I met Dr. Maya Angelou in 2011 when I interviewed her for a film project that Linda and I were helping some young friends create. Oprah made the connection, and we flew to interview her at her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina, U.S.A. As our questions became more substantive, I could see her engage more deeply in the interview, and her answers became more and more awesome to me. After the interview, to my surprise, she invited us into her dining room for tea. She also gave Linda and me one of her famous cookbooks and inscribed it to “My New Heart Throbs.” I soon realized that Dr. Maya Angelou was one of my heart throbs as well. This was the first of eight trips to her home that Linda and I would make during the next three years.
We both found ourselves thinking about Maya Angelou a lot when we returned home. It was as though we had never left her. Two weeks later she called. “I am still soaring!” she told us. Linda and I felt exactly the same. We decided to create a “salon” by phone and to meet monthly to talk about important and interesting things. Soon we were speaking every Sunday morning, and we continued to speak every Sunday that she was not traveling until she passed on.
There was nothing romantic about Dr. Maya Angelou that I saw, but everything she did came from a deep and deeply loving place. “When you know better, you do better,” she told us and the many members of her extended family that gathered around her dining table, especially on her birthdays and at Thanksgivings. “When you get, give,” she told us. “When you learn, teach.” “People will forget what you say and they will forget what you do, but they will never forget how you make them feel.” Dr. Angelou made me feel included, welcome, significant, part of the family, and a colleague. I have never met a person like her.
She traveled around the country giving events and inspiring talks, often to young people, in her private bus. We once drove to meet her in Portland, Oregon, where she was giving a talk to a huge sold-out audience. As we rode with her in her bus to the venue, she was quiet and inward, as though conserving her strength. When the curtain went up, however, there she was, seated elegantly without her oxygen, ebullient and unstoppable. I wondered whether going that long without oxygen was uncomfortable or fatiguing to her, but as one of the extended family observed, “If Maya’s got it, she’s giving it.” I often thought that she might be in pain as she moved on her walker from her private quarters in her house to the dining table, but if so, she never talked to us about it. Instead she told us, “When you are in pain, don’t be a pain.”
I did not at first recognize the greatness of our new friend or the scope of her reach. The First Lady of the United States described one part of it, “She reached a white woman in Kansas who named her daughter after her and raised her son to become the first black President of the United States,” while a few rows in front of us President Bill Clinton, who had invited Dr. Angelou to read her poetry at his inauguration, sat with the rest of us in celebration of her life.
“When I go on stage,” she told us often, “I bring with me everyone who has loved and supported me. They are on the stage with me. How can I be afraid?”
Dr. Maya Angelou inspired me to do more, reach deeper, and give more than I have in the past. She touched me with her love and caring and complete commitment to loving. The last time Linda and I called her, she came to the phone to tell us that she was speaking with her grandson and said in her matter of fact way, with complete authority, “I can’t talk with you now. The important thing is that you called and I love you and you know that.” We had no doubt about it.
Thank you, Maya Angelou. Your presence will always be a joy in my life.