Maya Angelou died on Wednesday, May 28, 2014. When I found out, I was dismayed and I groaned deeply. I personally feel the loss. She was certainly a role model for me, and she helped ignite within me the desire to write stories, poems, and great books. I can’t thank her enough for the life she lived before us and the way she brought a melodious quality and an aquatic flow to her words.
I met her in the late ’90s when she came to Austin for the University of Texas’ Lecture Series. Not only did I sit in the audience and then write an article about her visit; I left my seat when she exited the stage. I just happened to go into a backstage area as I quietly followed a young lady who I didn’t know. Up ahead of us, by about three yards, was Maya and a man who I believe was her bodyguard. Their strides were long, flowing and determined.
I was far behind, not supposed to be following them, and not comfortable with the idea of outright running. But I wanted to catch up to her. I wanted to feel the pulse of her greatness. I wanted to see her up close.
They neared a ramp where a car was parked to whisk her away, and I was still quite a distance behind them. The girl who I initially followed had long ago cut to the left or the right, so it was just the three of us walking down that long corridor.
What helped me catch up were two things. For starters, instead of taking the steps down the ramp where her car was parked, I jumped the two feet vertical distance and then walked a few steps to the car, where the driver had already opened the door for her to enter. The second thing was that a person who asked her to autograph a book delayed her entrance into her awaiting limousine. By the time she started to speak, I was right upon them.
I ended up face-to-face with the great Maya Angelou after the other person moved. Ms. Maya Angelou looked me in the eye with a rather penetrating gaze as if to say, “Hello, I am glad to take a moment to spend with you.” I told her which paper I was writing for (The Villager Newspaper), and then she shared with me some advice. Maya told me some poets to read – they were not the traditional ones you might expect. When I checked out those poets’ work later, it was deeper than my then-capacity to understand. Years later, I understood them better. They were high-end, deep long ago poets; rather than modern living ones.
I was blessed in the ensuing years to write volumes of poetry and a number of books. I had almost forgotten that I’d met her – until her death.
So today, when she died, I felt like I’d lost a mentor, a friend, a fellow-writer, even a mother.
On the day she died, I listened as Nora O’Donnell of CBS Evening News described her as able to spin words into gold. Her co-anchor credited Maya as having a powerful pen and a powerful voice.
She was all of that and more. I believe she is singing and talking and writing with the heavenly host; as she “holds God in her throat,” words she used in one of her books.
I feel the loss in my gut – she is gone, but never forgotten. She leaves a long wake, albeit an emptiness. Maya Angelous was not afraid to live her life out loud, to be in the public eye, to tell some piercing truths. I can think of no other writer and speaker of my own lifetime that impacted me so much and made me determined to write and speak with her same confident and humble eloquence.
As President Obama stated, “She was one of the brightest lights of our time.” He awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.
As she once said, knowing that God loves ME is enough to make me think I can do anything, if it’s a good thing.