The veteran broadcaster recounts lessons learned from her incredible journey, as told in her memoir, Everybody’s Got Something.
‘GMA’ anchor Robin Roberts
Tavis: Robin Roberts’ first tome, “From the Heart, Seven Rules to Live By,” was a “New York Times” best seller, and her latest memoir, “Everybody’s Got Something,” is poised, I suspect, to achieve that distinction as well.
It’s a candid and revealing memoir that does not shy away from some of the most intimate aspects of fighting a blood disorder, but it’s also a story of triumph over adversity that is sure to encourage a whole lot of folk.
I’m always delighted to have on this program Robin Roberts, but especially you’re on the West Coast this time.
Robin Roberts: I know, I came to see you.
Tavis: You’re actually in the chair.
Roberts: I know.
Tavis: I usually see you on that big satellite screen right there.
Roberts: It’s always a pleasure to be in your presence in any kind of way.
Tavis: It is good.
Roberts: And may I say congratulations on the star.
Tavis: Thank you, thank you.
Roberts: On the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Tavis: It was very nice.
Roberts: Ooh, good for you, well-deserved.
Tavis: I appreciate it. My mama’s proud of me, and I know your mama was proud of you.
Tavis: Your mama begins and ends this book. She bookends it, she’s the alpha and the omega of this text, which I appreciate. It was your mother who told you that everybody’s got something.
Roberts: Yeah, and you knew Mama.
Tavis: I knew your mother. Mississippi.
Roberts: Yeah, you were very – that’s right.
Roberts: And yes, when I was a little kid playing in Mississippi and somebody would hurt my feelings or something and I’d come in, (crying) and Mama said, “Oh, honey, everybody’s got something.”
Like you know, come on now, let’s move on. Just know that. When I got older and the challenges became a little bit more than someone just picking on me, I remember in 2007 when I was diagnosed with cancer, and she sweetly said, “Honey, everybody’s got something.”
It was just a way of saying I see your something, I know, but you’ve got to realize that everybody goes through something, so what are you going to do? That’s what I tried to impart in this book, the life lessons that I learned, to help me get through my something and hopefully get people on the road to something better.
Tavis: Everybody’s got something, Robin, and yet there are some of us who are tested time and time and time again. Your mother was a person of abiding faith –
Tavis: – as I know well, and I know she put that into you. Yet in the middle of this book you were honest and candid, and I’m glad you were, about the fact that you looked up at God one day and asked some questions. “Why are you testing me so much?”
Roberts: I was saying, “You know, you could spread the message around.” (Laughter) “I like being a messenger, but if you want to tap somebody else, it’s okay with me.”
Roberts: But people have asked me, Tavis, about my faith and going through something like this, and a lot of people are challenged by that, people of faith, and I said, yes, I got angry, and yes, I got mad, and I said God can take it.
He can take it. There’s a reason and a purpose. Make your mess your message. There’s something, why you’re going through this, and so it took me a little longer.
Because with breast cancer, I was like, got my heavenly message. I’m supposed to let people know, especially in our community, to get out there, get tested, because early detection can save lives.
I have to admit with this one, I was like what? But I didn’t realize, I had never heard of a bone marrow transplant. I didn’t know it was possible to donate your stem cells. So I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to increase the donors that are registering.
Tavis: So we know that God can take it.
Tavis: The question is whether or not we can take it. Now there are those of us who believe out of that faith tradition that God never puts more on us than we can bear, and yet there are times, I think, particularly given what you were up against, that we have to question whether or not we have the capacity, the ability, the wherewithal, to actually endure it.
So we know God can take it, but were you ever in doubt about whether or not you could take it?
Roberts: That’s a very good question. Yes, I was in doubt. When you’re told that you only have a year or two and the possibility of finding a donor at the time, I didn’t know my sister was going to be a perfect match, thank you, Jesus.
There were many times, but then I realized, it was really funny, Tavis, especially when I was putting down the audio version of this, and I had to stop sometimes, and I always was, who am I talking about?
I realized I was talking about me, the point being we are all a little bit stronger than we think we are. I would not have thought at certain times in this journey that I would be here with you and that I would be the person that I am, just so happy and filled with such gratitude.
So I think there’s a myth that people feel, that people of success, that we never are fearful, that we’re never challenged, that we have some supernova – no, we’re like everybody else, and it’s just not staying in that state. You’ve got to change the way you think in order to change the way you feel.
Tavis: I hope this won’t come across as sexist, but Jonathan, put this cover back up for me for a second. You are good-looking when (laughter) you’re bald, when you got medium hair, when you got a head full of hair, because that smile is so effervescent it just says everything.
Tavis: But you chose – I know book companies don’t sign off on this stuff without your approval, particularly when your name is Robin Roberts.
So clearly you signed off on this photo. Tell me why.
Roberts: Because I want people to know – first of all, I got a good shaped head. Thank you again for that.
Tavis: That helps.
Roberts: Yeah, that helps.
Tavis: Because I –
Roberts: I don’t want to find out again, but I’m glad that I know that.
Tavis: I would have talked about you, in love, you know. (Laughter)
Roberts: But I really wanted, because people sometimes will not seek treatment because they are fearful of losing their hair, and I wanted to show them that you know what – and I’m glad you said that.
The smile is still there, the person is still there. If somebody is going through it, I don’t know what their something is right now, but if it leads to something like that, to know that they too – just keep smiling, just smiling through hit.
Tavis: Tell me – let me flip it now and go to the worst parts. Give me some sense of what the worst days were like.
Roberts: Worst days were post-transplant. Well worst day was losing my mama. Losing my mother so close to transplant, it was just a few days before that, and I thought I’ve never gone through anything, I didn’t stub my toe without my mama being there.
To go through something like that – so losing my mother was – it was – it’s something, and I’m still, I had to put my grief on hold because the doctors were like we know this, but you’ve got to be mentally, it’s as much mental as physical, what I was going through.
But post-transplant, Tavis, when my throat felt like I had swallowed a blowtorch, when I was unable to swallow, unable to eat, unable to think – there was one point that the nurses said, they came into the room and I was hallucinating because I was on certain medications, on a pain med machine, they said that I was at the foot of my bed, interviewing Walter Cronkite. I was so out of it.
But then I thought, well, I was still kind there because I kind of knew I was a reporter, and –
Tavis: And not a bad interviewee.
Roberts: I know, exactly.
Roberts: So looking for that silver lining. (Laughter)
Roberts: But those early days after the hospital, before knowing if sister Sally’s cells were going to take hold – there’s something called graft versus host disease that is very, a lot of people suffer, even after having a perfect match.
So those early days were, I was on these little, I was on my bony knees, praying, praying constantly.
Tavis: I met your sister Sally; know her fairly well, down in New Orleans –
Tavis: – any number of times over the years. What does a journey like this do for two sisters?
Roberts: I’m so thankful that my mother and father, and they, my father was a Tuskegee airman, he would clear his throat and we would clear the room. He was that kind of, from that generation. The famous words from mama, “Wait till your daddy gets home?”
Tavis: That’s right.
Roberts: Right. But (laughter) wait till your daddy gets home –
Tavis: Which you never wanted to hear.
Roberts: I’d go like, “What did we do? Why, why?” But my folks wouldn’t allow us to – yeah, we were siblings and growing up, yeah, we would fuss at each other and have our challenges and that.
But our parents were very good about no, this is blood. You’re going to work through this. Sally-Ann is eight years older than I am and I love what she said. She goes, “I can’t wait to celebrate your 90th birthday, because that’ll mean I’m 98.”
Roberts: Yeah, (laughter) so we have that kind of bond, but there is something about I look at her now, Tavis, whew. When she said, and I gave her an out when they determined – one sister was not a match, and then Sally-Ann was, and I gave her an out and said, “You don’t have to do this,” because it’s an undertaking for that person too.
When she said to me, after some silence, which I was a little worried, because Sally usually is – you know Sally-Ann, she loves to – but there’s a bit of silence and she just quietly said, she goes, “Sister, I don’t just want to do this, I was born to do this.” So to have that kind of love is something else.
Tavis: Your glam –
Roberts: Thank you.
Tavis: Your glam team does not want your makeup to run, yeah.
Roberts: No, I know, no, I know, you know – whoa, what you doing to me?
Tavis: Don’t want the glam team mad.
Roberts: But these are tears of joy, I’m going to tell you.
Tavis: No, I understand.
Roberts: Oh, good.
Tavis: You’re not indebted to your sister because she’s your sister, and she said she was born to do it, so she doesn’t you feeling –
Roberts: No, she doesn’t.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly. But how do you process that?
Roberts: Whew. That was one of the – and my siblings didn’t know this – this was one of my last conversations I had with Mom. She had a stroke and it was difficult for her to communicate, but she was able to do that.
She did not want me to treat her, Sally-Ann, any differently than my big brother Butch and my sister Dorothy. That my mother was very big about we are all the same, we are all equal, and that’s why she always would go back to everybody’s got something, that we all are like that.
I think that my sister – I often have to fuss with her, because if you see sister Sally, she’s always like woo, woo, always looking up to – she won’t even take the credit. She gives credit to the God almighty, so it’s hard.
Sometimes I’m like, “Sally-Ann, I realize that and I’m very thankful, but please, please know what you did.” Her story is so powerful. She’s gone around the country encouraging people from all communities to register to be a donor.
My sister was the biggest baby when it came to pain, and for her to step up and for her to say yes, there are some aspects of it that are uncomfortable, but to educate the country on what it’s like to be a donor, and I dedicate the book to her and to others. What a selfless act. What a selfless gift that they give.
Tavis: For those of us who are sports fans, and that, I suspect, means many of us, and I want to go specifically now inside the Black community, I’ve been praying so hard, just pulling and praying for you and pulling and praying for Stu Scott.
Roberts: Oh, yes.
Tavis: I’m thinking what’s up with the brothers and sisters at ESPN? (Laughter) Out of ESPN.
Tavis: You used to be at ESPN. So Robin and Stuart, and when you got through it and I’m praying for Stuart to get through it as well –
Roberts: Yes, I am too.
Tavis: – as a fan of his work. But it raises this question, given what you and Stuart and your sister Sally-Ann have been doing. Give me some sense of what you hope the message has been, particularly for African Americans.
Roberts: Well I can say in particular with MDS, which is what I had, myelodysplastic syndrome, which is, was once known as pre-leukemia, and needing to have that bone marrow transplant, what makes our culture so rich and so beautiful also makes it that much more difficult to find a genetic match. As mama said, we had a lot of cream in our coffee.
Tavis: There you go. (Laughter)
Roberts: So we’re getting the word out and the message out. Do you know that a bone marrow transplant is a possible cure for sickle cell anemia? There are 70 conditions where a bone marrow transplant can be of service, can be a gift.
So to just get the word out, I bet you there’s some people that just sat home and said, “Really? I didn’t know sickle cell anemia, a bone marrow -” yes. So that’s what our message really has been, to not, to – when fear knocks, let faith answer the door. That goes for donors too.
Make yourself available for the registry, and when that call comes, make that decision with the doctors, and know just what – when you find people, when I say everybody’s got something, it’s not just a challenge.
Everybody also has something to give, has a resource, has a gift, has something that can help us.
Tavis: We talked about your sister and the righteous role that she played in this process. One of the most moving stories in this book, though, is the story of a friend of yours who was turning 50, and you scheduled a particular treatment to make sure that you get to that 50th birthday party.
Roberts: Yes. Yeah –
Tavis: In Italy, as I recall.
Roberts: Yeah. Because she was there at my 50th.
Tavis: Exactly. Tell me the story. Because you’re going through all this, but you have got to get to this birthday party.
Roberts: I’m the sports person, goal-oriented, like to have a goal, and my goal was okay, her 50th is in Tuscany in September. If I can get there, chances are I’m going to be well enough to have the transplant.
I listened to my doctors and they told me no, I couldn’t do it, but when I was first diagnosed in the spring and they said, “Do you have anything that you want to do,” and I said, “I want to be there for this birthday, because all the friends are coming together.”
They were at my birthday a few years before that. I didn’t want to be – you know how sometimes the phone rings and you’re like oh, it’s that friend, because like what happened now?
I never thought of myself as being that friend, and my friends never made me feel that way, but it was my way of saying I’m still here. I know it is important for you, and it’s important for me to be there, and it really set – you’ve got to have those goals, and that was a real goal of mine.
It was, I often thought about Tuscany when I was hallucinating and doing all those things, and remembered that I was there, that I was still alive. I was having fine wine, laughing with friends.
The thing that my friends and I do, we don’t – elaborate gifts. Time. We spend time together. In fact we have another 50th that’s coming up, going to a dude ranch. Now that’s love, because can you see me on a dude ranch? (Laughter) But Joe wants to go to a dude ranch, a dude ranch we’re going to.
Tavis: You’re the sportsman, the sportswoman, so you –
Roberts: I don’t know about that.
Tavis: – you’ve done it all.
Tavis: (Laughter) Talking about your friend turning 50 reminds me of this edict that he or she that hath friends must show himself or herself friendly. If you’ve got friends, you’ve got to be friendly.
This might come across as a softball but it’s not, because I really am curious as to what you took away from this. You referenced earlier in this conversation the fact that I recently got a star on the Walk of Fame, and I did.
I was honored to get it, and when I walked out and saw hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people on Hollywood and Vine waiting to see me, and Jay Leno was there to speak on my behalf and Larry King was there to speak on my behalf and my family and friends from around the country flew in.
We got a luncheon that’s overcrowded afterwards. I mean, I’m still trying to process all the love that was coming at me that particular day. Now that’s just me on a star on the Walk of Fame.
You’re hosting “Good Morning America,” so millions of people are watching you. We’re all following your story, we’re tuning in every day to see how you’re doing, we’re waiting for you to come back. What must it feel like when you’ve got that much love coming at you?
Roberts: Oh, I’m telling you, when I went through – my family said this to me. When I went through breast cancer in 2007, people were very kind and were great, but I kind of kept them at arm’s length, even though I shared with them.
But I still – this time, I allowed myself. You’ve got to allow yourself to be loved. I’m glad that you were able to take in that moment on the Walk of Fame, and see your friends and see all these people and appreciate it.
That’s something that I have really learned to do, and there are so many people who’ve read this book, and they said boy, there’s so many different lessons here. They said it’s also a lesson on friendship – how to be a friend on both sides. How to accept friendship and to extend friendship.
I think that is something that is – I know has faith, family, and friends have really carried me through the most difficult times in my life.
Tavis: Yeah. Give me some sense of what this has done for your world view.
Roberts: Oh, boy. I am not one of those, “This is the best thing that ever happened to me.” I would have loved to learn the lessons that I have learned another way. Not this painful way.
But this is the way he wanted me to learn certain lessons. You’ve known me a long time. I think the person I am has not changed at all. It’s been brought out a little bit more.
I feel, I take in more of the moments now. I feel a depth to me that I haven’t before. It’s hard to explain. It’s not like my sister when I got out of the hospital – I was in there for 30 days in much isolation, and we’re in the car riding home.
She’s like, “Oh, are you looking at the trees, are you,” and you do kind of look at things just a little bit differently, and the level of appreciation that I have, even though I had it before, again, I want to stress that.
You don’t have to have something like this happen, you shouldn’t have something like this happen, but do I want to be the same person? Do you go through something like that, do we all go through what we go through to be the exact same?
But I think the core of us, those values that we learn, my mama saying, “You know right from wrong,” when I was leaving the house, those kind of things stay with you. But it just heightens what’s there to begin with, I believe.
Tavis: I have known you for a long time, but I don’t know you well enough to know how, I don’t know you well enough to describe in my own words your work-life balance, but what has this done, to the extent that it has, how has it impacted your work-life balance?
Roberts: Oh, boy. It was a good lesson for me, because there was no balance there to begin with. It was all about work, and I wouldn’t allow people to travel with me.
Amber is here with me on this trip, she never – my girlfriend. She never would have gone with me on a trip, because I’d have been like, oh, no, I have to see Tavis and I’m doing this and I’m doing that, and I don’t have time.
I want her here. I want to spend time with friends. I want to have – and believe me, let me stress, I get it. I’m very blessed. I was out of work for six months. I was on medical leave for six months and had a good job to come back to.
There are a lot of people who go through these kind of things. So I don’t want to come across and someone’s saying, well yeah, sure, it’s easy for you. But for all of us, we have to just take stock. What is most important for us, and find a way to make it work for us.
Tavis: Yeah. How do you process death now?
Roberts: I’m telling you, it’s funny, because I just had a dream the other night about Mama, it was a deep dream. I know I scare friends sometimes when I say this. I’m at peace. I’m at peace, and not in a way – I’m going to leave here like everybody else.
Tavis: Kicking and screaming.
Roberts: That’s right, I’m not – (laughter) don’t think that I’m going to give up. I’m going to go out kicking and screaming. But when you are, there was a time that I, oh, boy, when I was in the hospital and hallucinating and just in a really bad state that I would, I can’t say I thought I was going to die, but I can say I wanted to.
I was in so much pain and discomfort, and I just, when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. I don’t want to get there any sooner than anybody else does, but knowing my mother and father and just what I’ve gone through.
But I also want to say to people, thank you for the prayers, thank you for wanting me to still be here with you, and there’s not a day that’s gone by that someone hasn’t come up to me.
I was working out in the gym before coming here, and a young woman who was an attendant there shared a story about how she lost her mother and her father, and she became very emotional and said how much she prayed for me, and just hugged me. She was so glad that I was still here. So I am too.
Tavis: Dr. King once famously said, and I love this, that each of us should do our work so well that the dead, the living, or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. That’s a high standard.
Now you’re awfully good at what you do in the morning and I know it’s a wonderful team and I know you’re going to give the praise and credit to everybody else.
But in large measure, the data bear this out, that it’s to a great extent your being there as a part of this team that’s driven this show to number one in the mornings and kept these ratings there for quite some time.
I raise that only because I wonder if you approach your work any different, if you approach your interviews any different. I’m just trying to get a sense of what Robin is like in the chair now.
Roberts: I feel more sensitivity toward the person I’m speaking with, and I give them the benefit of the doubt more. Meaning if they – I realize that I don’t know what they’re going through. Like the time when I was –
Tavis: Because everybody’s got something.
Roberts: Right, right, exactly. So if I think that why is this person acting like this, and usually in the past I would kind of hold it against them, not in the interview but just in – now, like, I kind of realize that I don’t know what their day has been like.
But I do feel more compassion than I ever have, I do feel again that I’m not the same that I was, and nor do I want to be. And I’m really grateful that people watch us and continue to make us number one.
It’s not – the cast members change, I’ve lost some great colleagues, and they’re off doing things that speak to their heart, but one thing that hasn’t changed, the people watching us, and I’m just eternally grateful.
Because there’s really something intimate about morning television, Tavis. There’s something that people in certain – they feel like you’re part of the family, and it’s an honor.
Tavis: You set the frame and the tone for their day, oftentimes.
Roberts: Charlie Gibson once said this to me, someone I work with. “I get to say ‘Good morning, America.’ You get to look out and say to America, ‘hope you have a good day.'” I want to do my part to make it a good day. I get chills still.
Tavis: It’s a good thing.
Roberts: Yeah, it’s a great thing.
Tavis: Given what you’ve gone through, what you’ve triumphed over, and what we’re talking about, it’s miniscule and irrelevant compared to that, and yet it’s a huge societal conversation now because you have covered sports for so long and been an athlete yourself. You know where I’m going with this.
Roberts: Oh, I know. We’re in L.A., we’re in L.A.
Tavis: We’re in Los Angeles, back to your mama’s edict that everybody’s got something. But what do you say to Donald Sterling?
Roberts: Wow. Disappointed. Anyone who makes those statements, you shake your head and you go, “It’s 2014,” especially if it’s coming from someone who in part makes their livelihood from African Americans.
Coaches, their bottom line is determined by how well they do for you. I just, I can’t – one thing that Mom taught me is why don’t we focus more on what we have in common than not.
I’m eager, like everybody else, to see how the league will respond, what kind of action they will take. My heart really goes out to the players. That is a – they’re trying to play for a championship. This is what they want to do.
To be pulled and for the focus not to be on the court but off the court – but bottom line, anyone that would say those kind of things, it hurts. It hurts, and you’re just disappointed that in this time and day someone would still have those feelings.
Tavis: I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see you, and when I say that I mean I’m really pleased to see you –
Roberts: Thank you.
Tavis: – because you’re still here and you’re still doing such wonderful work.
Roberts: Thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: And engaged in such a wonderful witness. Her name, of course, Robin Roberts. You know that. Her book, this memoir, is called “Everybody’s Got Something.” That’s what her mama told her. (Laughter)
She made her mama and all the rest of us proud and continues to do that every morning on “GMA.” Robin Roberts, good to have you on here.
Roberts: Anytime, Tavis, great to see you.
Tavis: Thanks for coming. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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