Authors: Robin Roberts,Veronica Chambers
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This book is dedicated to my sister Sally-Ann for saving my life.
And to all donors: your gifts are the definition of selflessness.
The great Southern writer Zora Neale Hurston once said, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” For me, 2012 was a year that asked a lot of questions. Many of you who are reading this book followed my journey that year. Many of you are experiencing or caring for a loved one with a life-threatening illness. You know the questions that I asked in 2012.
What’s that funny bump in my neck? What exactly is wrong with me? How will I find a donor who will be a match? Will the match take? Am I going to lose my momma? How will I survive without my mother? Will this illness kill me? The pain, the pills, the fatigue. Lord, please, give me strength, show my body—which is just falling apart—some mercy, because I don’t know how much more I can take.
I’m writing this book because I want you to know how—during the most difficult time in my life—I lived the questions. I want to share with you the people and experiences that helped me make it through, day by day and sometimes moment by moment. In the church of my childhood we were urged to find the good and praise it. I promise you I will not sugarcoat my journey, but I do want to sing a praise song for the love that carried me through. This is a story about the genius of my doctors and nurses and the warmth and generosity of my colleagues. It’s about the kindness of strangers and the strength, humor and comfort of old friends. In Mississippi, where I’m from, there’s an understanding that hard times do not discriminate. My mother used to say, “Everybody’s got something.” This is the story of my something and my road to something better. And my hope is that you will find your better, too.
was nine years old when my family moved from Izmir, Turkey, to Biloxi, Mississippi. To say it was a culture shock would be the understatement of the year. Even as a child, I took cues and comfort in the images that I saw on TV. There used to be a commercial, some of you are probably old enough to remember it: It was for RC Cola, and I loved the image of the little kid ambling down to the corner store to buy his bottle of soda pop. I remember clutching a shiny dime and doing the same thing. Those first few months in Mississippi, I was often lonely but not alone. It was me and my RC, and I don’t even like cola.
The Gulf Coast slowly but surely became home. I was the youngest of four children. Old enough to remember our travels abroad, young enough to become acclimated to our new life in the South. My parents bought a home in Pass Christian. It’s a small town, about twenty miles from Biloxi, with beaches as far as the eye can see. The Pass is just fifteen square miles, but there’s the Gulf of Mexico to the south, the Bay of Saint Louis to the west and to the north, the bayou just goes on and on.
The house that I will always think of as home has four bedrooms, a screened-in sun porch, a piano in the living room and a basketball hoop over the driveway. When we bought the house in 1975, Mom insisted on having a fireplace built in the family room. A beautiful stone fireplace that we never used. After all, it doesn’t get that cold on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But Mom always wanted a fireplace, and a fireplace we had. Mom was like that. She’d get her mind set on something and that was that.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve gone home to the Pass for the holidays. It’s just not Christmas until I open the door and hear the little bell ring. I brought that bell back home for my mother after I covered the Lillehammer Olympic Games. The jingle it makes when the door opens is one of the sweetest sounds I know. Momma taught me to always treasure a memento from my world travels. Our home in the Pass is filled with beautiful pieces, reminders of all the places we lived when my dad was in the Air Force.
I welcomed in 2012 with Momma at our family home in the Pass. Usually when I entered the house, the first thing that greeted me after a warm hug from Momma was the aroma of something she was whipping up in the kitchen. Not this time. That was the first sign that Momma wasn’t feeling well. She had battled illnesses for as long as I could remember. High blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis and most recently seizures. Momma had begun to suffer TIAs (transient ischemic attacks). That’s when blood flow to a part of the brain stops for a brief period of time. Momma would have strokelike symptoms for an hour or two but then, thankfully, return to normal. It was always so scary when that would happen.
Momma wasn’t the only one feeling ill. I was, too. I didn’t want to worry her, but I had been experiencing a bone-weary tiredness for a couple of months. I kept thinking I’d shake it off and that I would be feeling better soon. I’d been through worse. Or so I thought at the time. Plus I had the Oscars to get ready for the following month.
For the past few years, I’ve been the host of the
Oscars Red Carpet Live
. It’s like the pregame for Hollywood’s biggest night. Lots of glitz, glamour and movie stars. In 2012, I arrived in Los Angeles feeling a little more tired than usual. Covering the Oscars is exhausting. I usually fly out Friday after
Good Morning America
. I stay at the hotel that is attached to the theatre where the Oscars are held. This makes it more convenient to go to rehearsals for the show. Plus I don’t have to worry about wrinkling my Oscar dress in the car. I just walk from my hotel room to the Red Carpet.
That year I flew out to LA a day early to do a story on Janne Kouri. Janne was told he would never walk again. A freak accident in the ocean in 2006 left him paralyzed from the neck down. His then-girlfriend, Susan, told me the doctor looked her right in the eye and said: “You need to prepare for him never to walk again.” Before the accident, the six-four, 285-pound Kouri was a star defensive tackle on the Georgetown University football team with NFL prospects. His friends gave him the nickname “The General” for his take-charge attitude. His spinal cord was fractured in two places. During the two months he was in intensive care, Janne developed pneumonia and almost died twice. Susan told me there were many times he said to her, “You don’t need to do this. You don’t need to be here.” Susan told me, “I promised him that as long as his heart and his mind stayed the same that I would love him.”
The couple moved to Louisville to work with Dr. Susan Harkema. She helped develop a cutting-edge therapy known as “locomotor training.” The late actor Christopher Reeve, someone I was fortunate to meet, was among her first test subjects. The training teaches the spinal cord how to control motor functions like walking by using repetitive motion. After two months of intensive training, Janne had his first milestone, a little toe wiggle. And in May 2009, Janne took his first steps in three years with the assistance of a walker.
Always thinking of others, “The General” had an idea. He wanted to make this training available near his home in California. With the help of many, Janne raised the funds to start NextStep Fitness, a nonprofit rehab center in Los Angeles where anyone could get locomotor training at an affordable price. Janne was doing something my mom taught me: Make your mess your message. I went to conduct the interview at NextStep, and my jaw dropped when I walked through the door. First of all, it was a large automatic sliding door, and people in wheelchairs were working out in the gym.
I never stopped to think that the fitness centers I go to are not wheelchair-friendly environments. I was there for Janne’s most recent milestone: standing for the first time, on his own, without his walker. I loved when he jokingly told me, “I forgot how tall I was.” I and many others did not know what else was about to happen. He and my producer, Rich McHugh, had a little—make that a huge—surprise for us. Especially Susan, who is now Janne’s wife. They married a year and a half after his accident. After Janne stood one more time, he asked Susan to help him. Then their wedding song, “Better Together,” started to play, and they did something they couldn’t do at their wedding. They danced. I melted into tears of happiness. It was so beautiful to witness. This is the moment I treasure most from that Oscars, not chatting up the stars on the Red Carpet.
Spending time with Janne was uplifting. It actually made me stop thinking about how exhausted I was. How could I complain about being tired after witnessing his strength and courage?
Also with me this time at the Oscars was my wonderful girlfriend, Amber. We’ve been together for nearly a decade. Mutual friends set us up on a blind date. I liked the fact that she had no idea who I was. She rarely followed sports, so she never saw me on ESPN, and her office mates at the time watched a different morning show…ouch! She’s originally from Northern California and is extremely laid-back, no drama, no fuss. The main thing we have in common is positive energy. She sees the good in everyone and everything.
When we met in 2005, she worked in the fashion industry. It was a great opportunity for her, and she adored her bosses, Alana and Jackie. Amber has an eye for fashion, but she wasn’t passionate about it in the way the other people she worked with were. I’ll never forget when I was in the middle of treatment for breast cancer in 2007, she announced at dinner: “I quit my job today!” I had only two hairs on my head as a result of chemo, and I just stared at her. She said watching my battle up close inspired her to make changes in her life. She had a front-row seat witnessing how precious life is, and she’d decided she could no longer wait to pursue her dreams. She had hopes of being a contemporary dancer, but before she moved to New York she was in a terrible car accident. A chiropractor and a massage therapist healed her, and she wanted to do the same for others. So she enrolled in the Swedish Institute’s Massage Therapy program, earned her associate’s degree and is now a licensed massage therapist. She has a nurturing spirit and has never been happier.
When it comes to relationships, my parents set the bar very high. They didn’t have to publicly display their love and affection for one another. You knew how they felt about each other by simply being in their presence. What made such a lasting impact on me was how equal they were. Yes, Dad was a career military man and the breadwinner in the family, but he knew that Mom’s contributions were every bit as important. When Mom stepped up and became more active in the various organizations she was involved with, Dad was happy to let her shine. It was her turn, and she had his full support. Amber simply is not interested in the spotlight. We don’t attend many events. As my former
colleague Charlie Gibson once said: “When you’re on a morning show, you’re invited to every event but too tired to go to any of them.” True dat! When we do go out, Amber is supportive and proud of me, but in reality we are content to be homebodies.
She lovingly stood with me through the death of my beloved dad, Hurricane Katrina destroying my hometown of Pass Christian, Mississippi, and my battle with breast cancer.
In 2011, when I asked Amber what she wanted for Christmas, she said, “I want to go to the Oscars.” She rarely asks for anything like that. As part of my compensation for hosting
Oscars Red Carpet Live
, the thoughtful people involved with the Oscars give me two tickets to the show. I always have to turn them down, because after being on the Red Carpet I run backstage to begin my work for
. In 2012, I was thrilled to be able to give my tickets to Amber, who planned on attending with her good friend Jason.
* * *
It was a little different having Amber with me during that Oscars broadcast, because I wanted to make sure she was taken care of. She’s very low maintenance, which I greatly appreciate. She knows when I’m on assignment I have to concentrate and focus my energy on work. That’s why she doesn’t often ask to accompany me on trips like this. She has a lot of great friends on the West Coast, so she entertained herself while I worked.
I don’t have a lot of downtime when I’m in LA. I’m meeting with
producers and producers for the Red Carpet show. We have many rehearsals and run through the show a few times. But I do manage to have lunch or dinner with friends out there. The day after the Oscars I did an extra shoot with
Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
star Lisa Vanderpump and, of course, her adorable dog, Giggy. Lisa is such a lovely person inside and out. She has a commanding presence, oozing beauty and femininity. The interview took place at her gorgeous new home. It’s a grand setting: No detail is overlooked or spared. I was impressed that Lisa did all the decorating herself. The master bedroom closet alone is as large as my first apartment, yet this massive house still feels like a warm home. The interview was for an ABC
special I anchored called “Pet Crazy.” It’s well known how crazy I am for my Jack Russell, KJ (that’s Killer Jack). After the interview, Lisa graciously invited me and my crew to join her and her husband at their restaurant, Villa Blanca, in Beverly Hills. Lisa and her handsome husband, Ken Todd, are so down-to-earth. They included everyone in their lively conversation. Their restaurant is spectacular, sexy and stylish (words I long to be used to describe me one day!).
At Ken’s insistence, I had the English Sticky Toffee Pudding for dessert. It’s a family recipe, straight from his grandma Edith. It was my first time trying the British dessert, which consists of a very moist sponge cake and finely chopped dates, all covered in toffee sauce. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Actually it did hurt my waistline, but who cares. It is one of the most delectable dishes I have ever eaten.
Between my extra shoots and rehearsals I go to the hotel gym as much as possible; gotta look good in that Oscar dress! I usually have the dress picked out before I get to LA. I’m fortunate that designers like to work with me. One year,
viewers voted online and picked the dress I would wear. They selected a gorgeous orange gown from J.Crew. I was so proud to wear it among the stars wearing more expensive gowns. After my workout, I like to sit out by the pool for a bit to soak up a little LA sun. I also get a mani-pedi in the hotel spa the day before the Oscars.
My Team Beauty, Elena George and Petula Skeete, travel with me, and that makes it all extra fun. Elena, my makeup artist, has won three Emmys and worked with many A-list celebrities. She sees her journey as being more than about physical beauty. She says, “Every day I ask God to give me the creativity and innovation to make women more beautiful than they were the day before.”
Petula, who does my hair, is a little taller than me and is originally from Nevis. Her singsong accent always transports me to a warmer place. Both Petula and Elena love going to the Oscars. The looks they get to create for the Red Carpet are on a whole other level than what they can do for morning TV. Elena enjoys the extra makeup she gets to use on me: longer fake eyelashes, the more dramatic colors. We are a true team. We spend a lot of time together and trust that we always have each other’s best interests at heart.