“This is the beauty of my life,” Oprah Winfrey says, reflecting on her mother’s death. “There’s not a thing that happens to me, that I don’t look at it as a teaching, learning, experience.” She’d gotten a call from her sister Patricia, who thought her mother, Vernita Lee, was near the end of her life. Winfrey was able to visit her mother at her home in Milwaukee before her mother’s death on Thanksgiving Day.
Winfrey spent her time with her mother watching the television in a room that was about 80 degrees. “I sat in that hot room,” she says. “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 waited for a way to say what I wanted to say. I couldn’t find it that day.”
“What is a way I can have this conversation about the end? How do I close it?” she wondered the next day. “What is the truth for me? What is it that I need to say?” It was music that helped open a window to say what she needed to say. Winfrey had gotten gospel singer Wintley Phipps on the phone to sing Mahalia Jackson’s “Precious Lord.” “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.”
“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. … 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.’”
“I told her, ‘You should be able to … you should go in peace.’” Lee had diabetes, but declined dialysis several years prior. She said to her mother, “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.”
Winfrey’s sister Patricia, who Lee had given up for adoption, was in the room. Her sister said, “Please forgive yourself, because I’ve forgiven you for giving me away,” Winfrey recalls. “It was just really sacred and beautiful. 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.” (People, 12/12, https://people.com/movies/oprah-winfrey-opens-up-about-her-mothers-death-and-their-sacred-and-beautiful-goodbye)