When we say “this is how I want to remember her,” we rarely mean how someone was right before she died, whether ravaged by old age or illness or drugs. Instead we form a collage of moments, often fleeting, usually romanticized, always personal.
So this is how I want to remember.
It is 1986, and I am sitting on the floor in the living room of our house in Brookline, Massachusetts, listening over and over to a new cassette on my parents’ boom box. The woman on the front of the tape looks, I think, like a princess: her hair is slicked back and she is wearing a simple strand of pearls, and a vaguely Grecian, cream-colored, one-shoulder dress. She isn’t exactly smiling, but she gazes out calmly, confidently. She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.
Until now I have owned only the following albums: We Are the World, purchased in an airport record store, and She’s So Unusual, purchased after a friend’s older neighbor dressed us up as mini-Cyndis, but we have recently gotten cable and so, in addition to watching hours and hours of Nickelodeon, I have also discovered MTV, which broadcasts Mötley Crüe’s hugely age-inappropriate “Home Sweet Home” video alongside songs like “Greatest Love of All,” which — as a child — I take to be an anthem that is hugely inspiring and wondrous. If that little girl in pigtails with the “Whitney” name tag could grow up to be the stunning, confident Whitney Houston, in a sparkly white dress, singing in her gorgeous voice to thousands of people, then anything is possible.
Whitney was only 21 when her debut album was released, but she already existed in an adult world that seemed incredibly exciting. On “Saving All My Love for You,” Whitney sings: “No other woman/ Is gonna love you more/ ‘Cause tonight is the night, that I’m feeling alright/ We’ll be making love the whole night through.” I put these lyrics in the same part of my brain that I put the kiss between Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy at the end of Pretty in Pink and the love scene between Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise in Top Gun — the Things Adults Do part, a.k.a. Things I Was Probably Too Young to Have Seen But Saw Anyway and Would One Day Understand.
A few weeks later, I somehow hear that Whitney Houston is going to be performing on Boston Common for three nights over the summer, and even though I have never been to a real concert before, I know that I must go. I beg my mother and she agrees and calls for tickets, and the only seats left are not together, and not only that, they seem expensive — close to $20 per ticket. I am too young to sit by myself, she tells me, even as she reassures me that I am mature for my age. I beg, and beg some more. Somehow seeing Whitney Houston in concert has become the most important thing in my life. Finally, she gives in and says that I will just have to come sit with her, maybe on her lap. We go to the concert and Whitney is so far away; she is a tiny speck on a huge stage, but I stand on a chair and crane my neck above the crowd and listen to her sing.