I don’t precisely recall what detail of her own survivor’s story that Maya Angelou was disclosing across the telephone line. But whatever snippet she’d revealed that morning, as we wound down an interview I was conducting for a national magazine, stirred something powerful inside of me. That awful thing bolted from my broken heart and lodged itself squarely in my throat.
Though I tried to contain that lightning shot of emotion, Ms. Angelou heard my voice catch. She paused as I struggled not to cry.
“What’s the matter, beloved?”
That’s the question Ms. Angelou posed.
Unmasked in that moment, I yielded to her entreaty. I switched from being the consummate professional to bearing my flat-footed, full-on despair. I needed an ear. Somehow, I knew it was OK to just tell it. “ … I thought he was going to marry me. He promised. …”
Briefly, I babbled.
This great and perfectly imperfect woman — scribe, teacher, preacher, poet, truth-seeker, listener — allowed me a momentary meltdown. And I am grateful still for the gift.
Some context: I’d read most of Ms. Angelou’s books. I’d seen her hold forth on stage several times. I’d gladly received much of what she offered as everyday wisdom, including advice about the necessity of self-revelation. Testifying people help the rest of us navigate the best and worst of things and that, actually, is its own kind of singularly superb hope and progress.
For the last newspaper where I’d been a full-time staffer, I’d also interviewed Ms. Angelou in person. That day in Midtown Manhattan, she and Hallmark were launching a greeting card line bearing her signature.
If memory serves me, Ms. Angelou was walking tall and steady but there were signs that she was slowing. She had a cane.
This was one of those “press opps,” which I, for one, never liked, what with all the other journalists packed in and trying to get a leg up, too. But Ms. Angelou took her time with us, patiently answering questions, smart ones and those less so and those from questioners who hadn’t done what good reporters do. They’d not gotten up to speed about who Ms. Angelou was, about her expansive history, including a fraught but glorious coming of age in the same southern state that claims me as a native.
Nevertheless, Ms. Angelou was pure grace. She was good.
And I am glad to have my own few testifying words about her. High on that list is this remembrance of how Ms. Angelou capped that North Carolina-to-New York phone call those few years ago: “You’ve got my number, baby. Call me if you need an ear.”
To this day, I’ve kept that North Carolina number and the email of her longtime publicist and assistant, Bettie Clay, who must surely need our prayers just now, too.
But I never felt compelled to dial Ms. Angelou again. That she’d take the time, even invite me to pour out of my heart, which ultimately healed, was more than enough.