Oprah Winfrey has broken her silence about the days leading up to the death of her mother, Vernita Lee.
In an exclusive interview with People magazine, the media mogul talked about her final days with Lee, who died on Thanksgiving at the age of 83 in her home in Milwaukee.
Winfrey said she had been preparing to attend the launch of Michelle Obama’s book, “Becoming,” in Chicago when he sister Patricia called to tell her she believed their mother was nearing the end of her life.
“I hopped on a plane and I went early — I surprised my mother,” Winfrey said. “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’s had nurses and so forth over the years. Even when she didn’t need nurses, she’s had nurses. She just liked having all these people.”
Winfrey said she went to the book launch, but quickly returned to her mother’s side.
She said she asked Lee if she thought she was “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,” Winfrey 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.'”
Winfrey said she flew off to a previously scheduled speaking engagement in Boston, believing that she had bid her mother farewell for the last time.
But she ended up returning to Milwaukee, because she said she felt like there was more left to share with her mom.
The former talk show host has been open in the past about her difficult childhood and the struggles her mother faced.
Lee was born in Mississippi and gave birth to Winfrey as a young woman. Lee and Winfrey’s father, Vernon Winfrey, never married.
Moving to Milwaukee where she worked as a housekeeper, Lee entrusted her mother to raise her daughter.
At the age of 6, Winfrey joined her mother and half-siblings, Jeffrey and Patricia, in Milwaukee. She moved to live with her father in Tennessee at age 14.
In 2011, Winfrey revealed on her show that her mother had placed a daughter, also named Patricia, for adoption at birth and the family was reunited.
Winfrey lost the brother and sister she grew up with in Milwaukee and has since formed a strong relationship with the daughter Lee placed for adoption, Patricia Amanda Faye Lee.
In those final days, Winfrey said she played gospel music for her mother and had one of the genre’s stars, friend Wintley Phipps, perform via Facetime for the matriarch.
The music “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,” Winfrey said.
“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,” Winfrey said. “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,” Winfrey added.
Since her mother’s death, Winfrey said she’s felt moved by all the support she has received.
“I feel like it was as sacred and as blessed as a passing can be,” Winfrey said.