her charity work and patronages, in his decisions as a father and husband—it’s comforting to me. His is but one example of how to carry grief with as much grace as possible.
My family, I know, is not the House of Spencer. But these days, I do appreciate what I see of myself in Harry: a man who loves his late mother deeply, moves as she might. I always get emotional when I look at pictures of him and Diana both. I see something there of me and Mom—the care of a mother, the adoration of a son, love that lasts.
Photograph courtesy of the author