Speeding down the road, it seemed like just another day at work. My camera person Maxine and I were heading out to interview a woman for a special Thanksgiving feature on the BBC. Max and I had been on several shoots together over the previous six months, and this was no different. But as we hurtled along, in anticipation of our next television adventure, conversation somehow migrated to a feature we had done in the middle of summer, with a woman we both had come to admire and respect in the 20 minutes in which we’d gotten to know her.
“I heard that Lucy — I think that was her name — passed away recently,” Max said. “Lucy?” I questioned. I could hardly believe it. “Yeah, Lucy Stokes, I believe it was.” Max responded. For a moment, my heart sunk. It seemed like just days ago I had been in this woman’s living room, interviewing her about her struggle to buy groceries. And now, gone? It didn’t seem right. She was such an incredibly nice lady who made us strangers feel like a part of her family.
I had the great honor of meeting Ms. Lucy Stokes by way of a story on the international food crisis I was producing for the BBC back in June. The point of the story was to look at how the global rise in the price of food was affecting the low-income population of Washington, D.C. and the United States as a whole. Lucy, a 70-year-old grandmother, invited Maxine and me into her home to interview her about how the price rise was affecting her and the people she tried to help as a volunteer.
That’s one of the things that I really admired about her. There was no mistaking that Lucy herself was a direct victim of the economic downturn, a senior on a low fixed income living in public housing who depended on food stamps and food pantries. But she wouldn’t let the title of “victim” define her. She actively volunteered for the nonprofit We Are Family to help feed others suffering her same plight.
Walking into her small apartment, I couldn’t help but notice the various awards and certificates of recognition adorning her walls. Years of accumulated knickknacks adorned shelves and tabletops throughout the living room. Photos of her family in simple frames stood prominently on corner shelves along the side wall. “Please, come in. Have a seat,” she said, welcoming us with a broad smile. Though my job invokes a certain sense of awkwardness with most people I encounter as I penetrate their personal lives, she accepted us as instant friends.
As we sat down, she described how it was getting harder for her to move around, her body aging far faster than her young spirit and sharp mind. She told me about the various medical ailments she suffered from, which required a daily regimen of high-priced medications. And, rising food prices were starting to affect how much medication she could afford to buy. Her words flowed slowly but deliberately. Her intent gaze and slight smile suggested concern masked by quiet optimism.
As the interview drew to a close, I asked her a final question in hopes of understanding how she could radiate such strong joy in the midst of such immense personal struggle: “Do you ever get depressed?”
She paused for a moment and then responded, “I don’t be depressed because if I’m depressed and down, that’s just another medication I have to take, which means that’s more money out of my pocket. So I have to stay sort of upbeat to survive.”
Her words hit me with such force, I could hardly summon a response. They were real, raw and to the point. They evoked a strange sense of irony, almost making you want to laugh if you weren’t already choked up with tears. I realized that I could not fully understand in that moment what she was going through. And I definitely wasn’t equipped with the right words to console. I just sat motionless, murmuring under my breath, “I’m sorry.”
It’s strange now to think that a woman of so much kindness and love, a woman who welcomed me into her living room just six months ago, is gone. I can only imagine she is somewhere up in heaven liberated from medication and the stress of putting bread on her table.
For me, Lucy started as a story assignment but soon became a model of strength in the face of great suffering. Of all the people I will likely talk to in what I hope is a long career in journalism, I have a feeling I won’t ever meet anyone quite like Lucy.
See the video story here.
A memorial site for Lucy Stokes is here.