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To my friend Milena

By FAM :: 24 January 2006

A bit more than a year ago, before Christmas, I wrote to my dear friend Milena Diviani, whose writings you may be familiar with if you’ve visited her page in the Showcase section. I'd been down to Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, in my capacity as an outside examiner for Maturitá exams for English in June 04 as I had done for the last ten years and Milena made a point of coming in to see me briefly.

She'd been a teacher at the school, the Liceo di Bellinzona, and we'd done Maturitá together on many an occasion, all of which were, despite the predictablity of the students' choice of books and of their answers to the exam question, always a pleasant time. Once in particular I remember going back to Milena's Bellinzona flat for lunch. She had always had back problems, never complained, though, but going for a lie-down over lunch was vital if she wanted to make it through the afternoon. While she relaxed and took the weight off her back, I made an insalata caprese for us with a lovely piece of buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil and the sort of ripe tomatoes you only get in Mediterranean climate, the red white and green on the plates liberally doused with a good aceto balsamico, stuff we'd got on the way to her place. Sitting on the balcony, overlooking the plain that stretches all the way to the Lago Maggiore with the mountains rising steeply on either side of the valley, a gentle breeze rustling in the trees on what was otherwise a typically stifling Ticinese June day was one of the moments that happens outside time and space. We even indulged, she a bit more guiltily than I, in couple of glasses of Barbera.

This time she came in and she looked good, so much better than I had expected. She'd sent me an email earlier in the year in which she told me with the unsentimental simplicity that she reserved for herself -- when she talked about others she was always much more emotional and compassionate -- that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It came as a horrendous shock because she always seemed indestructible, even when her back was giving her hell, and she was so much at ease in her environment of the mountain slopes of Carí in the Upper Leventina, where she always spent her weekends in her house overlooking the Strada Alta; Caroline and I had been to see her and spend the night on our walk across Switzerland and we all went for a meal at her local. It was always a pleasure to hear her speak the local Ticinesi dialect, almost impenetrable even to those speak very good Italian and, on this occasion, to see her with the people she had grown up with, to see how affection flew her way wherever she went. So there she stood in the soulless corridor of the liceo and between two students, we hugged and I told her how great she looked; she smiled in that lovely way she had and said "It's the wig, you know." Time was short, and I had to get back to the next candidate and what he or she'd remembered from York Notes on The Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm , The Old Man and the Sea, or whatever hackneyed classic was about to be rehashed

That December she sent a message saying she wasn't "quite out of the woods yet" and would have to go in for further treatment. She didn't reply to my return email urging her to get better soon (something I feel very silly about in hindsight). Mine was an unsually emotional message, one in which, perhaps for the first time, I told her how much her friendship meant to me. For the next few months, whenever I deleted messages to keep my inboxes manageable, I stumbled over that email of hers and for some odd reason I never deleted it. But, to be honest, I didn't have the courage to phone her or any of our mutual friends to ask how she was, because I was afraid I'd hate the answer.

It wasn't until June, when, down for another spate of Maturitá exams, I found out that, after informing her friends with that message, which had sounded so relaxed and optimistic, she'd gone into hospital and, within less than three weeks, she was dead. To think, we had parted so casually and hurriedly the previous summer and the last thing I remember her saying was so utterly Milena, gentle, funny and unsentimental...

She's still in my thoughts a lot, I still sometimes catch myself wanting to write to her, thinking how lovely it would be to get one of her well-crafted messages that felt as if she was talking to you, wishing we could sit on that balcony of hers and enjoy a glass of wine while the world was turning without us.

Milena, it's a bit more than a year after you stole out of my life, and I really miss you. Thanks for your writing but most of all, thanks for being the person that one (myself very much included) couldn't help loving.


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