It's been decades since Hoda Kotb lost her father to a heart attack, but that moment from her college years remains vivid in her memory.
The TODAY co-anchor shared with Minnie Driver on the actor's podcast, "Minnie Questions," how she found out that her dad had passed away suddenly and what that first night without him was like.
In their wide-ranging conversation, the two also touched on how her father's death became a driving force in her career, how she endured breast cancer and a divorce simultaneously and the moment early in her relationship with now-fiancé Joel Schiffman that she raised the question of adopting a child with him.
Hoda was a student at Virginia Tech when her father died. She was at a sorority formal when her brother, Adel, who was also attending the university at the time, came to find her.
"And my brother runs in, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, my brother always said he was gonna crash Tri Delt formals, like he and his buddy did it. And he said, 'Come outside.' And I said, 'What?' He goes, 'Come outside, I need to talk to you, and I go, 'No.' I said, 'You need to tell me,' and he said, 'Dad had a heart attack, and he died.
"It was like you couldn't even compute what was going on."
Hoda stayed at her brother's apartment that night.
"And I played James Taylor on the turntable over and over and over and over until we went home that morning," she said.
However, she believes that terrible loss also pushed her to reach the top in her career.
"And it's funny, it was the worst thing in the world, but I often look around where I am now and wonder," she said. "You know you always want an 'attagirl' from your dad, you always want a 'you did it.' Throughout my career I think there were probably a few spots where he probably would've said, 'Well good for you, you did it,' and then I would've been done.
"But instead when you don't have that 'attagirl,' you're like, I guess there's more of this mountain to climb, let's see, let's see, let's see. And you may keep pushing yourself for something that isn't coming, but at the end of the day it landed me in a beautiful place. Now I have a beautiful family, and all those great things happened as a result of it. So I think that event was really life-changing. It helped me in some ways, and it left me with unfinished business in others."
Hoda also recalled another time of heartbreak that she turned into a positive after getting to the other side of it. In 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her marriage ended.
"In this weird span of a week I found out that I needed a mastectomy, and at the same time I found out that the guy who I was married to was being unfaithful," she told Driver. "And I literally was like, 'What is happening? What happened?' I didn't understand."
While recovering from surgery, the phrase "you can't scare me" became a mantra for her. With that in mind, she had learned that TODAY was creating a fourth hour of the show, and she decided to go for the job despite usually being skittish about being a self-promoter when it comes to her career.
She approached the company's president at the time and lobbied for the co-host spot.
"And I end up getting that damn job, and I thought to myself, 'Oh, my God if I hadn't gotten sick, I wouldn't have the guts, I wouldn't have had the courage, I wouldn't have had the mojo, I wouldn't have gone up, I would've never asked, I would've waited like I usually do, but instead it was urgent," she said. "All of a sudden life was urgent."
That tumultuous period 14 years ago is a far cry from the joy of her life now as the mother of daughters Haley, 4, and Hope, 2, whom she adopted with Schiffman.
"I always dreamt of being a mom," she said. "I thought it was in my DNA. I had some bumps in the road, a divorce and an illness, and then you realize, 'Well wait I think the window went past me,' and you almost are shocked, like, 'Wait what happened, how did I miss that window?'"
Hoda had even researched how to become a schoolteacher as a post-TODAY career in order to be close to kids. However, seeing a video of a young child covered in soot from the rubble of a bombing in Syria planted the seed of adoption.
"I was struggling with it, and I looked at that kid and I said, 'Oh, my God what I wouldn't do to be the mother to that child,' and that was like the final sign. There were so many signs before, but I think that was the sign. And I said, 'If God tells you something, pay attention.'"
She had only been dating Joel for six months when she decided to ask him if he would want to adopt a child with her.
"I guess this will show me whether or not he loves me enough," she thought at the time. "I was looking at his face, and I was thinking to myself in this weird five-second vacuum everything was about to change. Everything. Either I was gonna think maybe he doesn't love me enough and maybe this was over, or he was gonna say yes and our lives would change in another way."
Joel answered without hesitation.
"Maybe on second number five, he said, 'I don't need a week, I don't need any time to think about it, the answer's yes,'" Hoda said. "I literally fell on his chest and sobbed."
Hoda can still remember looking at the clock and seeing that it was 11:53 when she received a message from a woman at the adoption agency about Haley.
"I called her, and she said two words: 'She's here,'" Hoda said. "I don't know what a live birth feels like, but that was pretty cool what I just got there. It was pretty amazing.
"It was one of those time stands still, everything's frozen. It's like your life changes in a blink, and there's a before and after."