I stood in the kitchen with my back leaned up against the counter by the stove, and scrolled through my phone apps while I waited for the painters to arrive (I can write and sell stuff, Hubs can practice law, but neither of us is handy with a hammer. Or a paintbrush. Oh, well.) As I scanned my Facebook page and read about my friends’ various activities during the past twenty-four hours, I spied one particular post that made my breath catch in my throat for a brief second.
It’s not like I wasn’t expecting it. I knew she was ill – after all, I’d read it on Facebook a few days ago (and, let’s face it: these days Facebook is more reliable than Fox or MSNBC, and sometimes even CNN). I also surmised that the illness must have been serious since she cancelled her plans to attend the civil rights game hosted by Major League Baseball, where she was to be honored with the Beacon of Life Award. But, Maya Angelou? Dead? The reality hit me like a swift punch to the stomach. No more words of inspiration from this woman who overcame the insurmountable obstacles of poverty, racism, sexism, and an unplanned pregnancy only to emerge as one of the most notable American literary figures of the twentieth century. No more listening to that sultry, melodious voice as she relays stories of her life in Arkansas or New York or St. Louis or Europe. No more lessons learned from a woman who gained copious amounts of wisdom from a life lived with gusto and passion.
No more Maya.
I remember the first time I was introduced to Dr. Angelou. It wasn’t, as one might suspect, when I was in college, not even during the two years I studied as an English Lit major. Instead, I learned about the likes of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Sylvia Plath during those years. My first encounter with the great poet and orator was when I watched Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremony in 1993. I was pregnant with my first child – just pregnant enough to no longer possess a flat stomach – enjoying a day off from work, nursing the constant nausea that accompanied my first trimester of pregnancy, and listening to the details of the inauguration emanating from the television as I worked around the house. I remember I heard an introduction of some poet and an explanation regarding the historic significance of her presence that day because the last president to have a poet at an inauguration was President Kennedy, some thirty years earlier. And then she spoke. That voice, that beautiful, rich, sensuous, articulate, commanding voice that immediately beckoned me away from the stack of laundry I was folding and over to the couch situated in front of the TV just to catch a glimpse of the women who claimed that voice as her own. I was intrigued. Shortly after, I visited the local library and checked out I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And then I knew. I knew why the president invited her to his inauguration. I knew why her voice was so resonant. I understood her careful articulation of the words she spoke. And I understood what her presence on that stage meant. And I fell in love all over again.
Amid all the press, comments, and expressions of sorrow yesterday, I read a quote that described my feelings about Maya Angelou so precisely I wrote it down to put on my desk for daily remembrance:
“To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn’t have to go through half the things she has.” Gary Younge, writer for The Guardian, 2009
Her first autobiography is so expertly written that it transports the reader back in time and places her right smack in the middle of a completely foreign culture: the Black Deep South. Together with Maya I witnessed the same horrors, love, confusion, and intimidation that she did. And I learned about a way of life that, up until that moment, I had very little understanding and appreciation for. Because to live in the south is one thing, but to live in the south as a Black girl in the middle of the twentieth century is another thing, altogether.
Her experiences as a child and young adult were enough to wear most of us out and cause us to just be happy to make it from one day to the next. But, to overcome all those obstacles and then stand on stage at a presidential inauguration, read a piece of poetry she wrote and then turn around and have the President of the United States embrace her with sincere exuberance and appreciation? Well, I don’t know how she did it.
Over the past few years I have followed her Facebook page and marveled at the wisdom and honesty of her posts, much as I did that first day I heard her speak. Her comments of encouragement and hope still move me every time I read one of her quotes. And, now, as I contemplate what her life and work mean to me, I wonder if I can ever measure up to that person she admonished all of us to become whenever she spoke. Will any of us be what she hoped we would be?
The best we can do to honor her memory is to try to do just that: Be the best we can be, in spite of our circumstances and background, and remember that, while life is hard, it is worth living to its fullest.
Please feel free to take a minute and share your thoughts on Maya Angelou’s passing in the comments section below.