Maya Angelou died this morning, and we have lost an amazing woman whose spirit, spirituality, example and words touched so many people, including me.

Two days ago, Angelou wrote on Facebook that she had to cancel her visit to the Major League Baseball Civil Rights Game ceremony because of an unexpected medical emergency. It wasn’t the first time recently she had written something about her health on FB, and I thought to myself that I should write her a letter to let her know how her words have inspired me over the years.

Today, her agent announced the “noted author and poet died near her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina early this morning.” I won’t be writing that letter, and it’s not the first time that someone I admire, someone I consider one of my heroes, has died before I sent an intended letter. Madeleine L’Engle was the author and poet whose words changed the entire trajectory of my life when I read “A Wrinkle in Time” when I was 12. She died in 2007, and there was a half-written letter in my stationary box that I didn’t think was good enough to send yet. It’s still there.

Reaching out to a hero takes courage.

I wrote those words to a friend just yesterday who had reached out to one of her heroes, a celebrity of sorts, and the hero responded. I, too, recently reached out to one of my heroes, Laurie David, when I saw her at the “Fed Up” preview, to let her know how something she wrote inspired me personally and made a difference during a troubling time. Laurie responded with even more inspiration.

Thinking about this all this morning is a reminder to me that I need to have the courage to reach out to my heroes (whether I think my words are good enough or not), and I should do it sooner rather than later because later might be too late.

What I didn’t get to tell Maya Angelou was that a few of her sentences in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” have stayed with me since I read them in my early 20s, and I’ve attempted to live by them.

If there’s something you don’t like, change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.
Those inspiring words that have helped me become a stronger person. I didn’t always succeed in following her advice, but I did often, and when I did, it made a difference. It would have been good for me to tell her that.

I had a high school history teacher who had an eight-page hand written letter from James Cagney. He wrote to Mr. Cagney to tell him how much he admired him. That letter was my teacher's prized possession. As a kid, I loved old movies and James Cagney was one of my favorite actors. Most of my classmates didn’t know who he was and thought it was boring to have to listen to our teacher read this letter from the man. I hung on every word.

The teacher had us write to three people we admired. I chose Jimmy Stewart, Lisa Whelchel from “The Facts of Life,” and singer Amy Grant. I didn’t get back a single letter, let alone an eight-page one. I didn’t think much of it at that the time, but years later when Jimmy Stewart died, I was so glad I had written that letter to him.

I’m also glad my history teacher taught me it was important to reach out to the people I admire and let them know. Sometimes they might respond; sometimes they may not. Either way, it’s okay. It’s still good to get your thoughts and feelings out and know that you told someone they were special in your life. And, if they do die, you won’t be left to wrestle with, “I always meant to…”

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