“OMG. The Queen died while we were on the phone!” read the text from my former Portland High School classmate who lives in London.
I’d just returned to the city from a summer in South Portland with my husband and two young children. While still adjusting to a life without cousins, Red’s and a beach up the street, my little family of four entered ten days of national mourning.
Growing up in Portland, a stand-out memory for me was when then-President Clinton ate lunch at Lang’s Express (R.I.P.) on St John Street in 1996. On Sunday night in London, after mostly watching the funeral coverage on TV despite being just up the road, I decided to join the miles-long queue to see the Queen.
I set out at 5 p.m., joining the last tranche of mourners to arrive before the queue cut-off for the funeral.
Over the next eight hours, I spoke with strangers about their personal connections to Queen Elizabeth. Many served in the military, or police force, or swore allegiance to her every morning at school as children. Others just couldn’t imagine their life without her presence. Many seemed iffy about Charles III, more interested in marking a historical moment.
As I told several people in the queue, I first came to London to work in the Palace of Westminster via study abroad at Northeastern University and ended up staying so long that I became a citizen, swearing my own allegiance to the Queen.
As the hours went on, so did my story. Months before that first trip to London, my uncle, Michael Porter, unexpectedly passed away. His death left my family shell shocked, and without our unofficial leader. I found that a healthy antidote to grief was to travel.
I found a new life working within the tunnels of the Palace of Westminster, with Big Ben chiming above me. The same bells that sounded to mark the Queen’s passing helped strike away the paralyzing grief of losing the heart of my family.
After so much waiting, everything then moved very fast towards the end of the so-called Elizabeth line. There was an edginess in the crowd control. Mourners abandoned items before a security checkpoint.
When I finally reached the stairs of Westminster Hall in the early hours of Monday, it was the same place I’d stood at 23 when I arrived in London. I’ve healed so much since then, and now split my time between Portland and London with my husband and two sons. It seemed fitting to be saying goodbye to this era.
Unlike the stillness I saw on TV, I felt pressure to move swiftly, to stay in two lines on each side of the casket. Guards outside yelled at people to be quiet. The lights were blinding, the scene lit up to be livestreamed to the world. Camera operators scanned faces to choose people to feature.
Everything was larger and shinier than on TV. The guards looked less human. I curtseyed in front of the casket and moved on, turning back to look over my shoulder but conscious to keep the line moving.
When I emerged into the street there were more reporters and many people taking photos with a lit-up Big Ben. I started walking by the river and bought a tea towel for my aunt in Maine. Everything was hazy.
At home, I set my alarm to wake up and watch the funeral. I needn’t have set an alarm – my children ran into my room, thrilled that I returned overnight.
We cuddled up on the sofa and watched the parade portions of the funeral. Princess Charlotte was born a month before my oldest son; he was especially interested in how she behaved.
And then it was over. An immersive 10-day mourning period ended. Time to make space for a new era.