When I started at The Tennessean in 1994, I was largely shunned by co-workers who (rightly) found me to be cocky, annoying, bombastic and immature. It was a very lonely time in my life. I was 22 and straight out of college. My nights were spent on my own, walking the streets of downtown Nashville in search of … anything.
Truth be told, there was only one place that felt like home; one place where I could relax, be myself and shoot the shit.
The Tennessean library.
Inside that relatively small room, lined with yellowed newspapers and clips upon clips upon clips, I was adopted. One of my southern mothers was short, opinionated and Jewish. Her name was Nancy St. Cyr. My other southern mother was short, opinionated and African-American. Her name was Chantay Steptoe-Buford.
Whenever I was lonely, frustrated, excited, angry, agitated, hurt, thrilled … whatever, I would stroll down to the library, open the door, pull up a chair and talk. Nancy and Chantay would offer me advice on women; on career; on writing. They would listen to my seemingly insignificant complaints and, usually, laugh. “Oh Jeff, now you know that’s nothing,” Chantay would say with a dismissive laugh. “Everything passes.”
I am writing this because, right now, I am crushed. Beyond crushed. I have just learned that Chantayâ€”amazing, intelligent, lovely Chantayâ€”has died after a long, gutsy, nine-year battle with cancer and kidney problems.
It’s late, and I’m tired, and my words don’t seem to be working well. But Chantay was a beautiful, sparkling, glittering light of a woman. People always write this stuff when they learn someone dies, but here, it’s 100-percent true. She was one of those people you always wanted to see; someone who radiated joy and love and compassion. Chantay always had time to talk to me; I’d walk through the door and she’d say something like, “Jeff Pearlman! What do you know?”
But she was more than that. We all intend to do good things. We all plan on making a difference. But Chantayâ€”she did. In a recent column Dwight Lewis, my former Tennessean colleague, published a letter Chantay had written shortly after his wife had been diagnosed with MS:
I know exactly what your challenges are during this time and truly the Lord has led me to ask you to let me help.
I am willing to come and sit with your wife, help her with her hair, cleaning, laundry or running errands for you. I know you are capable of doing it all yourself. But â€¦ that will get old soon. Most of the time it’s just pride that won’t allow us to accept help.
We don’t want strangers in our home of knowing our business too closely. I suffered from the syndrome last year, until I saw how damaging it was to my husband and his spirit. You have a lot of responsibility with your wife, your job and then trying to get your book published.
This is a time God has set aside for you to get close to your wife and be blessed by your friends. Maybe you didn’t know we were your friends, but God always has a ram in the bush for you. Beverly (a Tennessean colleague) and I will do anything we can for you and your wife. No, I don’t have any money to give you. But me, my husband and Beverly are willing to work and serve the two of you in your time of need.
This does not have to be anything people have to know about. As a matter of fact, I cleaned (former Tennessean editorial writer) Ellen Dahnke’s house, did laundry and took away her trash every two weeks for a year before she died (in December 2006). My husband did odd jobs like fixing things, and changing light bulbs.
Nobody knew this except Anne Paine (another Tennessean colleague) who took complete care of her for years until she died.
I know you said your wife is a private person and she doesn’t know me from Adam; she has been dependent on herself and you to take care of her all these years but â€¦ ‘As a family, we are gifts from God to each other.’
The weekend is coming and I won’t be here on Friday. If you need someone before or after she is released from the hospital, we are available to you.