It’s humbling to meet your heroes, especially on a random Tuesday in Miami, Fla. when you least expect it. As I walked to the bathroom at the event center at the University of Miami after leading a workshop for mental health practitioners and press, I was not expecting to see Secretary Madeleine Albright washing her hands. Not that she wouldn’t wash her hands in that situation, but that this larger-than-life figure was standing right in front of me without an entourage in such a regular setting. I mindlessly swung open the heavy hotel bathroom door, and she was the first thing I saw.
I froze. I mean, what do you do in that situation? My body couldn’t compute words or emotions and so it just….stopped. Five seconds or five minutes later – I can’t tell – I barely whispered “Madame Secretary” as I ducked into a bathroom stall.
“Ma’am,” she responded as she grabbed paper to dry her hands, the rustling of towels somehow louder than my own heartbeat dying of embarrassment. I heard three clicks of her kitten heels as she walked to the bathroom door and then stopped.
“Young lady, always speak up so they can hear you,” she said plainly.
“Yes ma’am,” I sheepishly replied with my face in my hands, aware of the life advice I was just gifted. This was a woman who took world leaders to task, who always made sure her presence was known in a room in large and subtle ways, from her speech to her illustrious brooches and pins.
I left the bathroom and walked back to our ballroom, doing a little snooping to see why Secretary Albright was there. Her latest book, Prague Winter, just came out and she was doing a book tour. As our workshop wrapped up and I packed up the room, I mentioned to my board president that Madeleine Albright was in the hotel for a book signing and I wanted to make a pit stop. His eyes lit up as he took my hand and we went scouring the hotel for the signing table only to find that we were the last in line. She had been there for nearly two hours, surely her hand cramped and her face ached from smiling or posing so much for pictures.
“Madame Secretary,” I said louder this time. Her face turned from scowl to a hint of a smile as she gestured us to the table.
“You took my advice. Sometimes Hillary didn’t even do that,” she said with a chuckle.
“Ma’am, it’s a piece of advice I’ll remember my entire life,” I responded as we took a picture.
She asked for my name and signed a copy of the book “just because.” I knelt beside her as she wrote in my copy…
“Your story is still being written. Use your voice for good. – Madeleine”
If I were to see her again, I’d share about the profound impact she had in my life – not just by how she carried herself as a public servant but as an icon. I’d thank her for such a kind, small gesture that was true to her character – a moment that carried me through some of the most challenging times in my life. I’d tell her that I put her in the same place in my heart as I do Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and that I wailed with the news of her death this week.
But I can’t tell her those things. Instead, I’ll share this story with my son so that he‘ll use his voice for good and will remember that his mama is fighting with him.