“So goodbye. Please don’t cry. We both know I’m not what you need.”
From the Whitney Houston song “I Will Always Love You”
The most important song of Whitney Houston’s life would be the one I think she might sing quietly to us from her grave if she could. It would be audible only to those sadly listening for meaningful lessons for the rest of us from her life and premature death. People just listening to the breathless news coverage about the early demise of yet another famous star would not hear a note of it.
The last best song she never sang would be a ballad, I think, a story about what Houston’s life taught her that she figured the rest of us needed to know. It would not be about the glitz and the fame, The Voice, and all that jazz that made her seem different from you and me. Rather, it would be about how much her human frailty made her like the rest of us no matter how many platinum albums she had recorded.
The first verse would reminisce about that time in most of our lives (moments for some, years for others) when no one has told us how hard dreams are to live, how hard they die, and that ours might never come true. It would be the only place in this ballad that Whitney Houston’s voice would take full flight, lifting our spirits with it the way few voices can really do with song.
If the first verse soared, the second would come back to earth where the rest of us sing. It would speak of how easy it is to step the wrong way instead of the right way, then ask why we all foolishly think the first misstep into addiction is easy to walk back from at any time. What is it about addiction, she would ask, that, almost unique among diseases, makes denial the most dangerous sign that you are really sick?
Then, in a voice so soft it would sound as though she was singing just to you, Houston would sing of that first time she realized with all her gifts she also had a great curse, the ability to be hooked on something ruinous like cocaine. We would hear her astonishment that any life, no matter how successful or filled with promise, could be sucked into black holes of misery and failure by alcohol, drugs, depression or other diseases of the human mind.
She would ask if we knew that about ourselves, as she came to know it about herself. Have you felt above you for the threads by which your life hangs, she would challenge us in that great gospel voice? Reaching through the airwaves she would take our faces in her hands, look into our eyes, and ask, “Do you know how easily the wings can come off your dreams?” Have we discovered what Houston discovered as she struggled to live a private life as successful as her public life — that each of us can get addicted and go awry but for the grace of our God, or of someone who loves us, or simple, dumb luck?
Then, one verse from the end, she would ask us to finally comprehend what addiction to drugs and other substances really is by understanding her story. She would explain that we can only understand addiction if we truly understand it as being so powerful that the actively addicted are willing to trade their lives, and relationships with those they love, for their drugs.
In the last verse Whitney Houston would ask that we forget she had a voice so heavenly it could make angels put their harps down and listen to her music instead of theirs, and remember this song of hers above all the others she sang. Otherwise, we will have wasted her death. And if we forget that her story is the story of all of us who are addicted, or the friends and family of the addicted, we will also waste the misery and deaths of everyone else who died unsung this year and every year as the result of their addiction. Her final song was for all of them, too.
Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.