There are some people you meet in life, who are like no other. There is something about them that is pure. When they tell you they love you, they mean it. And you know it. And you can't help but love them back, even for just the purity of their soul.
I knew and didn't know Claudia Pryor, back in the day, when we were both producers for ABC network news. Typically a news crew, back then, consisted of a camera person, a sound person, sometimes a lighting director, a correspondent, a producer, and a film or tape editor. Since we held the same job as producers, we didn't work on assignments together. And we were stationed in different bureaus. But I knew her reputation and she, mine. That is, I kinda knew the person. I hadn't yet met the spirit.
Eventually we went our separate ways and lost track of each other. Claudia kept producing stellar work at NBC and PBS. After a successful, rewarding and notable career at ABC and CNN, I fell on some hard times, and went through some difficult transitions.
An unhappy and unsatisfying stint helping to develop Internet news in the mid-90's at MSNBC.com ended with my termination. I lost my income. Went bankrupt. Then my fiance left me. Then I went broke. With no job, no income, no savings, no prospects and no support, I found myself living in a homeless shelter of sorts.
I couldn't get a job, no way, no how. Everywhere I interviewed I was commended on what an extraordinary resume I had. I was praised for my experience by the interviewers. Unfortunately, because of said experience, they couldn't (or wouldn't) hire me. I was too experienced, so would be unhappy with too little responsibility. I had made too much money, so would be unhappy with a more meager paycheck. I was too accomplished, so would be unhappy with a lesser job title. What they meant was, I was too old.
Now, I don't believe in God. But, what happened to me next can best be described as spiritually serendipitous.
A friend of a friend heard I was homeless, found me and asked if I'd like to do radio commentaries on NPR about my fall from "living large to living on largess." I took the part-time gig. Then someone heard my stories on the radio, pulled their car off the road to finish hearing my report, also found my contact information, and offered me a job on expedition cruise ships videotaping the guests' adventures.
Here was an opportunity (and exhausting job) shooting, digitizing, editing, writing, narrating, producing, packaging, duplicating, selling and distributing videos. This was much farther down the professional food chain than I had been. But, now, thankfully, no one could say I wasn't qualified for whatever job they had - from a leadership role as Executive Producer to a hands-on role in the trenches. It was an odd turn in my life's journey.
As such, my professional and personal journey became meandering. It began to seem as if the universe was floating me down this winding, turbulent river, with no safe harbor in sight. At once, my heading seemed random. At the other, it was unfolding with a seeming purpose.
That's when the spirit of Claudia Pryor entered my life.
I got a phone call one day from Claudia, from whom I hadn't heard in twenty or thirty years.
She told me she was producing a documentary film about HIV/AIDS and African-Americans. Her co-producer had just died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. In her grief and anger, she called out to the universe, asking how she was supposed to complete this important film undertaking now, all alone.
Within days, she said, she had a vision. Like a montage in her mind, she saw multiple images of me from across the years. She thought it odd and gave it no further thought.
But, very shortly thereafter, a friend of hers called and asked if she knew a guy named David Guilbualt. She was taken aback, and said she hadn't thought of me in decades, but that I had just suddenly and unexpectedly come to mind. Her friend told her I was homeless.
So, Claudia called me. She said she needed someone to shoot, write and edit videos and teach disadvantaged high school kids to do the same. That is the skill set I had just been developing. My river had beached me right onto her shore. Or, perhaps, her spirit had brought us together.
I became her film's co-producer, co-writer and co-investigator (as this was also a scientific research project). And it became one of my most satisfy professional projects.
Claudia decided to depart from established norms and put together essentially a team of equals, even though we all had different backgrounds, to produce this project. While we all had titles, there was no established hierarchy. This was something I wasn't particularly comfortable endorsing.
But, I learned early on that Claudia was making many of her decisions now based on what her spirit told her. She literally would sometimes commune with nature, specifically a big tree in her back yard, to seek inspiration and guidance.
And, I'll be damned, it worked.
Claudia's instincts were nearly flawless. Even when I disagreed, and told her of my disagreements, I would soon recognize the wisdom of her spiritually-guided decisions. She always listened to my concerns and honestly considered them before following her own inner guidance system.
For the first time, in a long time, my talents and insights, were again, not only recognized, but sought and cherished. She took my counsel, willingly and voraciously, and moved me up out of the sub-culture of my own despair and back into the real culture of ideas, purpose and enthusiasm, where I long belonged.
Claudia Pryor was a person unlike any I had met before. She listened. She learned. She recognized her ego, but, was constantly courageous enough to put it aside in favor of a more humble approach.
She turned over great amounts of authority to those, who, in more conventional circumstances, would be denied that opportunity. Every person in her hand-picked team knew that they were being given unusual responsibility and, in turn, they rewarded that generosity.
Claudia didn't put together a work team. She put together a team of loving friends to work together.
And no work day passed without a goodly amount of time spent caring for the well-being of each of those friends. Claudia was understanding and forgiving. She was astute and accommodating. Feelings were always taken into account - hard feelings mitigated and hurt feelings soothed.
People are often, disingenuously, saying that their work teams are like family. This truly did feel like family. And, never in doubt, Claudia was the nurturing mom for her needy and grateful children.
At the heart of this documentary project were a dozen African-American teenagers from one of the poorest, under-performing, disadvantaged high schools in Pittsburgh. Early on Claudia decided to relinquish her own voice as the filmmaker and rely on the voices of the students as interviewers and narrators. It became their story to tell.
So, they interviewed scientists, health workers, activists, clergy and people living with AIDS. When I first heard some of the naive questions from the teens, I cringed a bit, thinking I would never ask a question that way. Then I heard the answer, and realized I would have never gotten that response. Again, Claudia's spirit had moved us in the right direction.
These were young men and women who had everything going against them. They went to a school that had failed them. And they lived in a neighborhood that was dangerous beyond imagining. I'll never forget how one young woman recounted to us how two of her brothers and too many of her friends had been murdered in their community. These were brave young people, who were grateful to have someone turn a camera on their lives and struggles.
Claudia was not afraid to step out of her role of journalist and filmmaker to lovingly embrace the role of mentor, therapist, confidante, even surrogate mother to these beautiful children who needed so much love and support. That reaching out never jeopardized her journalistic integrity. That, always remained sacrosanct.
Claudia had a true gift of empathy, without judgment. I have never had a friend reach so deeply into my soul and life with no intent other than to understand and to help. She did that with all of us - Bobby, Jeff, Chris, Vivian, Tamira, Clarisse, and Kodjoe. Suffice it to say, we all fell in love with Claudia. And, we all felt her loving, guiding hand in our lives.
All of our lives, professional and personal are the better for having known Claudia. For, now, I truly do feel I "know" Claudia.
After the film, "Why Us? Left Behind and Dying" was finished and played the film festival circuit to critical acclaim, each of us went on with our lives. Claudia, and her dear husband Howard, however, went to work putting together another team of friends to work on turning the movie into a high school curriculum.
Claudia was a fierce, vigilant and untiring advocate for the importance of the work. While African-Americans are about 12% of this nation's population, they make up about 50% of new HIV infections. As the film and curriculum so eloquently and passionately describe - the reasons for the ungodly spread of this disease in the African-American community are plenty - poverty, racism, religious intolerance, homophobia, miseducation, ignorance, secrecy, shame, gender inequality, incarceration, forced migration, medical neglect and corporate greed.
When Claudia received the disheartening news that she had lung cancer this past summer, it did not deter her from continuing her undertaking to deliver the message that is being largely ignored by the press and the very population that needs to hear it. She continued working on promoting the film and developing the curriculum.
This is when she had to rely the most on her spirit, and her stalwart soul-mate Howard. She told me in September, when I visited her at her home, that she honestly believed that she would beat the cancer. That's what she heard her spirit say.
She predicted she would be cancer-free by February and would celebrate a belated New Year's celebration in March. I had no reason to doubt her or the truth of her spirit. So, I went about my life, relieved, expecting she would be fully recovered, up and smiling by Spring.
Claudia, dear, dear Claudia. I am beside myself with grief. As are all your friends, who you always called "Sweetie." Your loss is our collective loss. Because your spirit was our collective spirit.
We will always remember your love, your love, your love. And we will honor your influential life, in this short time, on this fragile planet, knowing that your spirit is alive and well. Somewhere it is learning, experiencing, growing …. and loving.
I love and miss you, my dear friend, Claudia. We all do. But, you are not gone.
We were all meant to know the spirit that is, and will always be, you.