It’s not like I knew her personally. We weren’t buds. We didn’t have a whole lot in common, other than being almost the same age. And being American. And being sultry, soulful mezzo-sopranos with two-and-a-half-octave ranges who, in our prime, could knock the crap out of any song we sang.
Oh, wait. That was her, not me.
A few hours after she died, I was driving home from a choir retreat. I didn’t know she was gone. All I knew was that every station on the radio was playing Whitney Houston. I didn’t find out why until the next morning.
When I found out she’d passed, it felt like I’d lost something. How could that be? Like I said, I didn’t know her.
But some people play out their lives on the public stage. And in so doing, they become our Gods and Goddesses, our archetypes. We feel like we know them, and we project our own lives onto theirs.
So what was it about Whitney’s death that affected me so strongly? And what did it have to do with me?
First of all, I wasn’t just pissed when she died. I was sad. I was sad to hear about her struggle with addiction, and the toll it took on her once-magical voice. I was sad to know that this woman who had lived so many public triumphs had also lived a private hell.
I first became interested in Whitney in the late ’80s, when rumors were circulating about her and her then-personal-assistant Robyn Crawford. Was Whitney Houston something other than straight? I have no idea. Just like I have no idea about so many elements of her life:
Would she have been an addict if she hadn’t been in the limelight? How was her struggle with addiction related to her fame? To her background? To her sexuality? What was she trying to avoid by using drugs and alcohol? Why didn’t she get clean? Why did she have to die?
In the weeks after Whitney Houston’s death, I sat with these questions and my own emotional reactions to them. Overall, I felt depressed and contracted, and I wasn’t sure why.
And then it hit me.
I was pissed at her for not sticking around. I was pissed at her for dying, and taking her gift with her. I was pissed at her for straying from what she’d been given, and for letting herself be buried by the residual gunk of stardom.
Though even as I thought this, I realized it was ultimately my projection. I didn’t know her. But I do know that, when she sang, I got chills. It was like hearing God sing.
Whitney Houston was a model for me, in terms of taking your God-given gift into the world. Taking that Spirit-fueled talent and sharing it with others. All of us can do that, including me. Whitney inspired me to take what I’ve been given and share it with others. And to not let anything stop me from doing so.
And then she herself was stopped.
Maybe there’s a gift in that, too. Maybe that was her final gift to us.
To remind us to be fierce. To remind us to look adversity in the face and answer “Hell to the No,” a phrase she popularized. To remind us not to be stopped by our fears or compromised by our addictions.
Maybe that’s a gift we can give to her now. To share our talents and abilities with the world. And to say “Hell to the No” to anyone – or anything – that tries to silence us.