By DeWayne Wickham
Whitney Houston finally got to exhale. After a 27-year non-stop, roller-coaster ride to steep heights of fame and the deep canyons of heartbreak, she took one last breath — and then let go of life.
Officially, it will be said death came to the pop music icon at 3:55 p.m. on Saturday in a Beverly Hills hotel room. That's the moment of her medical demise. But Houston's life started slipping away long before then. In the coming days, much will be said about the troubles that warped her time on earth.
Accounts of Houston's musical genius will be laced with talk of the time she spent on life's dark side. You'll hear about Houston's recurring bouts with drugs, her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown and her ill-advised stint on his tragically real, reality show.
But I want to remember the Houston who brought joy into the lives of millions of people worldwide, not the one whose troubled life too often kept her from experiencing the bliss she so unselfishly gave others. I want to remember the Houston whose music I loved, the actress who drew me into a Washington, D.C., theater in 1995 to see the film Waiting to Exhale, which I feared was a black-male bashing movie.
I waded into that theater, nearly packed with women, with three buddies for what we only half-jokingly called a reconnaissance mission. I left transformed by the story that unfolded onscreen and by these words from its title song:
Everyone falls in love sometime,
Sometimes it's wrong and sometimes it's right
For every win, someone must fail
But there comes a point when, when we exhale
For nearly a decade-and-a-half, Houston made it possible for a lot of us to exhale — to find an escape from a troubled world through her music and acting. Her voice — both the soft, raspy one she spoke with and the sultry, booming one she took to the recording studio and stage — was intoxicating. Her singing was as soulful as a mouth full of collard greens and as transcending as the rendition of TheStar-Spangled Banner she sang at Super Bowl XXV, just days after the start of the Persian Gulf War.
No doubt, some people will choose to remember Houston by the tragedy of her early death. But I'll remember her as an artist who sold more than 170 million albums, singles and videos and won enough musical awards to fill a museum.
Some people will focus on her struggles with drug abuse and a bad marriage, two tragic chapters in her life. I want to remember Houston for the comeback she was making in Sparkle, the remake of a 1976 movie she just completed with American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. I want to think of what might have been had she lived to star in the Waiting to Exhale sequel, which was in the works.
Asked during a 1986 Rolling Stone interview about the acclaim she got after the release of her breakthrough album Whitney Houston, she said confidently, "It was time, time for singing to come back again, to listen to words, to feel what somebody was saying."
From then on, Houston's life was a non-stop journey that propelled her into that Beverly Hills hotel room — where she finally got her chance to exhale.