Oprah Winfrey has opened up about the emotional final moments she spent with her late mother, Vernita Lee, who died at the age of 83 at her home in Milwaukee on Thanksgiving Day.
The 64-year-old media mogul sat down with People for a candid interview about the days she spent with her mother before her passing, admitting that she initially struggled to find the right words while saying goodbye.
‘In hospice care they have a little book about the little conversations,’ she said. ‘I thought, “Isn’t this strange? I am Oprah Winfrey, and I’m reading a hospice care book on what to say at the end.”‘
Oprah knew her mother was dying, and before her death, her half-sister Patricia, whom Vernita had given up for adoption in 1963, called to say that she thought it was the end.
Although she was planning to go to launch Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, in Chicago, she got on a plane and flew to Milwaukee to surprise her mother.
‘She’s sitting in this little room—she loves sitting in this room where it’s 80 degrees. She just watches TV all day,’ she said.
The next day, Oprah did the launch in Chicago and flew back to Milwaukee to be with her mom.
‘I sat with my mother. I said, “I don’t know if you’re going to make it. Do you think you’re going to make it?” She said, “I don’t think I am.” I had a conversation with her about what that felt like, what it felt like to be near the end,’ she recalled. ‘I started telling all the people who cared about her that, “She knows it’s the end, so, if you want to say goodbye, you should come and say goodbye.”
‘So that’s what happened. People would come in. She would tear up when she saw them,’ Oprah said. ‘You could see the appreciation and love she felt for them. Then, I said to her, “What a wonderful thing to be able to say goodbye,” because she’s completely coherent and perfectly understanding everything.’
When she left to go speak in Lowell, Boston, she felt it was going to be the last time she said goodbye to her mother, although she didn’t tell her that.
Oprah ended up getting snowed in, in Lowell. She canceled the meetings she had in California and went back to see her mother.
‘I went back to Milwaukee, because I felt like I had not closed it,’ she explained. ‘I felt like I knew it was the end, but I wanted to make sure she knew it was the end, and that I said everything I wanted to say.
‘I went back and I spent some more time and I sat in that hot room,’ she said, laughing. ‘I watched The Bold and the Beautiful. I watched The Young and the Restless. I watched The Price is Right. I watched Steve Harvey on the Game Channel. I watched it in a loop. I sat in the room, and I sat in the room. I was about to lose my fricking mind in that room, but I sat. I just sat.’
Oprah said she was waiting to figure out what she wanted to say to her mother during their final moments together, but she ‘couldn’t find it that day.’
The next morning, she woke up and prayed to find the right words to say to her mother before she passed.
‘I just thought, “What is the truth for me? There isn’t going to be an answer in a book. what is the truth for me? What is it that I need to say?”‘
Oprah said she walked in with an iPhone and a voice in her head told her to start playing some music. The gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was the first artist to come up on her Apple iTunes, and she thought: ‘Oh, that’s good. Mahalia Jackson, Precious Lord.’
She then got the idea to call up her dear friend, gospel singer Wintley Phipps, who sang ‘Precious Lord’ to her mother from his kitchen table via FaceTime.
‘I played another one of her favorite artists, Joshua Nelson, singing ‘How I Got Over.’ I could see that it opened her a little bit, because my mother’s been a very closed down person. I could see that the music gave me an opening to say what I needed to say,’ she recalled.
‘What I said was, “Thank you. Thank you, because I know it’s been hard for you. It was hard for you as a young girl having a baby, in Mississippi. No education. No training. No skills. Seventeen, you get pregnant with this baby. Lots of people would have told you to give that baby away. Lots of people would’ve told you to abort that baby. You didn’t do that. I know that was hard. I want you to know that no matter what, I know that you always did the best you knew how to do. And look how it turned out.”‘
After Vernita gave birth to Oprah in 1954, she left the infant to be raised by her own mother Hattie Mae Lee in Mississippi, while she worked away from home in Milwaukee as a housemaid.
Oprah was six when she first went to live with her mother when her grandmother became ill. She was later raped and abused by family friends, who have not been publicly identified, while living with her mother in Milwaukee.
The future media mogul moved to Nashville to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey, permanently in 1968 after she became pregnant at age 14. She gave birth to a son, who died when he was just a week old. He died before he left the hospital. Oprah never even got to hold him.
After thanking her mother for doing the best she could, Oprah told her that she ‘should go in peace,’ explaining that her mother had diabetes and should have had dialysis three years ago but didn’t want to do it.
At the time, Oprah told her that she should do whatever her body was telling her to do and nobody was going to force her to do dialysis.
‘I said, “You made the best decision for you, but now your body’s shutting down. This is what’s happening. Your kidneys have shut down. Your organs are going to shut down. What you want it to be, what I want it to be, is as peaceful as possible.”
‘In that moment, my sister was in the room. My mother’s had real problems since my sister came back from the adoption. My sister said, “Please forgive yourself, because I’ve forgiven you for giving me away.” It was just really sacred and beautiful,’ Oprah said.
‘I would say to anybody—and if you live long enough, everybody goes through it—say the things that you need to say while the people are still alive, so that you are not one of those people living with regret about what you would’ve, should’ve, could’ve said,’ Oprah advised.
‘I feel complete. I feel really, really moved by all the people who’ve reached out to me,’ she added. I got a really lovely note, just yesterday, from Jimmy Fallon saying, “My mom’s up there, too, so if your mom has a party, tell her to call my mom.” I feel like it was as sacred and as blessed as a passing can be.’
Vernita’s death was first revealed on Facebook by Oprah’s niece Alisha Hayes, who shared pictures of them together.
‘My grandmother, Rest In Peace,’ Alisha wrote. ‘I lost my beautiful grandma on Thanksgiving. She was the number one supporter of Pat’s [Alisha’s restaurant] and was the person who named our restaurant. We will miss her and will carry on her legacy of good eatin’! We love you Vernita Lee!’
An official obituary explained that Vernita died at her home in Milwaukee and a private funeral had already been held.
Oprah, who spent Thanksgiving hosting dinner at her home in Montecito, California, also paid tribute to Vernita on social media.
‘Thank you all for your kind words and condolences regarding my mother Vernita Lee’s passing,’ she captioned an image of her mother surrounded by loved ones.
‘It gives our family great comfort knowing she lived a good life and is now at peace.’
In addition to Patricia, who was put up for adoption, Oprah had two other half-siblings on her mother’s side: Jeffrey, who died of AIDS in 1989, and Patricia, who passed away in 2003.
The late Patricia sold the story about Oprah’s teenage pregnancy to the National Enquirer in 1990 for $19,000.
Oprah only learned of her other half-sister Patricia’s existence in 2010. They met for the first time that year on Thanksgiving Day, which Oprah called a ‘beloved moment.’
Patricia then joined Oprah on her talk show in 2011 to talk about the secret adoption.
‘Since I have been a person known in the public, there have been few times when I’ve been anywhere and not been sold out,’ Oprah told her viewers while sharing the news about Patricia.
‘What is so extraordinary is they have known this secret since 2007. She never once thought to go to the press. She never once thought to sell this story.’
Vernita also joined her daughters for the episode and said she thought it was a ‘terrible thing that I had done.’
‘I did think about the baby,’ she said. ‘I went back looking for her and they told me she had left.’
On the episode, Oprah told her mother: ‘You can let this shame go.’
Vernita and her famous daughter had a difficult relationship at times, with Oprah once revealing that she chose never again to have children ‘because I wasn’t mothered well.’
But she later made amends with Vernita and, in one touching 1990 episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, the talk show host gave her mother a makeover.
Vernita later said that her proudest moment was seeing her daughter in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple in 1985.
Oprah helped support her mother financially after she found success as a television star.
‘When I became wealthy, everyone’s like “You’ve got to take care of your mother!”‘ Winfrey recalled to The Australian Women’s Weekly in 2015.
‘My own mother is like, “You’ve got to take care of me!” And I’m like, “But what are you supposed to feel for your mother? I still didn’t know.’
‘But my moral code is, basically, what is the right thing to do? So I did it out of a sense of responsibility. And also as my way of saying, “Thank you for taking care of me”‘.
‘”Even though there are times when I think you could have done better, I know you did the best you knew how to do.'”
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Erica Tempesta