On an unseasonably warm day in late October six years ago, Diana, the Princess of Wales, paid an astonishing visit to an elegant 12-bed AIDS hospice in central Toronto known as Casey House. Diana had just begun to venture into the issue of AIDS, then repellent to much of society, but it was still surprising that she chose to see a hospice full of very ill people rather than some less harrowing AIDS setting.
While it had been made clear to the Casey House staff that Diana would visit residents in their rooms, it was by no means I certain what this meant. On another occasion when a federal minister of health visited Casey House, he entered one room, but kept his back turned to the frail man in the bed, chatting up the family instead. It was a time when, despite official reassurances, many people still feared that the AIDS virus could be transmitted by touching, so it was not uncommon at Casey House for parents to avoid physical contact with their dying children.
Media were to be excluded during Diana’s tour of the hospice, which is fiercely protective of residents’ privacy, but one man, much marked by the disease but well enough to be out of bed, had volunteered to be part of a single photo-op just inside the front door. He was seated, in a state of nervous delight, as Diana swept in, tall and radiant in a short-skirted pink suit.
A chair for her, if she chose to sit, had been placed a discreet distance from the obviously ill man. Diana assessed the situation, sat down, hitched her chair closer, and put her hand on his.
I was watching, keeping out of the way, and feeling removed from the giddy excitement that ran through the building. My feelings about Diana were mixed: she seemed for the most part a silly and vain woman, but I did admire her decency in publicly supporting a cause—AIDS—that had few friends in high places. In the moment when she moved her chair, however, my reservations evaporated. Good on you, I thought gratefully, as camera flashes bathed her in glare. In my view, pictures of Diana nestled close to a man with AIDS gave more information about HIV transmission than a trillion public-health brochures.
With the media gone, Diana moved slowly from room to room, taking her time, sitting on beds and holding the sick person’s hand in hers. In the residents’ lounge, she encountered an emaciated Kenneth Roe, a former small-town school principal who was more distraught that he had embarrassed his family than he was about dying. He was flanked by his daughters, Mary Lou Roe and Nancy Luder, who told the princess shyly that they both had scrapbooks of her wedding pictures.
On her way out of Casey House, Diana was approached by Pat Bass, whose son had died in the hospice some time before. Pat, who communicates by sign language, presented a bouquet of flowers and with flying hands said something to the princess. Sally Simpson, a Casey House nurse who signs, prepared to translate but Diana passed the bouquet to someone and signed back. She and Pat had a quick, deft conversation and both had a laugh about something. Observers were stunned.
The direct impact of Diana’s visit to Casey House is impossible to assess. Attitudinal change about AIDS was shifting anyway as people acquired more knowledge, and it may have been coincidence that fund-raising for the hospice subsequently became vastly easier. What is not in doubt, however, is what Diana did for the Roe family. The daughters returned to their community to find that the chilling disapproval that had surrounded them due to their father’s illness had ended. Neighbours avid to hear about the princess seemed to have decided that having a relative in an AIDS hospice was sad, but not shameful.
The biggest transformation was in Kenneth Roe. Diana gave him back his dignity. He had been lethargic and longing for death, but the respect she paid him changed that. He became a man with an appetite and the energy to go for walks. In the short time he had left, he looked whole and at peace.
Since Diana’s death, Casey House Hospice has been deluged with flowers, with donations of money, with people signing the condolence book provided in the reception area. Those who grieve are making a connection with Diana in a way that makes perfect sense: they are carrying on her work.
There is no doubt that the Princess of Wales had flaws. She could be narcissistic, and her judgment in men wasn’t the best. But whatever her conceits, they were harmless, and transparent. The quality in her that millions recognized instinctively and now mourn so deeply was her gritty, whole-hearted struggle to live a valuable life. She wanted nothing less than to change the world for the better. And perhaps she did. On that lovely afternoon six years ago, she made everyone at a small AIDS hospice in Toronto feel worthwhile. That’s quite a gift.
June Callwood is a Toronto writer and the founder of Casey House.
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