This is not a blog post for hits. This is just a blog post for me and my grief. Please excuse what I’m sure seems like self-indulgence. It is self-indulgence. I admit it.
But I have to talk, because I just can’t even believe it. I just can’t believe Whitney is gone. I don’t have to give her last name. Those of us Americans who are a particular age all know her by her first name, as our friend, as our sister. She’s always been just Whitney.
I first heard her sing in 1985 when I was seventeen years old. I was an emotionally messy, young girl and it was a very messy year.
I was getting over my first real relationship—y’all know what I mean—in which I had fallen in love and been made a a royal fool. Sometimes, I look back and still can’t believe I was that stupid. On top of that, my father was dying. I was living in Atlanta, where my mother and sister and I had moved when my parents separated. Then Daddy was diagnosed with terminal heart disease and he moved from North Carolina down to Atlanta with us, a move that I greatly resented.
There were ugly scenes and screaming between Mama and me, but my father arrived in Atlanta the fall of 1984, frail and diminished. My mother tried to explain to me the meaning of wedding vows, that she had stood up before God and a justice of the peace with this man. And this man. A man who’d been so vigorously cruel , who had ruled my world—the world of my mother and my sisters–was husked down to a harmless nothing. You would have thought I would have been glad, but instead, somehow I was even angrier.
Despite the screaming, my mother and I remained extremely close and so that winter, whenever she woke in the middle of the night to go to the hospital, following the ambulance that carried Daddy, I would go with her. And we would listen to the radio.
We’d travel the interstate in that old white car with the blue seats, watching the city lights and listening to Whitney, who had released her first single on her first album. Whenever I hear “You Give Good Love,” even now, I think about my mama and daddy. I think about how she stayed a good woman for him until the end, despite how he’d disappointed us all– and even worse. And there was a feeling I had, of hope and melancholy at the same time. Those radio nights gave me a lifeline I can’t explain. Mama’s favorite song off that album was, “Saving All My Love.” The sound of her raspy Filtered-Kools Alto on those first words made me smile.
“It’s not very easy, living all alone.”
Daddy died that summer, but there were Whitney-sounds to comfort me past the grief and confusion his death presented. I turned eighteen and entered one of the worst times of my life, an ugly, downward time that I never thought I would live through. Then, I looked up ten years later and I was finally starting to come out of it, only to discover that Whitney had entered the worst of it.
It never seemed to get better for her, though I knew it would. I just knew it. It couldn’t end. Not for Whitney.
Tonight talking to Kim, my oldest friend in the world and a monument of my childhood, I reminisced about what Whitney meant to me. She was that big sister I idolized. Tall, smoothly brown, otherworldly pretty, popular, talented. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up.
That I grew up and realized Whitney wasn’t perfect has bothered me over the years more than my own relatives’ frailties. More than I wanted to admit to myself, which is why I tried to forget about her. I was so disappointed in her, though somehow, I never could give her the chance to be human even though I wanted people to give me that same chance.
But every once in a while, on the phone with Mama, she would say, “Remember when she hit that note in ‘I’ll always love you’? That girl sure knew she could sing.” And then, “I just can’t understand what happened.”
Whitney was supposed to be perfect. I mean, look at the pictures. Look at her beauty. Even when it diminished, it was still there, different but defiant. Listen to the records even when That Voice changed. She was supposed to be my guide through my womanhood, as she had been through my girlhood.
And now my girlhood is over.
Every time someone has passed in these two years, I’ve said it. My childhood is over. My girlhood is over. But somehow, I thought I could always get it back, no matter what looking in the mirror told me. The same way Whitney was going to get That Voice back. She was going to return to me, and bring with her what I’d lost. What we’d both lost.
I can say it now. I loved her. I still do. It didn’t matter that I never really knew her. I felt like I did. We all felt that way. And I wished I had given her another chance.
But now, Whitney’s gone, whether I want to believe it or not. Childhood is over. Girlhood is over, finally, and for good. I guess, at least I still have the songs. And my memories of the Atlanta skyline.