Gradually and then Suddenly

“How did you go bankrupt?”

“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

― Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises”

The death this week of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor happened the same way: gradually, then suddenly.

I’m not a great royals watcher but it would have been hard to miss the ever-so-gradual diminution of her vitality over the last several years: the reduced public schedule and transfer of some duties to then-Prince Charles and other family members, the events missed altogether due to “mobility problems”, and the change in her own standards of participation at the events she did attend (taking the Trooping the Colours salute from the palace balcony instead of joining the parade in a carriage – or on horseback!). But then she would pop up on a surprise visit to open a hospice, seemingly the same as ever.

And yet, not quite the same. When I saw the photo of her with Liz Truss, Britain’s new Prime Minister, I noticed the big bruise on her hand — a bruise much like the one my father sported for the last several years of his life — but what really caught my attention was her weight, or lack of it. “She’s keenin’ in,” I thought — an expression learned from said father’s Scottish cousins and that refers to the involuntary weight loss that so often accompanies one’s last few months of life, even when all else seems well.

Two days later, she was dead. Gradually, and then suddenly.

Nature responded with rainbows over Buckingham and Windsor Palaces just before the public announcement, and a harvest moon for several nights.

International responses were both expected (standard expressions of condolence, flags lowered to half-mast) and delightfully less so: Australia, Germany, Israel, and Switzerland (at least) lit up iconic structures in tribute and, perhaps, fellow-feeling.

Institutional responses included prayer services; speeches (some, at least, quite lovely) in the UK House of Commons the day after she died; moments of silence at sporting events; “banked” newspaper obituaries, retrospectives, and editorials; and articles from organizations seizing the day to press the anti-monarchist case in “yes-but” columns (“Sure she was great, but it’s a lousy institution.”)

Personal reactions included hate-filled rants about imperialism on Twitter and warm anecdotes from any public figure who had a charming Elizabeth story to tell, but what caught my attention was the bewildered grief expressed by choked-up Brits of all ages and persuasions.

Bewildered? Yes. Everyone had known that she couldn’t possibly live forever, of course, and yet it was almost unimaginable that she could die. After all, for anyone 70 or younger, she had always been there. And then she wasn’t.

As Conrad Black said of his own reaction to the news: “not altogether unexpected but hard to assimilate.” Yes. As death often does, it has come upon us gradually, and now suddenly.


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14 Responses to Gradually and then Suddenly

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Amen. Especially to “but what caught my attention was the bewildered grief expressed by choked-up Brits of all ages and persuasions.”

    I was driving. I found my eyes inexplicably filling with tears,, even though she was no closer to me than her picture on currency. We’ve all lost “something.”

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I saw a lot of that sentiment on Twitter – 40-something Canadians (mostly men) who found it was hitting them harder than they would have expected. “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

  2. Mary Gibson says:

    Yes. I’m probably in the “yes, but” camp. I admired her commitment to service (as she saw it) and anything else I could say about her personality was all just projection.

    Our recent trip to Africa was sufficient for us to see the horribly destructive outcomes of colonialism (e.g. according high social status to the tribes that had more European features in the first instance, and genocide when carried to its extreme). It would be nice if Britains could actually have a national conversation about what they want the monarchy to be going forward. But I’m not optimistic about that happening.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mary – Yes, the legacy of colonialism is a tough nut. Sadly, its practice isn’t/wasn’t limited to monarchies. I share your doubts about national conversations in general. We might be about to see some unilateral changes to scale if not to role, but time will tell.

  3. You are right. No matter how much we anticipate a death, we never expect it on the exact day when it happens.

  4. I saw in my natal family what a faint and frayed connection to British nobility could do to mislead and distort the lived reality of those unfortunate enough to be born into its upper echelons. Elizabeth II managed to make the best of an extremely challenging birthright. She knew she was a role model and in various ways adapted and grew into it. Meanwhile, raised in a family that looked to the royals that way, I wondered for a very long time if the system of primogeniture, favouritism, and adulation that led Elizabeth to coronation was what made Elizabeth (and me) sober and strong while our younger sisters developed “inferiority complexes” and kicked over the traces. As I grew older and studied history, I saw through the ridiculous rationalizations people could dream up for excusing bad, sick, or mentally ill behaviour in their idols, as long as they were beautifully dressed and turned up for the right occasions. Still later, I discovered the reasons for those bad, sick, or mentally ill behaviours. Elizabeth’s family, who enjoyed every possible advantage, was coming apart at the seams like mine. It was neither her fault nor mine nor the children’s, that some of them were floundering through their lives with the same kinds of audio deficits that undermined their ability to control their behaviour. From my point of view, their troubles nullified our impoverishment: neither riches nor the lack of wealth was entirely to blame. All of us can benefit from the way some families live their lives in the glare of bright lights and cameras. We are allowed to see the constants in human behaviour. My husband said he would like to see a major newspaper devote a 10-page, in-depth study of some individual living an extraordinary life in the midst of ordinary challenges: his idea of true “royalty.” When the costly British pageantry fades, let’s remember that we live among kings and queens, princes and princesses of another Kingdom.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – “When the costly British pageantry fades, let’s remember that we live among kings and queens, princes and princesses of another Kingdom.” A lovely thought to hold onto.

  5. Tom Watson says:

    I had heard about the rainbow over Buckingham Palace but has not seen it until your column. Thanks for the marvelous photo.

  6. barbara carlson says:

    Andrew Sullivan has this to say about the passing of a Queen and her symbolism.

    “… Part of the hard-to-explain grief I feel today is related to how staggeringly rare [her] level of self-restraint is today. Narcissism is everywhere. Every feeling we have is bound to be expressed. Self-revelation, transparency, authenticity — these are our values. The idea that we are firstly humans with duties to others that will require and demand the suppression of our own needs and feelings seems archaic. Elizabeth kept it alive simply by example.
    “With her death, it’s hard not to fear that so much she exemplified — restraint, duty, grace, reticence, persistence — are disappearing from the world. As long as she was there, they were at the center of an idea of Britishness that helped define the culture at its best….”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – That’s insightful, thanks. I think of a 10-year-old Elizabeth whose life was turned upside down because her uncle had no self-restraint, and wonder where she came by the grit and grace to subsume her own dreams for her life to instead embody the nation, as it were. I’ve read articles (one really good one by Rabbi Sacks) about how she helped Holocaust victims simply by listening to their stories. It would seem to be a role beyond politics.

  7. barbara carlson says:

    “It was an act of kindness that almost had me in tears. One after another, the survivors came to me in a kind of trance, saying: ‘Sixty years ago I did not know if I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen’ It brought a kind of blessed closure into deeply lacerated lives.”

    I have known people who were knighted: She gives 40 seconds to each which is a long time. I have known diplomats who are “present” with you, make you feel you as if you are the one they have been waiting to meet and talk to. It’s training, but also a gift of being in the now.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – It’s something to which we could all aspire, even without the trappings of royalty. I also read an article or tweet about a similar situation featuring then-Prince Charles and British civilians, many with PTSD after work in Afghanistan. Of course “being listened to, being seen” is valuable no matter who it comes from, but I do think it carries a special weight when it’s someone who represents your country but who is also above politics.

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