You’ve said your childhood provided the playbook for your life. How so?
My mother and father showed up for me in so many ways. It wasn’t so much their words — it was their deeds. I didn’t even know my father was a Tuskegee Airman until much later in life. He didn’t get up on a soapbox, talking about his accomplishments. He was a colonel in the Air Force, so my siblings and I grew up as military brats. When we were living in Turkey, for instance, we had to learn the language and the customs. You know how some people say “No judgment.” I say, “No, empathy.” We all judge. The point is to have empathy. That’s something I learned in childhood.
Tell us your mother’s lesson about dealing with sorrow.
Boy, I get chills just thinking about it. When my father passed in 2004, we were devastated. He was the patriarch. I remember gathering outside the church for his homegoing with a big circle of family and friends. We were all very sorrowful. But my mother said, “No, no, no! This is a celebration of your father. Yes, we are heartbroken, but you can have happy sorrow. You’re going to be sad anyway. Why not remember the good?” That phrase — “happy sorrow” — has stuck with me and helped me get through some critical times in my life.
On the day in 2012 GMA was named top morning show, you were diagnosed with cancer.
I’d actually dreamed about how I would feel if GMA became number 1. I thought I’d be the happiest I’ve ever been. Then, later that day, I was told by my doctors that I had one to two years to live. I remember going to the party that night on the rooftop. Everybody was really enjoying themselves — doing the limbo and all these things — and I didn’t want to tell anyone that this might be one of my last celebrations ever. I remember just stepping aside and saying to myself that I would never again have expectations of how I was going to feel.
How did those feelings evolve?
In an odd way, the combination of GMA becoming number 1 and getting that diagnosis gave me a greater appreciation of life. When something like that is placed in our path, the actual event is not the tragedy. The tragedy is not taking the time to understand why it was placed there. What am I supposed to learn? And what am I supposed to share that could help others who might have to walk a similar path one day?
Is that why you decided to go public with your illness on TV?
It was for me, as a journalist, a teachable moment. I know that we’re not supposed to make ourselves the story, but it was a way to show people that I wasn’t going to be defined by my illness.
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Talk about that moment.
We did a GMA segment on Isaac Mizrahi’s fashion show. I was about to go out on the runway in a long red gown when I looked in the mirror and just instinctively took my wig off. No one knew that I was going to do it. I didn’t know that I was going to do it. I just went walking down the runway with the lights beaming off my little bald head. Shortly after that, I heard from a woman who said that she had started crying while watching the show with her young daughter. She said that she knew, if something like that happened to her, she could say to her daughter, “Remember that woman Robin? She’s fine, and Mama’s going to be OK, too.”
You talk about gratitude in relation to cancer.
I’m not someone who says, “Cancer is the best thing that happened to me.” It wasn’t. But I’m grateful that it taught me to slow down and listen and open my eyes a little wider. Something that Oprah said is so true: Something like this doesn’t change who you are. It just amplifies it.
President Obama in 2012 declared support for same-sex marriage in an interview with you. But you had hesitated to take the assignment.
At that time, I hadn’t gone public about being a gay woman. So when I was asked to do the interview, I was, like, “Oh gosh, people are going to wonder why I was chosen. Am I going to be outed?” Then I said to myself, “Robin, this isn’t about you. This is about what the president may say — which could change many people’s lives.” If I was younger, I might not have done it. I’d have been too afraid. But because I was older and because of my health issue, I wasn’t going to let fear keep me from my destiny.
—Interview by Hugh Delehanty
Read a selection from Robin Roberts’ new memoir, Brighter by the Day, in the digital edition of the April-May issue of AARP The Magazine, available only through the AARP Publications mobile app. (Go to aarp.org/publications-app to download.)