On November 22nd, 2018, my mother Vernita Lee passed away. I was conflicted about our relationship up until the very end. The truth is, it wasn't until I became successful that my mother started to show more interest in me. I wrestled with the question of how to take care of her - what did I owe the woman who gave me life, The bible says 'honor thy father and mother', but what did that actually mean? I decided one of the ways I could honor her would be to help care for her financially ... but there was never any real connection. I would say that the audience who watched me on television knew me better than my mother did. When her health began to decline a few years ago, I knew I needed to prepare myself for her transition. Just a few days before Thanksgiving my sister Patricia called to tell me she thought it was time. I flew to Milwaukee ... I tried to think of something to say, at one point I even picked up the manual left by the hospice care people. I read their advice thinking the whole time, how sad it was that I, Oprah Winfrey, who had spoken to thousands of people one on one should have to read a hospice manual to figure out what to say to my mother.
When it was finally time to leave, something told me it would be the last time I'd ever see her but as I turned to go, the words I needed to say still wouldn't come. All I could muster was 'bye, I'll be seeing you' and I left for, ironically, a speaking engagement. On the flight home the next morning a little voice in my head whispered what I knew in my heart to be true: "you are going to regret this, you haven't finished the work". ... I turned around and went back to Milwaukee. I spent another day in that hot room and still no words came. That night I prayed for help. In the morning I meditated, and as I prepared to leave the bedroom I picked up my phone and noticed the song that was playing - Mahalia Jackson's 'Precious Lord'. If ever there was a sign, this was it. I had no idea how Mahalia Jackson appeared on my playlist. As I listened to the words,
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand.
I am tired, I'm weak, I am worn
Lead me on to the light,
Take my hand, precious Lord
And lead me home.
I suddenly knew what to do. When I walked into my mothers room I asked if she wanted to hear the song. She nodded, and then I had another idea. I called my friend Wintley Phipps, a preacher and gospel artist, and asked him to sing Precious Lord to my dying mother. Over FaceTime from his kitchen table he sang the song a cappella and then prayed that our family would have no fear, just peace. I could see that my mother was moved. The song and the prayer had created a sort of opening for both of us. I began to talk to her about her life, her dreams, and me. Finally the words were there. I said, "It must have been hard for you, not having an education, not having a skill, not knowing what the future held. When you became pregnant, I'm sure a lot of people told you to get rid of that baby." She nodded. "But you didn't", I said. "And I want to thank you for keeping this baby". I paused, "I know that many times you didn't know what to do. You did the best you knew how to do and that's okay with me. That is okay with me. So you can leave now, knowing that it is well. It is well with my soul. It's been well for a long time."
It was a sacred, beautiful moment, one of the proudest of my life. As an adult I'd learned to see my mother through a different lens; not as the mother who didn't care for me, protect me, love me or understand anything about me, but as a young girl still just a child herself; scared, alone, and unequipped to be a loving parent. I had forgiven my mother years earlier for not being the mother I needed, but she didn't know that. And in our last moments together I believe I was able to release her from the shame and the guilt of our past. I came back and I finished the work that needed to be done.
Oprah Winfrey (What Happened To You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing)