She was a beautiful and beloved wife, mother, teacher, director, stage painter, prop builder and so much more.
These titles described Diana Mays-Nielson, one of the hardest-working and most dedicated theater teachers in the Parkland.
Sadly, she passed away Jan. 6 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer. She leaves behind her loving husband Brandon of nearly 28 years, whom she met in the theatre department at Southeast Missouri State University in 1992 when she was a costumer and he was a scene shop assistant, and children Amberlain, 27; Caylen, 21; Emery, 10; and soon-to-be granddaughter who is expected to arrive in late April.
“It seems like we lived three or four lifetimes, with different friends and loved ones filling each to the brim,” said Brandon. “But this last lifetime, as the theatre teacher she was always meant to be, was just the icing on a multi-layer cake.”
Diana’s health journey began when she sought treatment for back pain and eyesight issues in early 2021. By November, she experienced worsening headaches and dizziness. She attempted to manage the issues while trying to find solutions. But her headaches soon became so debilitating that she made an appointment with an ENT. When a specialist could not find anything wrong with her inner ear, he suggested an MRI might provide more information.
In mid-March of 2021, at least three tumors were found on Diana’s brain. After an appointment with a neurosurgeon at Washington University Center for Advanced Medicine. From there, more tests and scans were completed. A tumor was found to be infused on Diana’s spinal column, and an additional cyst was found near her spinal cord.
After brain surgery and a biopsy, it was determined that Diana, who had never been a smoker, had a rare mutation where cells in her body simply turned cancerous. More tumors of varying sizes were discovered after additional scans were completed.
A “magic pill” – which was designed for her DNA so it would target specific cells which turned cancerous – worked.
After back surgery and radiation, doctors felt her prognosis was good.
Diana returned to teaching at Farmington High School that fall.
The amount of support she received from family and friends was “humbling and overwhelming – in a good way.”
Local theater and choir director friends Chuck Gallaher, Kim Zustiak and Claire Naes, along with students and parents, stepped up to help their friend complete her show “Little Shop of Horrors.” They created fundraisers to help her family with financial needs.
“Family, friends, students and the community have been so generous and loving toward me and my family,” she said at that time. “I am truly humbled by the texts, cards, calls and messages I received from friends, family, former students and community members who just wanted to let me know they are thinking about me and praying for me.”
Zustiak, Gallaher, Naes, and several others organized the “Shrek the Musical” fundraiser production in her honor.
Diana said then that the production was “more of a gift for my soul than a fundraiser. I don’t know how to ever repay them for that.”
According to Diana’s husband Brandon, she lost her hearing and her balance during her 21-month battle with cancer.
But through it all, she never lost her spirit, will to survive or her desire to be independent.
Diana was able to teach this fall with the increasingly needed help of aide Michael Jackson.
“The support of the school administration and all of her peers at the high school have enabled Diana to continue her passion and touch the lives of even more kid through her gift of teaching, understanding, inclusion, compassion, and of course great stage plays,” said Brandon.
When her balance worsened, additional scans revealed a slight increase in the mass of the tumor in her left lung. This meant the medication was likely no longer fully effective.
More scans and a spinal tap revealed elevated cancer cells in Diana’s cerebral spinal fluid and increased tumors throughout her body.
At that point, each treatment hinged on the success of the previous one.
Diana’s family had already determined each day was a gift, and they continued to live one day at a time.
Unfortunately, Diana’s battle with cancer became a day-to-day concern. Her outlook was suddenly being measured in weeks and days. Diana’s family took her to Evelyn’s House, a hospice facility in Creve Coeur, on Dec. 30 to keep her as comfortable and pain-free as possible.
Brandon wrote, “The family waits by the door, ready for when Diana decides she’s ready to go. In the past, we sometimes waited patiently, our arms often full of the things she needed to take with her. This time we will wait, without complaint, our arms so unfortunately empty, but our hearts and minds so full of all the things we will be able to take with us. As always, I’m sure we’ll be running a little late. She’ll be there when she gets there.”
Diana loved words, and her family often shared quotes to express their feelings, and they shared a few for this story.
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.” – Dumbledore
“The more you read, the more you learn, the more you learn, the more you know.” – Dr. Seuss
“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” – Dead Poet’s Society
“This is the way.” – The Mandalorian
The family’s bathroom walls are wallpapered with pages from a Globe Shakespeare book. Diana knew and loved nearly every line of most of William Shakespeare’s plays.
One of her favorite lines was, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.”
But perhaps 10-year-old daughter Emery, also lovingly referred to as “The Tiny Tyrant,” said it best when she quoted Winnie the Pooh: “I’m so lucky to have something that hurts to say goodbye to.”
Diana’s family and friends will have a cast party to honor her at the Farmington Centene Center in February. The goal is to set a date to allow those from out of town, including former students who are at college, to travel to Farmington for the event. Details will be posted online when the date has been determined.
In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to be made to CTA Cares, a cause Diana was especially passionate about which helps students in need. Checks may be sent to CTA Cares, Jefferson Elementary, Attn: Candy Husk, 9 Summit Drive, Farmington, MO 63640.
“It will be a come-as-you-want gathering of family and friends,” said Brandon. “Diana was opposed to a typical funeral, her thought, and our kids agreed, that having them stand up in front of a line of people for an extended period of time just wasn’t something that she wanted to subject them to.”
He said Diana loved to talk and spend time with people at informal gatherings. At a cast party, individuals can share stories, chat about previous productions, and more. Bobby Upchurch will give a eulogy, and some of the kids have expressed they’d like to sing some songs.
“This will be the most ‘funeral’ part that Diana would accept,” said Brandon. “Other than that, just a gathering to celebrate all the good things. She wanted to maybe even have some of the people wear costumes from their favorite shows or characters if they’d like.”
He said theatre has been such an important part of their family’s life.
“Anything theatrical has always brought our family the greatest joys,” he said.
Although Diana wanted to plan all of the details of her own cast party, she was unable to because she was still directing her last show, “CLUE,” right up until the point that time was running short. (The spring musical will be “The Little Mermaid,” a combination of Farmington and Central High School students working together. Diana did this to ensure her kids would have their spring musical, even if she was unable to participate.)
“Diana wasn’t able to, so it is up to us and those close friends that knew her so well to make her cast party happen,” said Brandon.
He said Diana’s story isn’t over, as long as her family and friends can keep turning the pages of the book about her life.
“Let’s be honest,” said Brandon, “this book will be a classic, shared again and again, even after the final chapters are written.”
And as they say in theatre, the show must go on… For Diana Mays-Nielson, her final curtain call might have already occurred, but her unforgettable performance will live on forever in the hearts of those who knew and dearly loved her.
Pam Clifton is a contributing writer for the Daily Journal