The Princess, The Cowboy and The Narrative of Footprints

January 24, 2008

When Princess Diana died, I was bothered by the fawning coverage of what seemed to me to be the excessive displays of public grief. This was at the tail end of my undergraduate years – I was working on my honour`s thesis, about the post-modern politics of community storytelling – and I was as pious a Marxist-feminist as you could hope to find, anywhere. The collective global wailing and rending of garments and tearing of hair was, I thought, an overwrought symptom of the cultural opiation of the masses. She was just one woman, I thought. Why did her death matter more than the death of any other human being? Why had the world gone into deep mourning for one woman – however kind, however pretty – when millions of people died every day? Wasn’t there so much greater tragedy in the world, more deserving of mourning?

I thought it all disturbing. Still, I watched the funeral on the television. One has to keep up with popular culture, you know. I was prepared to be outraged. Instead, I cried. Just for a moment – and it was just one moment that provoked the tears – but it was, for me, a revealing moment.

You know the moment that I’m talking about: Prince Harry, then just a little red-headed boy, fists clenched in grief, placed a card on his mother’s casket. The cameras zoomed in: the envelope read, simply, Mummy.

I cried, and I got it. I wasn’t crying for Diana, or even for little Harry – I was crying about the idea of her death, and the idea of the loss suffered by her family, especially her children. How terrible to lose one’s mother. How terrible to be torn away from one’s children. How terrible to have one’s life, one’s future, one’s participation in the futures of their loved ones, torn away.

I no more identified with Diana that I identified with the middle-aged Italian cheese merchant down the street. But I knew Diana’s story, I was familiar with the story of her life, and with the story of her children’s lives, and so I could experience some visceral grief at the tragic turn that the story had taken. So it was that when I saw the image of little Harry’s attempt to reach out to his deceased mother, my gut was wrenched much more intensely than it was during any Foster Parents Program commercial.

A similar thing happened while I was reviewing (for my paid gigs, of course) the coverage of Heath Ledger’s recent death. I am, in my dotage, much more sympathetic to public grief over the deaths of celebrities than I was as a callow and ideological youth, but I still tend to remain detached from the collective gasping and hand-wringing. So while I was unsettled by the sudden and unexplained death of the actor, I wasn’t shedding a lot of tears.

Until, that is, I saw this:


It’s a little family memorial that Heath made for his daughter, Matilda, who is two years old (only a month older than Wonderbaby). It’s her footprints, pressed into concrete, alongside her name, which Heath scrawled in the pavement outside their home in Brooklyn. It was a special secret between father and daughter, something that they created together, said a neighbour. There are now, apparently, bouquets of flowers, wrapped in plastic, piled upon the concrete over Matilda’s footprint. The memorial created by father for daughter is now, simply, a memorial for the father.

It made me cry because it reminded me, sharply – more than could any picture of Heath and Matilda together – that he was a dad who loved his daughter, and that Matilda is a daughter who has lost her dad, and that whatever future they had together – whatever adventures lay ahead of them, whatever sidewalks they might have lovingly defaced – is now gone. Whatever story was unfolding for them – a story that you and I only knew from a distance – has ended, tragically, and what remains is just that poor little girl and her loss.

Children lose parents every day, and – worse – parents lose children. But we don’t know most of their stories, and so those losses remain abstract, statistical, at a remove from our own stories. And that’s a shame – that we are so removed from each other’s stories, that the more distant those stories the less they are able to move us. And maybe it’s a shame that we are more likely to be moved by the story of a death of a celebrity than we are by the deaths of 54,000 Congolese every month – it is certainly a shame – but it is, for better or worse, understandable. Heath Ledger, and Princess Di, and Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears and all the other denizens of Celebrityland are much closer to us, or at least appear to be, because we follow their stories and compare our own against them. We trace the narratives of their lives and look for some traces of ourselves – as parents, as citizens, as dreamers – within those narratives. And so when those narratives, those stories, come to a sudden, tragic close, we are affected. Perhaps to an extent disproportionate to the actual events, given our very real distance from those events and the people involved, but still. We are moved.

End of the day, if even one story can move us to hug our children, or our parents, a little tighter, or maybe work a little harder to ensure that we are weaving beautiful stories for our own families, leaving our own footprints in our own sidewalks, that’s a good thing.

Now excuse me while I close my computer to go carve my daughter’s initials in the tree outside our home.

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    { 49 comments }

    Jenifer January 24, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    It is just such a tragedy no matter what angle you view it from.

    The City Gal January 24, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    Wow!

    I am so there with you! When I heard about Ledger’s death, I thought to myself, another celebrity, another drug overdose! Whatever!

    Then I say a picture of her daughter and realized someone just lost a young father. It is tragic.

    Don Mills Diva January 24, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Beautiful post and so true – thanks!

    Trenches of Mommyhood January 24, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Beautiful, HBM. This is, by far, the best piece I’ve read on Heath Ledger’s tragic death.

    Mouse January 24, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Even though I’ve been reading the coverage and totally gobsmacked by all of this, your piece is the first to make me cry.

    Anonymous January 24, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    The timing of your post could not be more poignant … yesterday I attended the funeral of a 16 year old boy who fought bravely against cancer for the last three years … he was a very close friend of my own 16 year son … every conversation with my son, no matter how mundane, has so much more meaning knowing another mother that lives just one block away can never have that experience with her son again … no death is ever meaningless.

    Kris January 24, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have been trying to articulate why his death has bothered me to the degree it has, and it comes down to him being a dad and his daughter being without him for the rest of her life. Thank you for putting it into words.

    Heather January 24, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    That is exactly the reason that I feel so sad that he’s gone. I didn’t follow him as an actor (although I have seen Brokeback) but I heard he died and thought immediately, “what a waste of a young life.” His daughter will have him on a tv screen, which is more than some have, but it’s just not the same.

    I think those celebrities have entirely too much money and too much idle time.

    Maddy January 24, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    Sobering indeed.
    Best wishes

    mamatulip January 24, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    This was quite lovely, C.

    Hannah January 24, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    This has been bothering me intensely and I keep saying to people “I don’t know why I’m so upset but…” now I will just hand them your post.

    You hit it right on the head. My heart is cracking for that little girl.

    kittenpie January 24, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    It’s true – the first thing I thought when I heard was how awful for Michelle Williams to know that he would never, never be a part of her and her daughter’s lives again. He always seemed like an involved and loving dad, even after they broke up, and now she is left without the support, a truly single mom, and having to try to explain to her wee one where her daddy went. So, so sad.

    mothergoosemouse January 24, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    That envelope did it to me too.

    It is sad. It’s all sad. Being the daughter of a famous actor doesn’t lessen the impact of her father’s death on Matilda, but it calls further attention to her and inspires widespread sympathy.

    On the other hand, I’d bet almost all of us can recall friends or acquaintances who lost a parent when they were children – through sickness, accidents, suicide. I wonder how much thought we gave them then, and how much thought we give them now that we’re parents ourselves.

    Damselfly January 24, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    You’re right. At the end of the day, celebs are just people, and when we see something fragile or more humble about them, it makes us think about our own lives.

    I thought about Matilda, too….

    motherbumper January 24, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Beautiful post HBM.

    Many of us want to leave that mark but always think there will be time to do it – later. While this place we do it (the blogosphere) is not tangible per say it still is one of the ways we create these footprints. Time to hook up the printer.

    The Domesticator January 24, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Catherine,
    I loved this post…poignant, and true. I was a nurse before I had children, and I can tell you, these stories happen all the time. But, you are right; we don’t hear about those. Although it is sad that this tragedy (and the others you mentioned so eloquently) have to play out in the public arena, it is a reminder to those of us watching what is important: Our love for those in our lives. You never know when it will be us next.

    Lindsay Lebresco (Graco) January 24, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    As others have said, this is the first “coverage” of Heath’s death that has really touched me. Thank you for bringing us all down to the same level- the one we are all on, no matter who we are, as parents.

    Isabel Kallman January 24, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    so true.

    And this is why I was so angry to see pictures of his body leaving the death scene in a body bag. I felt as if he deserved more respect than to be wrapped in plastic.

    I guess, I would feel that about anybody I knew or I felt I knew.

    Anonymous January 24, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    The tragedy is not only his death but that his little girl will forever ache for her father’s loving arms. Thank you for your poignant words.

    ewe are here January 24, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    Beautifully said.

    I wrote about his death yesterday as well. I think what bothered me most was that I could see my boys growing up to be like him: a nice, good looking young man who worked hard and was well regarded in his chosen field, and a good daddy, in spite of the demise of his relationship with his daughter’s mother. And then ‘poof’. Gone. Just didn’t see it coming… he seemed so grounded.

    b*babbler January 24, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    Thank you, for putting into words, exactly how I’ve felt about his death since hearing the news. Soon after, all I could think was, his poor little girl. Another daughter who will never really know her father. Another daughter of hollywood who will live for years with the insinuations and tabloid gossip and endless speculation at the cause of his death.

    One can only hope that she will always know how much she was loved by him.

    Petunia Face January 24, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    I have always been stung when I hear a celebrity has died–Diana, Anna Nicole, Heath Ledger. And I have always felt a little silly feeling so maudlin about it. It’s not as if I knew them. God knows they wouldn’t mourn my death (becuase they would never know). But your post hit the nail on the head. I’m mourning the idea. The death of a talented young man. A father.
    What a lovely, lovely post.

    Maggie January 24, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    I came to this same startling understanding in my head yesterday. But it didn’t sound nearly so eloquent….

    Rachel January 24, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    Beautiful post. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was so bothered by his death. But, you just did. He was the same age as I am and I have a 2 year old daughter as well. I cannot fathom not seeing her grow up or her not having me here for her as she grows.

    Animal January 24, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    *sniff!* Dammit, you made ME cry!

    Motherhood Uncensored January 24, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    so much of it is “what could have been.”

    makes you want to sit up all night and write and write and write those memories, if only our kids have them.

    A piece of us.

    Glennia January 24, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    Even before I scrolled down to read what made you cry at Diana’s death, I flashed on that white card atop the flowers that said “Mummy.” That was, for me, one of the most unforgettably poignant and sad moments I can recall.

    MommyTime January 24, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    I had exactly the same moment you did in watching the Princess Di funeral — that “Mummy” card image is seared in my mind. And reading this post, all I could think was “yeah–what she said.” Thanks so much for being so articulate in reminding us all about how our deepest hugs of our own should also remind us of those who don’t have such a luxury with their own children.

    Mom101 January 25, 2008 at 12:38 am

    Absolutely beautiful, HBM. Your last line is choking me up.

    And I too got emotional with that photo. It’s not too far from our place in Brooklyn. I’m sure it’s a big disgusting gawking zone by now.

    flutter January 25, 2008 at 1:30 am

    I feel so horrible for her.

    ozma January 25, 2008 at 7:13 am

    I think that is the strangest thing about anyone’s death who is not someone you are close to–that it matters so much but then in a way it does not, from the distance you speak of. And that we can look at some deaths both ways. But never the deaths of those we love.

    Maybe that is the funny thing about celebrity–that it makes a person extraordinary and it’s the same trick in a way because everyone is extraordinary but also ordinary. But it’s only when we think of the celebrity as ordinary that we actually care about their death.

    And it is sad we can’t keep anything in concrete. I have my name and my siblings’ name in concrete outside our house and those little handprints don’t fit us anymore but sometime they will all be gone.

    Melinda Zook January 25, 2008 at 10:01 am

    It is so sad indeed. I didn’t even hear the whole story but these footprints…so sweet. We imprinted our names into the new sidewalk on the side of our house but then my daughter came along a year later so now we need to think of another special place to memorialize our family.

    Phoenix January 25, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Beautiful Post. Just awesome.

    Miss Britt January 25, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    My mind is replaying that scene now over and over again – and all these years later, I can still feel the lump rise up in my throat as you describe it.

    petite gourmand January 25, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    so well put and I couldn’t agree more.

    I’m so glad that we carved lulu’s initials on the sidewalk in front of our house when she was first born.
    lucky for us they were replacing the sidewalks the day she came home from the hospital.
    nice to have reminders about all the special things in our lives.

    Redneck Mommy January 25, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    Hard post to read. But well said, my friend. Well said.

    Mardougrrl January 25, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    What a beautiful post…and yes, that’s what has gotten me about his Ledger’s death as well…the loss to his daughter and to Michelle Williams. They were one of the very few tabloid couples I liked to see, if only because they looked so normal and so obviously in love with each other and with their baby.

    And the fact that their daughter is only a little older than my Madam, and I can feel the loss so sharply. If there is anything left of him–I believe in the soul–I am sure he is aching for his little girl.

    Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah January 25, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    That was lovely.

    I’m going to make more lasting love notes to my kids.

    Jozet at Halushki January 25, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    Beautiful.

    I remember reading article after article when Princess Diana died. One sentence that hit me squarely in trying to figure out why this woman was gaining so much attention in her death was in printed in Life Magazine. The article ended by saying, “Why all the tears? Is it because no one feels safe the day a princess dies?”

    It’s an opportunity not only to mourn for their losses, but also for our own. Maybe, mostly, the loss of some hope that someday, all suffering on earth will be ended. But everyone will be affected by loss – even princesses. And now here is our time to mourn that loss all together at one time.

    selfmademom January 25, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    This is exactly what my friends and I were discussing at a playgroup last week. Why was Heath Ledger’s death such a big deal? Well, because he has a daughter, and we all can’t bear to think of such heartbreak for her in the years to come. Thanks for expressing it much more eloquently, though.

    KrisUnderwood January 25, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    Beautiful post indeed! Ledger’s death surprised me a little, as much as a Hollywood death can-and thought nothing more of it. Until I heard he had a daughter…and until I remembered I had a dream about him that morning. Sounds weird, does it not? Totally true, though. It completely freaked me out when I connected it all together.

    wright January 26, 2008 at 8:36 am

    This was so beautifully written. It is a great and accurate description of why we react the way we do to these types of tragedies. And you are right, we need to be spurred on by these things to make stronger bonds with our own family and friends. Thank you.

    AdventureDad January 26, 2008 at 11:03 am

    Heartbreaking. I felt the same way about Diana by the way. I just read this story today, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/health/womenfamily.html?in_article_id=510308&in_page_id=1799 , it made me cry.

    Sad and inspirational at the same time.

    Upside Up January 26, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Beautiful post HBM. Regardless of how Heath Ledger died or who he was, his death was unexpected and we were all shocked. Anyone who ever saw him in a movie was touched in some way by him. Death of someone who touches us is bound to make us sad. Since he touched so many people, the grief turns into a collective outpouring. This collective outpouring feels out of place since not everyone who dies receives the same public fanfare. But as you bring home in your post, he was someone’s father (and son, and brother, and friend…), just like a million other people out there. And for that reason he is deserving of our grief, no matter how we express it.

    Minnesota Matron January 26, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    Funny–I was in a similar phase during Diana’s wedding and sobbed nonethelesss (and my academic inclination was more Lacanian, Kristevan and Freudian). There’s something about the loss between child/parent that hits all of us, across culture and time. I’ve thought about Heath Ledger’s daughter, and the child’s mother– since hearing the news. And about the actor himself. How many people lose their lives due to addiction and bad habit!! Usually the consequences hit when we’re older; it’s a real reminder of life’s slim hold when death from self-abuse comes at such a young age. Very sad, from every angle.

    AK January 27, 2008 at 6:33 am

    Your posts are reminding me so much about my own losses lately…

    First the post about Whymommy, who has little kids and is fighting breast cancer, and now Heath and 2 year old Matilda who lost her daddy.

    I lost my own mother from Breast Cancer when I was 2.

    :( Poor Matilda.

    Leah January 27, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    I’m sure some of the 800 people who’ve recently died in Kenya were fathers too. Who grieves for them?

    cheezewhizandmustard January 27, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    The cement carving did it for me, too. I lost my dad at 17, and all I could think about was that this poor little girl would never remember her father, nor would she ever know him the way that I knew mine.

    Kelly January 28, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    I’ve shed way too many tears over the last 6 days, or at least I thought. Yeah, he was one of my celebrity crushes. Yeah, I dug Lords of Dogtown and Brokeback Mountain. But something about my grief seemed out of proportion.

    His daughter is definitely a factor. Being a celebrity gossip follower, I’ve seen picture after picture of her, being pushed in a stroller, or riding her father’s shoulders. My youngest is about the same age as her, and I can’t help but wondering what it would be like for her to just, one day, no longer have her father. It’s as if a giant ache consumes me from head to toe, just the imagining.

    But I think it’s also something else…the seeming vitality of youth and the tenacity of death. That Mickey Rooney was up on the stage at the SAG awards while Ledger’s body was being flown home to Australia was way out of the natural order of things. Young people are supposed to stay alive.

    This was really lovely. Thank you for making me feel a little less strange about my own grief.

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