It is Halloween at Bellecourt Castle in Newport, and the elaborately costumed
celebrants are making merry. Ghastly ghouls mingle with sensuous witches. Ghosts
dance with goblins as the orchestra plays, the tink of crystal on crystal and
silver on plate adding glitter to the music. Everyone’s having great fun.
Most everyone. A pretty young woman smiles behind her feathered black mask, but it’s forced. On this otherwise enchanted evening in this extraordinary setting, she sits at table, haunted by cancer. She tries to keep her mind off the fact that she is dying.
Across the room, she is spotted by someone who thinks he recognizes her. Bug Man that’s what he looks like, that’s what he is, a guy in a full-body bug suit with a fantastic homemade bug head Bug Man stares at the pretty woman in the mask, and says to himself, "I’ve seen that smile." He makes his way across the crowded room.
"Diana?" he asks.
"We know each other."
Diana feels that Bug Man is not only strange, but a stranger. "We do?" she says.
"We went to school together, and I wrote you a letter once. My name’s Steve."
Steve is already in love; perhaps he has been from afar, with this very woman, for several years. For Diana’s part, meeting Steve now, like this, puts her on guard. She knows she cannot allow anything to happen. She is dying, and it has taken her a lot of hard, painful work to learn to live with this. That work simply mustn’t be undone. The last thing Diana needs right now is to fall in love.
I wrote those words, and most of the others that will follow in this account this appreciation, this eulogy in the summer of 1997 when I profiled Diana Golden, soon to be Diana Golden Brosnihan for LIFE magazine. Back then I was getting about half of my assignments from the bosses, and generating the other half by myself. I remember like it was yesterday the trepidition with which I made my pitch for a story on Golden. "There’s a woman I know," I told the top guy. "She’s worth doing I think. I wrote about her when I was at Sports Illustrated. She’s had an interesting, pretty tough go of it. I have no idea where she’s at right now, but I could find out ..." The boss said give it a try, and I did.
For that piece, I met with Diana first at a hospital in Boston, then at her house in Bristol, Rhode island. I harbored, before starting my researches for the piece, biases about Diana that were based upon coincidence and memory. As it happened, I too grew up in Massachusetts. As it happened, I too had gone to the same school as Diana and Steve. As it happened, I skied the same New Hampshire slopes as Diana when I was a kid, and then skied beside her on those slopes when I covered handicapped skiing’s national championships years later for SI. I remember dancing with Diana and other skiers inside a corralled dance floor at a bar in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, during another year’s nationals. In short: I approached this story as something less than a journalist. I quite liked and admired Diana, and I was always rooting for her. Perhaps I never should have sought the assignment.
The day at the hospital, when I re-made my acquaintance with Diana and was introduced to her fiancee, Steve, was tough for me, but not too tough. The day in Bristol, when I got the lowdown and all the many updates, was different than any day I’ve had in the business, before or since. I drove that evening from Rhode Island to Massachusetts to visit my parents in a engulfing haze of shock, sadness and ... well, pride. I was proud of my friend, and in a way happy for her, too. But mostly, I was overwhelmed. When I entered my parents’ home, I told my dad that I couldn’t recall a mile of the trip from Bristol; I must have been a pretty dangerous driver, that day. I went to the kitchen and poured a drink.
I finished my reporting and wrote the story. It has had a subsequent history unlike any piece I’ve done. Not a month has gone by that I haven’t received a phone call or an e-mail from someone asking if I’m still in touch with Diana, and how she was doing. I don’t know where some of these people were finding the story. A website maybe, or the condensation in Reader’s Digest those Digests seem to have a long, long table life in dentists’ offices and on library shelves.
I have, for four years now, had the pleasant duty of being able to report to these concerned people that, yes, I still was in touch with Diana, and that she was doing fine relatively speaking. She has good days and bad, I would tell them honestly, but she and Steve have been able to take a cruise, or make a trip to Alaska, or finally put together a Grand Tour of Europe. She’s alive, I was able to report.
And now, I can no longer say this. Diana died last Saturday in a Providence, R.I., hospital room at age 38. If you do the math with what you read below, you will know that she reached the "outside chance" of her doctors’ expectations. She was, in other words, fighting to stay alive until she no longer could. She was fighting for her life with Steve.
Bosses at magazines don’t always, or even often, allow writers to headline their own work, but in this instance the boss said I could call my profile whatever I wanted to, and that he would make the art director deal with it. I called it "Love Is a Reason to Live." Reader’s Digest changed it to something else, but that’s their deal.
Bosses at magazines also never, ever allow you to run every word that you write there’s never the space. They’re smart in doing this; almost every piece is made better by condensing and tightening. But I remember that I worked particularly hard to get the Diana story right and tight, and upon her death I went back to my draft to see how it read, and to remember her better. I thought I would share that draft with you, for this woman deserves to be known. I thought about changing the tenses so it would read more sensibly in light of her death. But after having started to invoke past tenses, I decided I preferred the original version, where she’s alive, in the spring of 1997, and has just told me the story of an enchanted evening, when she met Bug Man across a crowded room:
Diana Golden sits on the whitewashed porch of a bayside Victorian in the village of Bristol, Rhode Island, and thinks back to that mystical night last October down the road in Newport. "There was no way to expect such a thing could happen to me," she says as she gazes out at the sailboats in the harbor on this breezy Saturday afternoon. "We talked after that, and I told him about the thing. About it. I could sense something going on between us, and I was worried. I wrote him a letter telling him to be careful. I said I was in a very fragile place, and that if something else didn’t work out in my life, it would kill me. He tried to reassure me. He said not to worry. He said he meant everything that he was saying."
She sits comfortably, her left leg draped causally over the arm of a lawn chair. Her right leg doesn’t exist below the thigh; she lost it when she was 12. That was her first bout with cancer, as they say. She had been walking through the snow towards the family ski house in Franconia, New Hampshire, after a fine day on the slopes of Cannon Mountain, and her leg simply had collapsed beneath her. Doctors at the Dana Farber Center in Boston diagnosed bone cancer, and said they had to amputate. Diana asked if she would still be able to ski. "When they said yes, I figured it wouldn’t be too bad."
Skiing. One-legged. Diana Golden.
It does ring a bell, and yes, you’re right you do remember her. She was the one who mounted the podium at the Calgary Olympics in 1988 to claim the gold medal in the disabled giant slalom. She was the one you saw on the morning shows, or shaking hands with President Bush at the White House. She was the poster girl of the handicapped-athletics movement. She was the one who could fly 65 miles an hour on one ski, and who used to say coolly courageous things like "We’re out here because we’re competitive people and we like to win" and "Losing a leg? It’s nothing. It’s a body part." She was the one you saw give that terrific motivational speech to the local Kiwanis a few years back.
She stopped giving those speeches. "I had to," she says. "I couldn’t get up there any more and tell people why things were great, how they could overcome anything if they just tried.