LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — A few Thursdays ago, I showed up at my friend Dianna Milam’s house with a basket full of eggs, whipping cream, sausage and bread. Dianna opened the door with a pure, unrestrained smile on her face, and I basked in seeing the radiance. Because after the hardest year of her life, Dianna Milam had made it. Life was ahead of her in all its wonderful, complicated glory and she was ready to dive in, ready to feel normal, ready to celebrate, and, thanks be to God, ready to eat.
Six weeks ago, Dianna had surgery to remove a tumor in her brain. The mass was discovered last November after she’d started feeling increasing dizziness and an increased sensitivity to light. It was actually my husband, who is a radiologist, who called to tell her what the MRI had shown. The tumor was benign, but it was pressing on an important nerve center in her brain. It would continue to grow and the symptoms from it would continue to get worse.
In December, she came to my house for lunch a changed woman. I’ve known Dianna for several years now, and though we don’t see each other that often, when we do, we are able to pick up where we left off and have the most extraordinary conversations.
I first met her while I was working at The Sentinel. She was training her two golden retrievers for Love on a Leash, a program that provides pet therapy to the sick and elderly, and hoped they would become a beloved part of St. Jo. I’d been assigned to write a story about it and, upon meeting, we immediately hit it off, with me spending a lot more time visiting with her than actually getting information for the story (sorry, Willie).
I told her then, and it’s true now, Dianna is one of the most quotable people I have ever met. She has a way of speaking that gets to the essence of things, of articulating the unarticulated and conveying wisdom that you suspect she’s acquired through a lot of careful, quiet thought. I’ve learned a lot from her, whether we’re talking about step-parenting, ice cream making, skin care, marriage, friendship or Anthropologie. She lives her life with purpose and joy and, after spending an afternoon with her, you feel not only refreshed but inspired to live the same way.
But when Dianna came to my house last December, she had changed. She was still brilliant, but so damn scared. She told me she was doing everything she could to fight for her quality of life. The doctors had told her the tumor was inoperable and the dizziness, which would get worse, was something she would just have to accept. But she would not. So she was going to acupuncture and seeing a naturopathic doctor. Taking essential oils and had given up eating eggs, dairy and gluten. All of it, she told me in a controlled, unfamiliar voice, was in the hope she could cure herself, if by sheer will alone.
When Dianna left that day, I was upset for a long time. I didn’t know if I should write to her to tell her how I felt or if that would upset her more, inflate something she was trying to keep manageable. I wished there were something I could say to make things better, but hell if I knew what that was.
And then William got sick, and Dianna and I didn’t see each other for several months. When we did, we connected in a different way. We had met at a busy deli at lunchtime, but we might as well have been the only people on the planet. That’s how we felt. With her tumor and my husband sick, we had been left behind by the mainstream. Those lives had continued on smoothly and happily, ours were strapped to rafts floating in an unknown.
Because of what we’d both experienced, we knew things that we didn’t know before — lessons in the fragility of life, in the importance of not letting beauty go unappreciated. We talked about how life was unfair and how this was hard and we wanted things to just go back to normal. When things got really scary, Dianna told me she would whisper the word “grateful” in her mind, stretch it out and say it as slowly as she could until she felt calm again. Leave it to Dianna to focus on gratitude while in the center of a storm.
But seven weeks ago, Dianna’s life changed again. She had found a doctor in California willing to remove her tumor using a procedure that would be less damaging to her brain. The procedure was a complete success and today she is cured. Life is no longer on pause for Dianna Milam.
So last week, when I showed up with my basket of goodies, she was hungry. We whipped up some scrambled eggs with plenty of cream, buttered toasted, fried sausages. We sat in her lovely kitchen overlooking the woods and we talked about the surgery and her recovery, how she wanted to spread the word about endoscopic brain surgery, how William was doing. And then something truly remarkable happened. We talked about the stuff normal people talk about: work and vacations, house renovations and recipes, where to buy seafood online, where to get the hand soap she has in her bathroom. And never, ever has breakfast tasted so good.