Last night Red, the lovely Ms. Trask and I were buried under a myriad of blankets catching up on recent episodes of New Girl. In the midst of this mindless diversion came news that Whitney Houston had died. My reaction was a sadly familiar one: How awful, but not terribly surprising. Of course I was presupposing the cause of her death (which, as of now, has not been determined and/or made public). My assumption is this is another case of untamed addiction leading to its inevitable conclusion. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps her demons didn’t directly contribute to her death, although it’s unusual to suddenly die at 48. Frankly, I don’t see much that it matters.

Red, who is 14, has only peripheral knowledge of Whitney Houston. She’s heard of her. Some of her iconic hits sound familiar. She has always been a singer from the past, despite being only 34 when Red was born. While the news of her death was still fresh I asked Red if she ever heard the version of The Star Spangled Banner Whitney performed at the 1991 Super Bowl. (Which today feels like 100 years ago.) She said she hadn’t. I pulled out my iPhone and quickly found it on YouTube. It lasts a little over two minutes. We watched, listening through the unforgiving tiny speakers of the phone. I don’t know the last time I heard or saw this, but it’s been a while. When the song ended Red said to me in a very small voice, “That gave me the chills.” The majesty of Whitney Houston’s gift was on full display that January day two decades ago. She looked young, vibrant and oh so very in command of her voice, her talent and her presence. It gave me the chills too, but I suspect for different reasons.

So many people compromise their talent and destroy their life through addiction. For those in the public eye maybe fame is too heavy a burden. Maybe too much time and money leads down dark alleyways. Maybe certain personalities are more susceptible to destructive excesses. Maybe it’s all this or something else. I don’t know and none of us are in a position to judge. What I do know is this: When someone graces us with an extraordinary gift, a gift filled with beauty and joy, a gift which has the astounding power to lift our soul and make the us forget our troubles if only for a few minutes, when a person like that dies, no matter what the reason, we are all diminished. That’s the harsh duality of beauty. When we see or hear or feel it we rejoice in life’s remarkable possibilities. When it’s taken away we mourn the loss of the person, but we’re really mourning the truth that pure joy is a fleeting gift. And we don’t want to let it go.

But, you know, we don’t have to let it go, not if we try.

Each of us – every single person – has the opportunity and ability to bring some measure of joy, relief and escape to those within our own little spheres of influence. Yes, the world is filled with hatred and bitterness. Yes, sometimes it seems so pervasive that rallying against it is like trying to fill a sinkhole by scooping in dirt with a spoon. So what. It’s true only a handful of people can impact on a large scale, reaching millions and millions of folks and bringing a bit of sunshine into their lives. The rest of us have to settle for contributing in small ways. Whenever we lose someone like that, someone like Whitney Houston, I try to remember for all the happiness they gave us in the end it isn’t the scope of your influence which defines you. It’s the fact you tried.

Endnote: Much like Kate Smith’s God Bless America is that song’s definitive rendition, I hope Whitney Houston’s The Star Spangled Banner will occupy a similar place in this country’s rich musical heritage. It’s difficult to imagine a more deserving interpretation.

  1. El Guapo says:

    Possibly the nicest, most eloquent eulogy I’ve seen to Miss Houston.

    (I removed the word “blog” from before “eulogy” because the sentiment applies across all media.)


  2. What a breath of fresh air to read someone speaking kindly of this amazing woman. Like most, I never agreed with her lifestyle choices. But then, they weren’t mine to make. I have an amazing respect for music. I feel it inside my soul and let it carry me. This young soul (and at 48, she was still a youthful woman save for the ravishing effects of the drugs on her body) gave me innumerable moments of joy with her beautiful gift. As was the case with Michael Jackson. I know perhaps a handful of people who claimed to be an MJ fan. But even those who loathed his presence on earth could not deny the beauty of his work.

    So THANK YOU! A thousand times, thank you for the kind words of your quiet reverence for the loss of such a human being. It is easy to say nasty things based on the opinions forms from the lack of facts we get from the media. It takes far more strength to find the good, the beauty, in people who are so harshly scrutinized, even if they found themselves in one of those ‘dark alleyways’.


  3. As you say, tragic but not terribly surprising. To see such talent wasted is heart breaking but that is the horrific nature of addiction. Perhaps her death will bring clarity for someone suffering in a similar way. Nicely written piece John.


  4. BrainRants says:

    You do have a way of eloquently putting things, and as a semi-conoisseur of our National Anthem, I have to agree that was one of the best – possibly the last good – performances of our song by a big name. No additional notes, no ‘artistic license,’ and in spite of any substance abuse, REMEMBERED ALL THE WORDS.

    She did it justice in a way I don’t see often enough for my taste.


  5. sparklebumps says:

    I was so sad when I found out she died! “The Preacher’s Wife” was one fo my favorite movies when I was 14. You should get Red to watch that.
    And I’m tryin’ to bring the joy around, but it’s pretty hard when I keep getting parking tickets and stuff…


  6. topiclessbar says:

    Yeah, unfortunately I’m a Bills fan and so I associate the Whitney Anthem with the first Superbowl loss and it makes me depressed, but I absolutely agree it was a wonderful rendition. Good post, John!


  7. kayjai says:

    Nice post, John. I was surprised to hear of her death. I thought she was going down a better path. Maybe that wasn’t the case. I feel bad for her daughter….


  8. Well said, John. Too often we think that problems in the world are so big, there’s nothing we can do. But, as John Denver once said, you don’t have to do it all. You only have to do one small thing. And if you do one small thing, and the next person does one small thing, and so on, why then the things get done.

    RIP Whitney.


  9. Very well written, John.


  10. mysterycoach says:

    You just gave me chills… I agree whole heartedly with everything. Hello Red and Ms. Trask! 🙂

    Oh and now… I have to go listen to it. She was stunning, talented, vibrant and it was tossed, for drugs… I mean, we chose not to do drugs. I’ve been around them off and on in life and I chose to walk away, I chose not to become involved, I’ve seen what it does to people and you see someone like this, who has the world at their feet … and they get involved with someone and let them take them down… I mean, to me, maybe I’m too harsh… but love doesn’t equal drugs or doing them. Know what I mean?

    I wasn’t surprised either… just sad at the set of events that led up to it.


  11. This is a beautiful post, John.


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