My mom watched Oprah from the very beginning, back in the mid-eighties, when her hair was Tina Turner-in-Thunderdome-huge and her wardrobes and sets were a rainbow of pastel. Mom was a sucker for daytime talk shows of that era. Not Geraldo or Morton Downey, Jr.—they were a little too vulgar—but definitely Sally Jessy and Donahue and later on Montel. She’d get home from her job as a Social Security clerk around five, turn on the TV and start cooking dinner. I’d be in my spot on the living room couch. I was in grade school. I thought those shows were dumb. But we only had one TV in the house and watching something was better than watching nothing. Plus Donahue racing around the audience was always funny.
This was way before DVRs. Since Oprah was on at four o’clock, Mom would record it using the timer on the VCR. She’d watch it after dinner, when I was doing my homework and Dad was doing the dishes or paying the bills.
Dad divorced Mom in the summer of 1993. That spring, at age forty, she’d graduated from nursing school, having quit Social Security and cashed in her pension to pay the tuition. A couple months before Dad left, she’d started working for the city’s health department. The job was exhausting—mentally and physically. All day she’d drive around the poor parts of Akron checking on kids who’d suffered lead poisoning or had congenital defects, taking their vitals and drawing blood, making sure they were keeping up with their meds. Then when she got home she’d have a bunch of paperwork to do. But she still taped and watched Oprah every night. Though Mom never admitted as much, I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying she looked up to Oprah as an unmarried, career-oriented woman.
After several years with the city, Mom got used to the workload and was able to have more of a life. She started exercising and traveling more, regularly visiting me in New York, where I’d moved after college. Even then, she watched Oprah almost daily.
In September 2006, Mom had a heart attack. For the next fourteen or so months she was hospitalized, primarily at the Cleveland Clinic—the result of congestive heart failure, lung cancer, stomach paralysis, ventilator dependency, innumerable pneumonias and infections, and a bunch of other complications. I moved back to Akron and spent almost every one of those 447 days by her side. And every afternoon at four, I’d switch the TV of whatever room or curtained-off bay she was in to Oprah.
For the first few months in the Clinic, when Mom was in intensive care, she usually wasn’t conscious, either because her blood pressure was so low or because she’d be sedated from being disoriented and pulling at her IVs and trying to get out of bed. But I’d turn on Oprah anyway, just in case Mom could hear her voice and take comfort in its familiarity. Just before the New Year, Mom was stable enough to be moved to a unit that specialized in ventilator weaning. Except for a few brief trips back to the ICU, she’d remain there till mid-October 2007. Every afternoon, I’d sit there holding her hand and we’d watch Oprah. We weren’t the only ones. I’d walk down the hall to get a nurse or a bucket of ice in which to cool the washcloth Mom always liked to keep on her forehead and in nearly every room you could hear the show.
Anybody who’s spent any prolonged amount of time in a hospital knows the importance of TV. It’s both a distraction from pain and misery and a connection to the world outside the hospital. Of all hours in the day, four o’clock was the worst for TV. TBS didn’t start showing good sitcom reruns like The King of Queens or Seinfeld till five—at four you were stuck with Yes, Dear or According to Jim. On most other cable channels was some obnoxious news or sports talking-heads show. Ellen was way too cheery. The last thing you want to see when your loved one’s fighting for their life is somebody dancing around to Pink’s “Get the Party Started.”
That’s what made Oprah the perfect hospital show. It mirrored the hospital experience. Some days it was lighthearted and inspirational, others grave and despairing. Of course, there are those who’d argue it was too grave, that Oprah was no less sensational or lurid than her neo-Nazi-baiting contemporaries. There was a time when I’d have been the one to make this argument. All those episodes devoted to murderers and pedophiles and cheating husbands. But once you’ve encountered some truly horrific things—blood gushing from your mother’s neck as a doctor struggles to insert a central line, for instance—your definition of lurid changes. In fact, things you’d formerly have deemed mundane—grocery shopping, laundry—those become lurid.
That was another thing that made Oprah so endearing to the hospital viewer. Her poor upbringing, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy: She’d suffered, too. And it was apparent in everything she did, even the extravagant audience giveaways. Especially the extravagant audience giveaways.
The episode I remember best from those months was when Michael Moore was on to discuss his new movie, Sicko, about the country’s health-care system. Mom agreed with him that the system was broken. She couldn’t talk because of the tracheal tube in her throat but I’d gotten good enough at reading her lips. “There’s no excuse,” she mouthed during a commercial break. “There’s absolutely no reason why everyone shouldn’t be covered.” She was receiving arguably the best treatment for her condition in the world, treatment which in the end totaled $2.4 million but for which we only paid a few thousand dollars, her insurance picking up the rest. “It’s not right,” she mouthed. “It’s not ethical.”
After finally getting free of the vent, Mom was transferred to a long-term care facility. The hope was that through rehab she might get strong enough to endure chemotherapy. A few weeks later the cancer was discovered to have metastasized to her liver. She was transferred to hospice and died a few days later.
I was cleaning out the house, getting it ready to sell. In a basement cabinet I found dozens of blank VHS tapes. Using a small combination TV/VCR I’d had in my room in high school, I fast-forwarded through every minute of every tape. I was hoping to find home movies of Mom and I. On one tape I did—a trip we took to Virginia Beach when I was six or seven. Most of the rest, though, were old Oprahs.
I won’t be watching this afternoon’s finale. Just knowing the show is at an end makes me sad enough, as this somehow emphasizes the permanence of Mom being gone. However, I can’t imagine there’s a single hospital TV that won’t be tuned in. Who knows what they’ll watch tomorrow.
(Image: oprah doesn’t understand from nayrb7′s photostream)