The Queen is Dead/Not Dead
The end of the second Elizabethan Era through the tearful lens of a Black soldier in 1945 and Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five'
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When news of Queen Elizabeth’s departure from this life flashed across my phone, I was immediately put in mind of that famous photograph of the Black soldier—an accordion strapped across his chest—weeping at the passing of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945.
This was not an entirely random association. The night before, I had been transcribing an interview I conducted with that soldier’s widow back in 1995 for a historian at the University of North Dakota.
Three years earlier, the historian
asked about my memories of that soldier for a biography he was writing. But at the time I’d been unable to find the transcript.
So when I discovered the actual recording of the interview (background for a piece I wrote for Reader’s Digest) on an ancient cassette a few days ago, I wanted to get a transcript to the historian as soon as possible.
That weeping Black soldier—his face the epitome of grief—became nationally famous after Life magazine published his photograph in 1945. But he was very well known in many circles before that.
His name was Graham Jackson.
When I was in high school during the 1960s, he volunteered his services as director of our glee club. By that time, he was in demand elsewhere. But he always showed up for us.
Most of us did not realize he’d been President Roosevelt’s favorite musician and often played for him at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. We didn’t know he’d been on the Ed Sullivan Show and performed at the White House for several other presidents after Roosevelt.
We were kids. He was old.
Or so we thought. But he turned us into a harmonious unity that produced sounds that surprised even us. He was especially kind to me, often addressing me as “Mr. President,” a compliment the extent of which I would not fully realize until years later.
Steeped in those memories, it was only natural to think of that weeping soldier as the second Elizabethan Era came to an end with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8th, 2022. The day set aside to celebrate the Nativity of the Blessed of the Virgin Mary. A special day on the Church calendar, and in many ways, a holy day.
If that seems an odd juxtaposition, consider this:
The precise time at any given moment is not what you see on the face of a clock, though it serves our workaday world to think of it that way. It is a configuration of infinite moments similar to what we see in a kaleidoscope. Only instead of colors and shapes, what we see—if we could see it properly—is a snapshot of events.
Seen with a wide lens that includes a larger moment, Queen Elizabeth left the planet on the 25th anniversary of the death of her daughter-in-law Princess Diana. And on the 60th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe whom she met at Buckingham Palace when they were both 30 years old.
Does this mean anything?
I don’t know. I don’t have the mechanism or skill to understand the turning of time’s wheel. But like you, I often notice that plane crashes and other natural disasters often seem to occur in threes. That when someone dies, someone else is born. That anniversaries and dates sometimes sync up in ways that leave us scratching our heads. It is the configuration of the moment that matters.
So when I learned of the queen’s passing, I felt that moment touch me through the tears of my old music teacher, FDR’s favorite musician, Graham Jackson. Although I never meet Queen Elizabeth, I was deeply saddened by the news, and I bowed my head in prayer.
To be sure, the moment was not the same
for me as the violent deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or John and Robert Kennedy. The Queen’s passing was not the death of Abraham Lincoln or FDR.
But it struck me as personally important. I mourn her life, even though I remain mindful that the history of the empire she presided over was not a friend to anyone who despises imperialism, racism, and exploitation.
Nevertheless, I admired Queen Elizabeth for her service to something greater than herself. When her uncle Edward VIII abdicated the throne, she was placed in the line of succession for a a job she never thought she’d be asked to do. But she accepted it and did her duty with grace and dignity for 70 years.
It cost her. I am sure of that.
But I admire her no end for the way she drew herself up and handled the responsibility thrust upon her by Fate. The world needs examples of people who do things like this. Who remind us of what is possible in ourselves if we have the courage to ask ourselves for it.
Watching coverage of the Queen’s life, I was also reminded of one of my favorite novels, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. When the main character Billy Pilgrim is visited by beings from another planet, he learns that we are not merely two-legged creatures. They see us “as great millipedes—with babies' legs on one end and old people's legs at the other.”
That novel also includes the following words about death,
which may provide some perspective as we view and participate, to whatever extent possible, in the 10 days of funereal services for Queen Elizabeth.
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral.
All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance.
They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "so it goes.”
That is one way of putting it.
But that distanced, intellectual understanding of death doesn’t do much to soothe the heart of those who mourn. When my own mother died, I found no comfort from those who told me she wasn’t really dead. I sat next to her bed. Her body was cold. She was not breathing. She was not moving. Nor would she ever do so again.
During much of my life, I have often led with my mind. But in that moment, my mind was unable to provide what could only be provided by a loving, empathetic heart.
Which is why my heart goes out to the Queen’s eldest son Charles, who must not only carry the heavy mantle his mother wore for 70 years, but bear the burden of loss at the same time.
No matter how long or how often you try to prepare yourself for the end of your mother’s life—or for the loss of any loved one—it hits you hard when it comes. So I pray now for Charles, who has begun to look very old of late, that he may find the strength and courage to navigate the difficulties ahead.
He is, after all, King Charles III.
The first King Charles was beheaded in 1649 after he married a Catholic and dissolved Parliament. The English tried to do without monarchy for 11 years but brought it back with Charles II during the Restoration. The death of Charles II and the failure of his successor to work with Parliament eventually opened the door for today’s unusual relationship between that bicameral body and the Crown.
When Charles I and II were kings, monarchs still believed in the Divine Right of Kings. Today, we know there is no such thing. The English know it too. But 85% of them still want their monarchy.
That is part of the territory
through which Charles III must find his way. Can he—through example and behavior and without his beloved and deeply respected mother—convince the people of England to want its Royals in the future? History will tell.
In 2017, the BBC broadcast a controversial but critically acclaimed film entitled King Charles III. Based on a play produced in 2014, it imagines a brief fraught reign for Queen Elizabeth’s son, which turns on his refusal to sign a controversial bill limiting freedom of the press. Political chaos, street riots, and a constitutional crisis ensue, and a tank winds up in front of Buckingham Palace.
Let us all hope the real King Charles III fares better than that.
In these days of fake news,
dueling realities, and the global expansion of authoritarian rule, it is easy to imagine the dystopia many young people seem to wish for.
But I choose to leave things the way Elizabeth left them, when as a young girl during World War II, she said the following words during a radio broadcast with her sister Margaret:
We know, everyone of us, that in the end all will be well; for God will care for us and give us victory and peace. And when peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.
And so she did. She really did.
The child who spoke those words became the queen who lived them. I weep for her now as the iconic tears of my old music teacher fill my thoughts. I praise her for her contribution to the era I have lived in. And I give thanks for her life of sacrifice and steadfast example. Which has somehow informed and inspired my own.
To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional aliens and Lao Tzu’s concept of wei wu wei (work/not work)—“The Queen is dead/not dead. Long live the King.”
© 2022 Andrew ‘Jazprose’ Hill
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Great piece and perspective Andrew. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on such a meaningful influence from your high school days. Coincidentally, yesterday I reached out to my favorite HS teacher for the first time in 16 years. Reading your piece today made me feel like my sentiments are in good company.
Sometimes it seems like one more stone in the avalanche that seems destined to engulf us. Then I read this, the account of a woman's life, and a man's loss of his mother. Thank you and amen.