How Princess Diana changed the way I think about royalty

I’d just begun sixth grade when my father died in a car accident on the way home from work. Over time, my memory of the days that followed has become hazy. What remains is little more than a tear-stained blur. I do, however, remember a few things with blinding clarity—the dress my best friend wore to the funeral, the way my grandfather’s voice broke when he told me to stay strong, and something our older next-door neighbor, Joyce, said to me about a week after the accident. She told me I needed to start writing about my father. “Take pen to paper,” she said. “Because the more time passes, the less you’ll remember.”

It shames me to admit that I didn’t do as she said. I wish I had. At the time, it seemed impossible. I was too sad to revisit all those memories. Doing so would have reminded me too keenly of what I’d lost. Besides, I knew I’d never forget my dad.

I haven’t forgotten him, but Joyce was right. The little things fall through the cracks. The sound of his voice. His unconscious gestures. Moments.

Moments began slipping through my fingers like so much sand. And then something happened that, by all appearances, had little or nothing to do with me—the British Monarchy announced Prince Charles’ engagement to Lady Diana Spencer.

I’d heard of Prince Charles, obviously. But, while I was a die-hard Disney princess obsessive, I knew very little about actual royalty. Now though, there was a starry-eyed 19-year-old girl on the scene who was about to become an actual, real-life princess. She was a preschool teacher. She drove a cute little car. She giggled and blushed and, royal title aside, seemed like a perfectly ordinary teenager. Best of all, she reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my dad when I was a little girl.

We were discussing the future, and what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was deeply torn between two very different destinies—ballerina vs. princess. My dad told me I could be whatever I wanted to be and began tossing out possibilities like President of the United States and astronaut. I, however, was adamant about my royal aspirations. What can I say? I was young, probably eight or nine years old. I also happened to be coloring in a Cinderella coloring book as this little tête-à-tête took place. My dad knew he couldn’t compete with the likes of Cinderella. He told me that he thought I’d make a wonderful princess, but I should always remember that being a princess was a serious job. Princesses took care of people. They were kind and compassionate.

His comments were the kind of innocent things you say to a child, and I’d forgotten all about them, like so many other conversations I’d had with my dad. But as I watched Diana Spencer arrive at St. Paul’s Cathedral on her wedding day in a real, actual glass coach and walk down the aisle on the arm of her father, I remembered.

As lovely as the royal trappings were—Diana’s feathered hats, her beaded gowns and glittering tiaras—it was the way she took to her role as princess that drew me to her. She embodied the qualities my dad had talked about.

In the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, when victims were discriminated against and shunned by employers, family and friends, it was Princess Diana who changed things. She hugged hospitalized children with the virus. She held hands with those who were dying.

She walked through landmine fields in Africa. She spoke about eating disorders. She visited the homeless. She loved her young sons with unabashed affection. She took care of people. She was kind and compassionate.

Like the rest of us, she was far from perfect. In my eyes, her vulnerability and her mistakes made her humanitarian contributions even more meaningful. Because it meant that regular people, flawed people like you and me, could do those things too. It doesn’t take a princess to change the world. Just someone with a compassionate heart.

And then Diana died, as my father had. In a car accident. The world reeled. It seemed too tragic to be true. She was too special. Too beautiful. Too young. But I knew better. Death isn’t a respecter of age or compassion. Death is a selfish son-of-a-bitch.

In the wee hours of the morning, I watched Diana’s funeral, just as I’d watched her wedding sixteen years before—in a dark, quiet house, six hours and half a world away. I could barely look at her sons, walking the length of the funeral procession behind their mother’s casket with the eyes of the world upon them. It seemed cruel to me. No one should have to do such a thing, royal or not. And when I saw the ring of white rosebuds atop her coffin with the word Mummy printed on it in Prince Harry’s handwriting, I became all too aware of the fact that he was the exact same age I’d been when my father died. Today her sons have grown into men, and seeing them in the news reminds me of how much I admired their mother.

Diana single-handedly changed the monarchy. She changed the way I saw princesses, no longer as two-dimensional cartoon characters, but as real women who did remarkable things. She made me more compassionate. She inspired me to help people and to remember those that others had forgotten. Being royal, being a princess isn’t about wearing a fancy dress or a crown. It never was. It’s about holding someone’s hand when no one else will. It’s about leaving a mark on the world, making someone feel special. Whether you’re a British princess, a young American girl or that girl’s loving father.

Happy birthday, Diana. Thank you for the memories.