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Meeting Octavia (p.s. Happy Birthday!)

In my 20s, “Octavia E. Butler” was the answer to: If you could meet anyone alive or dead, who would it be?

I had finished ‘Wild Seed’, her fourth book in the Patternist series, wondering about the woman who wove provocative social and racial themes into complex sci-fi plots.

Twenty years later in July of 2001, I met her. It was on a Saturday in Alaska at the Anchorage International Airport. I was with my husband, who was catching a jet to King Salmon, Alaska. We were sitting at his departure gate before I headed to the restroom, passing a tall black woman.

“Uh, excuse me, Ma’am?” I asked. The woman turned around.

“Are you Octavia Butler?”

In the deepest, richest, most regal voice, she intoned, “Yes…I am.”

“Oh, my goodness! I love you,” I gushed before adding, “Sorry...I mean, I love your work.”

Octavia was so cool. She responded, “And I…love your necklace.”

Turns out, she was a passenger on the same flight as Gary, on her way to Katmai National Park, where visitors view and walk among brown bears in their natural habitat. As Octavia approached the ticket counter to check-in, I politely excused myself, wandering back to sit beside Gary. Excited, I whispered in his ear who I’d been talking with.

After Octavia checked-in, she walked over to meet Gary. We chatted for a bit before she excused herself to the restroom. Returning, she sat on the other side of the waiting area. I conferred with Gary if I should go over. Thank goodness, he encouraged me.

“Ms. Butler, I know you must be tired. Would you mind if I sat down?”

“Not at all. I wasn’t sure if you wanted some privacy with your husband.”

“Oh, that’s okay, I see him often enough.”

We shared a chuckle. Sitting inches away from her, star struck and tongue-tied, her deep and calm presence, radiated. Stealthily, I inhaled her essence. Octavia asked about my writing projects. I asked her about her life. She shared snippets about her early writing days, jobs held. Octavia lived in Seattle, and as our time grew to a close, we exchanged business cards.

Within weeks I received mail containing materials from her writing workshops. Attached was a hand-written note which read, “Kim, look this up.” At Christmas, I received a Christmas card from her. A Bengali tiger was on the cover.

I debated calling her for years, even on layovers at Sea-Tac International Airport. I didn’t want to be pegged as a groupie or stalker. My indecision prevailed until, five years after our meeting, the opportunity to talk with her or have tea, was gone forever.

Octavia E. Butler, responsible for expanding my mind as a reader and writer, died February 24, 2006. That she may have opened a door for friendship, and I didn’t walk through, haunts me still. When I’m between words, struggling, it’s her spirit I invite into my writing space. Doubt abandoned, there is joyful kinship when she peers over my shoulder.

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