Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
January 20, 1993, was a memorable day. It was the day of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, and he was the first Democrat to win the presidency since Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated, single post-Watergate term in office. My parents, FDR-style Democrats who survived the Great Depression and fought World War II, had begun to think they wouldn’t live to see another Democrat in the White House. But there we were, in my parent’s living room–in the house where I grew up–watching the first Clinton inauguration on the Sony Trinitron my parents bought when I went away to college more than a decade before.
It was the first color television they ever owned. I was the youngest of eleven children, and they made a lot of upgrades after I went off to college.
But I digress.
I was visiting my parents the morning of Pres. Clinton’s first inauguration, and I sat with them and watched Maya Angelou deliver the poem the president-elect asked her to write to mark the occasion, humbly titled “Inaugural Poem”. When she came to these lines, the three of us fell silent:
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you
Give birth again
To the dream.
The next morning–coincidentally, my mother’s 69th birthday–she scoured the Chicago Tribune, looking for the text of Maya Angelou’s Inaugural Poem. When I stopped by to wish her a happy birthday later that day, she read those lines to me again. “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,” I can still hear her say, “and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
My mother knew something about the wrenching pain of history, growing up when she did, walking past the camps of homeless, unemployed men in the public parks of her hometown during the Depression, sending her brothers and her fiancé off to war in Europe, not knowing if she’d see them again, and later worrying herself sick over her own sons as they registered for the draft, potentially to fight a war in Southeast Asia that nobody wanted.
More than that, she knew something about wrenching pain from her own personal history, having just buried her son, my brother John, not two years earlier, when he finally succumbed to demons he could never beat. You don’t know pain until you watch your mother iron a shirt for her son to be buried in. It is the worst thing in the world.
So those verses about not being able to unlive pain, but being able to see the day breaking again . . . they really meant something to her. That was a tangible thing she understood, and needed to hear.
We didn’t know then, sitting in my parents’ kitchen reading those verses some twenty-one years ago, that we’d soon bury my father, too. A little more than a year later, as it turned out. Dead of a heart attack at the unreasonably young age of 72, he never would live to see another Democrat in the White House. And maybe it’s a good thing that he never lived to see Pres. Clinton’s immediate successor, anyway.
In any event, after my father passed away, one of my siblings had those verses from Maya Angelou’s Inaugural Poem calligraphed and framed for my mother, and she hung them on the wall in the same kitchen where she’d read them to me on her 69th birthday. They stayed there till she finally sold the family homestead in 2000, then they followed her to the condominium where she lived till she died at the age of 86. She loved those verses so, and they gave her such hope despite everything she’d gone through, that we had them printed on the back of the prayer cards distributed at her funeral in 2010.
Maya Angelou passed away Wednesday, May 28, at the age of 86, the same age my mother was when she passed away almost four years ago. Perhaps more coincidentally still, May 28 would have been my brother John’s 59th birthday as well, if his demons hadn’t beaten him one too many times. My brother John, whose death hurt my mother more than any parent should have to hurt; and Maya Angelou, whose remarkable words helped my mother heal, at least a little. That’s some coincidence.
I have enough gray hairs on my head and I’ve witnessed enough of the universe’s randomness and cruelty not to read too much into coincidences like that. Still, it’s strange how as you get older, little bits of your past get chipped away. The people and things that mattered to you, that influenced your life in a million ways, gradually slip through your fingers and are gone. But the influence is still there, isn’t it, even if it came from someone you never met, who lived a life you could never imagine, but who spoke a handful of lines that lifted you up just a little even in the darkest times.