I can’t stop thinking about the words of one of my favourite poems. It was written by one of my favourite writers, and when I’m in a mood, it’s the piece of writing that can lift my spirits. I first heard Maya Angelou read her poem, Still I Rise, in a grade 8 English class. It was a recording, obviously, but her voice drew me in because, in my opinion, she was one of the greatest orators we’ve ever known.
But then I looked down at the words written in a book. My throat tightened, my jaw clenched and I tried to swallow a rush of unexpected emotion. What kid wants to cry in class? I don’t know many adults that want to cry in public. But there I was, sitting in that class, feeling a flood of emotions that I couldn’t identify.
From poetry in an English class? As far as I was concerned, back then, there was nothing fun about poetry. It was dry, boring, and no thank you. So, naturally, I wasn’t paying attention at first. Nope, I was half tuned out, but then Dr. Angelou spoke, and there was something about her voice that woke me up.
Her words moved through me and took root. It felt like a warm breath was being infused into my veins. My blood was carrying that warmth throughout my whole body. It was energy. It was fire. It was a jolt of electricity that brought with it a single question: Can I rise?
The first time I heard this poem, I was walking through my own nights of terror and fear. My body was shutting down, and every morning I woke up sicker than the day before. My future— It didn’t look like I had one to look forward to, and that’s a reality no child should experience. It’s an uncertainty and a reality that most adults can’t process. How can a child face a life-threatening illness? How can they do so with any kind of prehension? They can’t, not really, and they shouldn’t. But there I was, fighting a battle that was a lot bigger than I was.
I was diagnosed with chronic renal failure (kidney disease) when I was three years old after what one doctor called, medical misadventure. I keep using that term because I find it amusing in a perverse sort of way. It’s just a polite way to say someone f**ked up.
A mistake was made during a simple surgery, but the surgeon didn’t want to own up to it or admit that something was wrong. I’ve talked about it in greater detail in the past, so I’ll leave the details out for now. But, when the problem became clear, it was too late to fix it, and my kidneys were so damaged that they would, eventually, fail.
They began to shut down when I hit puberty, and once they started to go, it was a free fall. To say I became incredibly sick would be an understatement. When I say that I was dying, I’m not being dramatic.
By the time I was sitting in that classroom, listening to that poem, I’d been on dialysis for a couple of years, and I’d had one failed kidney transplant. My body rejected the organ almost immediately, and all attempts to get it to work had left me frail, weak, and damn near dead. In fact, I was so sick that, a few weeks after hearing Dr. Angelou’s poem, I had to leave school for good. I was spending more time in the hospital than at home, and with the amount of school I’d missed, there was no way I could catch up or keep up.
And the worst was still to come! I didn’t know it at the time, but I could feel it. Do you ever have a premonition, or is it intuition? Either way, you’re bracing for an impact you can’t see, but you can feel it coming. It’s almost as if the bright headlights are blinding your rearview mirrors. You can’t see the car, but you know it’s coming up behind you too fast for safety or comfort.
That’s how I felt, sitting in that classroom, with a sense of inevitable hopelessness. We hadn’t lost the battle, but it felt like it was only a matter of time. Since people have asked, chronically ill children learn about the realities of mortality at a very early age. So, what did I know about losing battles? Too much. Too soon.
“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
(Still I rise, by Dr. Maya Angelou)
With those words, at that moment, my heart stopped and tears clouded my vision. I hadn’t read Dr. Angelou’s story, and I didn’t know what she’d risen above. But she did rise, that much was clear! I didn’t just read it in her words. I heard it in her voice. People who’ve had to fight for their lives and for their futures carry the scars in their voices. It adds a tenor that, if you’re unfamiliar, sounds weighted and strained. If you’ve heard it, you know that they are survivors without knowing what they survived.
I’d heard that tone in the hallways of hospitals and at the gravesites with grieving friends. That day, I heard it in this poet’s voice, and I knew, whatever she’d been through, had been heavy and painful. It was unmistakable, heartbreaking, but she sounded strong.
It was with that strength that she rose, and for me, during my own battle, she gave me hope. I didn’t know why, not entirely, and I didn’t have the words to express it. Even now, many years later, I don’t have the words to adequately express how this poem impacted my life, but she rose. She rose. She rose above her pain, grief, sorrow, and she became a strong voice for many of us who feel weak.
Much later, I learned about Dr. Angelou’s past, her story, and what she went through as a child. I can’t even begin to understand what it was like for her. But what she did with that pain? What she did with her life? She rose above it and became an accomplished writer, civil rights activist, and a leading voice of hope. She’s inspiring, to say the absolute least.
Our stories are vastly different, but she endured so much at such a young age, and that’s something I can relate to. Being forced to live an adult life while still living in a child’s body is something very few people can, mercifully, understand.
Hearing from someone who does, though, is so important and, more importantly, it’s needed. That day, in that classroom, I heard the voice of someone who understood pain, understood what it was like to be a child in pain, and she got through it. She survived. She was strong. I don’t know if anyone ever gets over it, but she survived and thrived.
The hope that gives— the hope it gave me— is immeasurable, and it is life-saving. It’s mind saving! Being in pain, at any age, is isolating and lonely. It can feel like you are the only person stranded on an island of nightmares. No one can hold you when you cry. No one can save you from the darkness. No one can help you stand when your legs gives out. I have often felt, on my worse days, that the pain was driving me insane. I felt like I was losing my mind.
But then I read this poem, and I’m reminded that I’m not alone. Other people have been where I am, and they have made it through to a place of peace and self-acceptance. They fell, but then they rose. They’re bloody, beaten, and broken, but that didn’t stop them from getting up, walking forward, and holding their heads high.
Hearing from people who have struggled or are struggling helps me feel like my island isn’t small and isolated. I still might lose my mind, but there are people who know where to look and where to find it. They’ve had to look for their own minds, find their own feet, and they’ve risen. Knowing that means that I am not alone, and neither are you.
The truly magnificent thing about Dr. Angelou’s words is the fact that they were first spoken at a time when being open about our struggles was taboo. It still is, to a certain extent, but back then? Talking about mental health, surviving sexual assault and domestic violence, being vulnerable wasn’t appreciated. But doing so, as a woman and a woman of colour— it wasn’t done, but she did it. She spoke openly and honestly about her experiences.
I can’t believe how much strength that must’ve taken. The courage?
She laid the foundations of normalizing vulnerability, and she showed us that there’s strength in doing so. Am I fangirling? Hell yeah! And I won’t apologize for it. I am in awe of anyone who has the courage to tell their story. I admire anyone who can own their challenges and pain while letting the rest of us know that we aren’t stranded, abandoned, or forgotten.
I was recently reminded of the importance of saying these words out loud. You are not alone. It’s a simple sentence that can, at the right moment, save a life or a mind. It can be the hand that helps someone rise or help them hold on. Even if it’s said in an offhanded way, to the ears that need to hear it, it’s a lifeline.
These words have brought me to tears because I felt so alone, and the silence was deafening. Then someone said, you are not alone. They didn’t know what it meant to me, and I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear it. It’s such a simple thing, but the power it carries is immense.
You are not alone.
We all need to hear these words, whether they’re spoken directly or through a poem. We need to feel seen, understood, and our struggles need to be validated without comparison. It’s in these words that I’ve found hope and the strength I need to keep fighting a battle that I didn’t think I could win. Perhaps more importantly, it’s in these words that we find community and fellowship.
“Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.”
(Still I Rise, Dr. Maya Angelou)
We will rise when we foster compassion and empathy. We will rise when we see the person standing in front of us with the eyes of understanding. We will rise when we come together, on that island of nightmares, and join hands. We will rise when we hold each other and say, you are not alone.
Thank you, Dr. Angelou, for being that voice for me at a time in my life when I desperately needed to believe that one day I could rise too.