AFTER my mom died, London was the first place I turned to for solace. I was 27 and newly married. Two months after the memorial service, my husband accompanied me on the trip from Chicago to a quiet and January-cold London.
People say nothing prepares you for death, even when you know it’s imminent. Waiting at my mother’s bedside through the final days of her living with stage four cancer were the longest hours of my life. I wasn’t thinking clearly, if at all, in those last moments with my mom. Though I felt a heavy pressure seeming to crush my chest, I was numb. My senses were dulled by the relentless effects of her illness and although our family wanted a better outcome, we were realists. We knew death would be her final resting place.
London was not an escape from grief. It wasn’t a distraction or a refuge. London was an acceptance of life — hers and mine. Having just witnessed a 56-year old beloved woman’s final breaths leave her body, I was shaken by the fragility of life. I was spooked but it only fueled my desire to devour the world and take all I could from it while time was on my side.
I felt embraced by London, consoled by its rich culture. Even in my mournful state, London brought out the best in me. I found inspiration in the city to live in the present — with intention. I felt challenged to wake up with purpose and greet each day with opportunity. I felt my senses coming alive, as well as passion for discovery and learning.
I cried upon seeing Canova’s Three Graces at the Hayward Gallery. Its precise anatomical beauty overwhelmed me. I couldn’t stop looking. I studied Matisse and his influence on Russian art at the Royal Academy, fascinated by his interests in eastern Europe. I attended plays at The Old Vic which had me crying one minute and laughing another. I allowed myself to be swept away by movement and story lines. I tasted the depths and layers of Indian spices that left my eyes watering and tongue panting for more flavors.
Perhaps most important, I visited the house where my mom lived as a teenager and diplomat’s daughter in Chester Square and imagined her strolling the neighborhood thinking about all the possibilities that lay ahead.
My mom and I never visited London together but whenever I return I play a running conversation in my head. The sound of her voice and her soft gestures are vivid in my mind.
“I loved living here,” she says. “I have the fondest memories of London.”
“Yes, mom,” I answer gently,” you always tell me.”
“I love the gardens and flowers. Walking through the open parks. It makes me so happy. My favorite times were roaming around with your Grandpa who appreciated the little things. London was good to us.”
“Yes, mom,” I say, “I know.”
London appealed to us in different ways. For my mom, it was the traditional and aristocratic London. She grew up with privilege, formalities, and decorum, where manners and appearance were expected and praised. She attended a private all-girls school in the ‘60s designed to prepare a girl to be a lady of society and find a rich, handsome husband.
I was always drawn to London’s modern sensibilities with its punk vibe and rebellious spirit. While my mom preferred high tea at Fortnum & Mason, I was content with samosas on Brick Lane, washed down by a cider at the local pub.
While our memories and desires of London differed, my mother and I possessed a shared passion for its diverse offerings. London was a city large enough to accept our diverse perspectives and cultural identities. In many ways, and in the days to come, London will always be that intersection of past and present between my mom, myself, and my now three-year old-daughter.
On my last visit to London we celebrated my daughter’s second birthday. We found ourselves on a spontaneous playdate with Prince George at Diana’s Memorial playground in Hyde Park. Nanny, Prince George, and Princess Charlotte were visiting the huge wooden pirate ship. My daughter and young George ran around on the ship and took turns on the slide. My daughter grabbed Prince George’s shoulders and directed him to wait while she moved around the quarter deck.
My mom met Princess Di back in the ‘80s at a diplomatic state dinner. Who knew that their two future grandchildren, whom they would never meet themselves, would somehow come together in a sandbox? That’s London. Our London.