Oprah Winfrey's Favorite Guest Talks About Life Without the 'Oprah Effect'
Filed under: Opinions
If I ever happen to win an award that requires an acceptance speech, I've got it all planned. First I'll do the requisite thanks to my beloved family and friends. Then I'd thank Cheerios.
Why Cheerios? In the winter of 1995, when I was 10 years old, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, the most aggressive form of that awful disease. During her 18-month battle, she received treatments of all kinds, from the standard radiation and chemotherapy, to nutritional support and macrobiotic diets. None of it worked.
My mom died in the summer of 1997, right after she told me how proud she was of the person I'd become.
"You taught me," I responded.
Four months later, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" found my family through a connection at the Cancer Wellness Center in suburban Chicago, a place where we had received amazing support. The producers were putting together a segment on death and dying and we -- my father, 11-year-old sister Kate and I -- were asked to share the story of our recent loss with renowned psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and a then-unknown author on death and dying, Mitch Albom. And, oh, about 7.4 million others.
In front of all those eyes, my sister and I each read posthumous letters from our mother. I fought back tears while reading mine, while my sister sat with a cool confidence, uncommon of a young girl, reading with eloquence and a smile. The show ended with the audience wiping their own tears, but what Oprah herself walked out of the room remembering was "the Cheerios moment," my sister's favorite memory of our mom during her illness:
"One day, when I came back from swimming," Kate told Oprah, "my mom was in bed. She said, 'Kate, would you get me a bowl of cereal?' I said, 'Sure.' A week before she died, I was in my parents' room. I said, 'Mom, would you wake me up if you go downstairs to get a bowl of cereal?' So at 2 in the morning, we had a bowl of Cheerios together."
What caught Oprah by surprise was that despite all of our family vacations during my mom's illness (Palm Springs, Vail, Disney World), my sister's favorite memory involved nothing more than a late-night bowl of cereal -- and thus "the Cheerios moment" was born, a phrase Oprah would use in future playbacks of our episode.
It's hard to say, given Oprah's massive celebrity, whether the subsequent dozen or so airings of our story over the years was truly a product of Oprah herself being profoundly moved or some opportunistic producers who knew good material when they saw it. But the truth remains that my younger sister's smiley, confident disposition in the face of our loss, coupled with my raw vulnerability, made for some pretty fantastic television.
It wasn't until we were asked to come back on the show five years later that we were introduced as "Oprah's Favorite Guests" -- an honorific I was sure we had not earned, especially considering that our partners in that title included Sidney Poitier and Nelson Mandela. I was 17 at the second taping and it took all I could muster not to say, "Come on, Op. Don't you think that's a tad hyperbolic?" It just felt unearned, not to mention totally blown out of proportion. What makes me so special just because my mother died?
All told, I'm not sure just how many times Oprah has shown the clips of Kate and me, or just how often we've been referred to as her "favorite." Most recently, I heard that at her one-woman show at New York's Radio City Music Hall earlier this year, she talked about Kate and me and the impact we had on her life.
But considering Oprah's enormous influence, being her "favorite" has had absolutely no effect on my life whatsoever. To be even more candid, I regard my appearance on her show as little more than high-brow exploitation in the name of creating a compelling (and yes, marketable) story: an emotional brother and his adorably poised younger sister cherishing the smallest details of their last days with their dying mother. This is the "Oprah Effect," as I understand it -- an unrivaled ability to sway the hearts and minds of her devoted fan base and beyond.
While I personally have felt no difference in my life since sharing my story with the masses, if a byproduct was that it brought solace to any of Oprah's viewers who have suffered the loss of a loved one, or given them the realization that "the Cheerios moments" are what life really is all about, then I suppose I could find that a bit encouraging.
I wish I could say that the initial decision to appear on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was done out of such altruism, but very few adolescent minds, mine included, are capable of such reasoning, especially in the immediate wake of such a profoundly personal loss. Death and other horrible life miseries happen every minute of every day, and the bereaved are encouraged -- through Hallmark and hugs -- to enjoy the small things (read: Cheerios) in life. In short, "Oprah's Favorite Guest" didn't bring anything new to a table already cluttered with schmaltzy human-interest stories.
To be quite honest, when I think back to that first time we appeared on the show back in 1997, the vulnerability I showed at age 13 was more a symptom of knowing that I had millions of eyes on me than it was of the sadness I felt at having just lost my mother.
Being on Oprah did not bring me any added understanding or peace of mind about her death. With loss and tragedy, the true coping process is one that cannot be shared. It is as private and as self-scrutinizing as the human experience gets.
The real reward is the ever-present strength and confidence I feel for having endured it, and the knowledge that the death of my mother, while painful, was the best thing that ever happened to me. Anyone who has survived the loss of the closest person in his or her life knows what I'm talking about -- that wonderful paradox of loss and growth, but it takes just a bit longer to digest than a TV show and a bowl of Cheerios.
And I know my mom would agree.
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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.