Denise Miller, UK
Riding horses on a Scottish summer’s afternoon. Solemn hills and mountains form the backdrop, draped in purple and pink, courtesy of the indigenous heathers. The ground beneath the unmistakable drumming of the horses’ hooves is flat, hewn from the unrelenting slow-motion violence of an ancient glacier’s journey. Gentle laughter. Mother and daughter cantering comfortably through lush green fields.
To meet Denise you would have no idea of the pain she suffers daily caused by the fallout of a period of ill health, an accident, malpractice and bad luck. Repeated hospitalisations. Incessant surgeries. More than 60 medical procedures. Her blue eyes sparkle with humour. Her walking stick, a necessary prop, helps her mobility, but whispers nothing about a broken back. A gracious hostess, she ensures her guests have drinks, snacks, lunch. But she doesn’t breathe a word about her own need to eat – the necessity of food so that she can take the cocktail of painkillers she needs to dull the edges of chronic pain.
Ian leans forward with a wry smile: “She’s incredible, I’d have thrown in the towel years ago.” In just a single sentence, her husband speaks volumes about her strength and about the depth of their own relationship. The way Ian and Denise move around each other, almost unconsciously aware of each other’s every move and every need.
Almost every year since their wedding 15 years ago, Ian, Denise and their daughter Jessica have celebrated their wedding anniversary in Paris. “I love the sparkle of rain on the cobblestones and the pavement cafes in the little lanes around Montmartre”, says Denise. Recurrent hospital admissions and medical procedures interrupted this tradition. The family has not stood on the steps of the Sacre Coeur for five years.
This year will be different. Pragmatism and caution mean the tickets have not yet been booked, the date is still six months away. But this year, Paris is calling.
A chance encounter with an old friend, confidante and nurse, Wendy, in their local grocery store. Medical issues perhaps not a normal topic of conversation in the tinned goods aisle. Sympathy can be good, but understanding is better. “Perhaps you could try a different type of catheter?”
“The difference is like night and day”, says Denise. Previously she had felt imprisoned in her own home, unwilling or too ill to venture out. Her new product has opened her front door, and her delight in rediscovering the great outdoors is palpable.
Dinner in restaurants. Walks in the stunning countryside, the lush fields and shadows of rocky outcrops that surround the site of the Battle of Bannockburn. Laughing as she watches her daughter and husband mountain bike over rough terrain, splashing through muddy puddles. Camping. Spending two to three nights sleeping out under canvas and the immensity of the night sky festooned with the lights of a million stars.
“What’s happened has happened. I can’t change it”, says Denise. But she can make the most of what she does have. An example of that is art. During one of her admissions to hospital, Denise took up painting. It is a pastime that she brought home with her, where she continues to paint. Beautifully captured landscapes and market scenes in acrylics decorate the walls of her home and are testimony of Denise’s refusal to become a passive victim.
To be a Miller, to be part of Denise’s close-knit family is to be together, active and outdoors. After a life interrupted, Denise has reignited this spark. She may no longer ride horses with her daughter, but they still enjoy an outdoor and active life together as a family. Family is everything. It is easy to see why they have such pride in their beautiful, gracious, smart daughter. And watching her writhe in teenage mortification as her parents list her many achievements is the most perfect cameo of love, pride and strong family bonds, all of which are underscored by their gentle humour.
Not everything they do now is together, though. For Ian, it all began on October 22, 2006, when he fell from a moving Cessna 206, at a height of 1,000 metres (3,500 feet). Well not fell exactly. More like jumped. And he’s been jumping ever since.
Denise laughs. “He was as high as a kite, buzzing with adrenaline for the entire week after that first jump. I love going to the airfield and watching him. When he’s up there, he can be himself and enjoy himself just for the sake of it. He’s not a dad, not a carer. He can just be himself. I think that’s important.”
Their devotion to each other is so tangible, it’s impossible not to ask about their meeting. “So what did you first notice about Ian?” She looks down for a beat and then up: “His eyes.” It’s an example of Denise’s total modesty. Her seeming inability to be self-centred in any way. Although she’s telling the truth, Ian’s eyes are lovely, that’s not the whole picture, for Denise’s own eyes are stunning. The irises are the palest blue, with a translucent quality. Each iris is ringed by a darker blue, almost navy.
While Denise’s story of strength and victory in the face of adversity is as captivating as it is uplifting, it is her eyes that grab you first. They also present the perfect metaphor for her very self – soft, delicate, beautiful, but with a ring of steel.