By Dave Andrusko
When the sad announcement was made that 86-year-old Maya Angelou had died, I knew only the most generally-known details of her life. For example, that Ms. Angelou was a prolific author and poet, actress and activist, best known either for her book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” or perhaps the poem she read at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton, “On the Pulse of Morning.”
I did not know that she had penned a powerful essay for the October 8, 2001, issue of Family Circle Magazine titled, “The Decision That Changed My Life: Keeping My Baby.”
I am reproducing it below, and then I will offer what the late Paul Harvey might call the rest of the story.
When I was 16, a boy in high school evinced interest in me, so I had sex with him — just once. And after I came out of that room, I thought, Is that all there is to it? My goodness, I’ll never do that again! Then, when I found out I was pregnant, I went to the boy and asked him for help, but he said it wasn’t his baby and he didn’t want any part of it.
I was scared to pieces. Back then, if you had money, there were some girls who got abortions, but I couldn’t deal with that idea. Oh, no. No. I knew there was somebody inside me. So I decided to keep the baby.
My older brother, Bailey, my confidant, told me not to tell my mother or she’d take me out of school. So I hid it the whole time with big blouses! Finally, three weeks before I was due, I left a note on my stepfather’s pillow telling him I was pregnant. He told my mother, and when she came home, she calmly asked me to run her bath.
I’ll never forget what she said: “Now tell me this — do you love the boy?” I said no. “Does he love you?” I said no. “Then there’s no point in ruining three lives. We are going to have our baby!”
What a knockout she was as a mother of teens. Very loving. Very accepting. Not one minute of recrimination. And I never felt any shame.
I’m telling you that the best decision I ever made was keeping that baby! Yes, absolutely. Guy was a delight from the start — so good, so bright, and I can’t imagine my life without him.
At 17 I got a job as a cook and later as a nightclub waitress. I found a room with cooking privileges, because I was a woman with a baby and needed my own place. My mother, who had a 14-room house, looked at me as if I was crazy! She said, “Remember this: You can always come home.” She kept that door open. And every time life kicked me in the belly, I would go home for a few weeks.
I struggled, sure. We lived hand-to-mouth, but it was really heart-to-hand. Guy had love and laughter and a lot of good reading and poetry as a child. Having my son brought out the best in me and enlarged my life. Whatever he missed, he himself is a great father today. He was once asked what it was like growing up in Maya Angelou’s shadow, and he said, “I always thought I was in her light.”
Years later, when I was married, I wanted to have more children, but I couldn’t conceive. Isn’t it wonderful that I had a child at 16? Praise God!”
This essay takes on even great poignancy if we know that over the course of her long life Ms. Angelou endured enormous hardships. She accumulated countless honors—she was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973, won three Grammys for her albums, received an honorary National Book Award for her contributions to the literary community in 2013, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom –but there was a great deal of pain and trials and tribulations as well.
The story is a long, long one but important. Angelou’s only grandson, Colin, was kidnapped in 1981 by her ex-daughter in law after she lost custody. It would take four years to find Colin and bring him back home. In the meanwhile, Guy’s physical condition deteriorated from bad to worse.
In 1962 Guy (then 17) had broken his neck in an automobile accident. The grandson had been missing for a year, according to Beverly Beyette, writing in 1986 for the Los Angeles Times, ”when Guy Johnson’s 20-year-old neck injury began to plague him; calcium deposits had attached to his spine and Johnson, tall and husky and athletic, was starting to have serious coordination problems. Soon, he was at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, paralyzed from the neck down.”
Guy, understandably, hit an emotional low, Beyette wrote.
Angelou remembers him telling her, “Mother, I refuse to live a talking head. And though you’re my Momma and though I’m your only child, and I know you love me, I have to ask you something no one should ever ask a mother. If there’s no chance of recovery, I have to ask you to pull the plug and let me go.”
Well, Angelou said, smiling as she recalled the startled faces of the intensive-care nurses, “When I really understood what he was asking me, I mean, I started screaming–’Total recovery, that’s what I’ll accept, total! I see you walking, standing, riding. Total!’ “
Things did not turn around quickly. “His spinal column was too fragile to even blow on and there was a blood clot sitting on it that had to be removed.”
As Angelou told her story, her voice again rose to a shout: “I said, ‘I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. I’m going to somebody much higher than you, much higher. You did the best you knew to do and I have no argument with you. But now I’ve gone somewhere else.’ “
The surgeries were a success. One morning, Angelou said, the nurse awakened her and said, ” ‘Good news.’ We went in and she pulled the sheets off Guy’s feet and there was one toe (wiggling).” The joy of that moment, now relived, made Angelou once again slap her hands together and laugh.
Now, the search for Colin would intensify.
I don’t think anything else needs to be added, or could be added. A remarkable woman whose loyalty to her son and grandson—her determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is incredible—is a lesson to us all.