When I was a little girl, I read the books of LM Montgomery. Her orphans taught me, a sensitive child in a harsh place, how to survive. I lived through Emily and Anne and Marigold. I admired their ability to remain optimistic despite their challenges. What challenges? Usually the loss of family, being the odd child out, being poor, being unloved. I understood.
But as I grew into a teenager, these avatars lost some power. Montgomery’s children faced challenges, yes, but they did not understand what a young body experiences when blows land and hands invade and words tear open hearts. If books were my benefactors, they were failing me.
I scoured my school libraries and read hundreds of books. Some helped, some didn’t. Some held portions of empathy, some didn’t. Then my beleaguered librarian recommended I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. He spent most of the following year, before I once again left school, harassing me to get it back. I still have it.
In it I found a story that gave me hope. After all, if she could survived what a man’s body does to a child’s, the violent love of a religious matriarch, poverty and pain and hatred, yet still have such perfect words – maybe I could too.
When I was teenaged and living in a group home, a therapist asked me to make a series of goals. One personal, one physical, one financial and one fantastic. I don’t remember any of the rest of them, but I remember my fantastic goal, the one that was most likely impossible: it was to meet Maya Angelou.
I never did, except through her books. There I visited her regularly. Sometimes I would see her on TV and I would be amazed that the person who had seen such devastation and triumph could also being a smiling, laughing grandmother, without losing any of the power her history gave her.
Then, in my 20s, I stopped reading her books. I kept them all, but I did not read them. Our lives had fallen out of sync. While she had a child, joined the civil rights movement, found ways to tell her story, I experienced severe depression, failed to finish school and found myself stalled, trapped in flashbacks and self-injury and feeling oh so tired. Where she had found strength, I felt, I had fallen down, I had been weak.
I couldn’t read her books because I had failed.
And now she is gone. I heard the news and, unexpectedly, I sat down and cried. I miss her, even though I have never met her.
Here is what I am realizing, though: She is gone at 86. That is exactly 50 years older than I am. 50 years I may have to write and love and experience and accomplish. I always feel so very old and used up, but perhaps I am not. Perhaps that last gift that she has given me, without ever knowing it, is 50 more years to try.
Thank you Dr. Maya Angelou, for every word and every tear and every time I felt that only you understood. Today I am going to read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I will try to find the hope I had when I first stole it, when I was looking for someone, anyone, whose story rang true.
Thank you for your story. Thank you for your truth. Thank you for your life.