I can’t stop crying.

It has been hours at this point since I plopped on my bed, opened my laptop, clicked onto Facebook and had my heart ripped out.

Whitney Houston, the biggest female singer of my time, has died. And I’m taking it hard.

It’s more than her being one of my all time favorite singers. Or maybe that is it. But I haven’t felt like this since…well, since we lost Mike. And tonight, just like that balmy, early summer evening in 2009, I am struggling to understand why this feels like a death in my family.

I get it that people die, obviously. I also get it that I had never met her and didn’t know her personally. But I did know her, or at least that’s how it felt sometimes, and it felt like she knew me – or at least knew my heart. She was ten years older than I am . She wasn’t supposed to precede her mom and her cousin and her godmother in death. She was supposed to bounce back from the bowls of narcotic hell and show the world that her magic was real.

Maybe it hurts like this because we’ve known her since she was 19. I remember hearing “Saving All My Love” on WBLS in New York and thinking “who is that?” I can still remember Ken “Spider” Web, the radio DJ, going on and on about her being related to Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin but I had missed her name. I was, and I still am, a HUGE music fan. Her voice was so amazing to me that I needed to know who she was. I listened to the radio intently for the next 24 hours until her song came on again – it did and I missed the name again! Finally, a few days later, the song came on and the radio announcer said “new one from Whitney Houston – this young lady is sure to be a star!”

You think I’m lying? I remember these things like moments in a relationship. I can also remember hearing Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” while getting ready for summer camp and my mother and I listening over and over trying to figure out what he was saying exactly. I remember when my mother brought home Whitney’s first album, Whitney Houston and told me that she was Cissy Houston’s daughter. (We listened to a lot of Cissy in my house.) I sat on the living room floor and looked at the picture thinking about how pretty she looked to me. That album did to me what it did to legions of young girls around my age at the time – it made us think we could sing! One of my first big Whitney-related memories is auditioning for Showtime at the Apollo. (I’ll pause for wisecracks) My seventh grade friend Keisha and I decided to sing The Greatest Love of All as a duet and we would meet everyday after school to rehearse. When the audition came up my mother and father brought me down to Harlem to the old National Black Theater building and Keisha and I got up and sang our little hearts out. We didn’t make it. But my mother did say afterwards, “Ok, well you have a little something there, you ain’t Whitney, but you held your own.” That made me proud – I held my own. That’s all I needed. I gave up singing but I still loved Whitney.

As I sit here recalling other Whitney memories in my life I can’t help but think about how I matured with her. She took me, emotionally, from middle school to motherhood. By the time her second album, Whitney dropped, I was entering high school and the world of high school boys. Where Do Broken Hearts Go; I Get So Emotional; Didn’t We Almost Have it All all dripped of the drama that a fourteen year old girl needed to cope with the roller coaster ride that is puppy love. And the latter, Didn’t We Almost Have it All? Chile. That song reared it’s unfortunately appropriate head more than a few times well into adulthood. In later high school years I had a ‘high school sweetheart’ and All the Man I Need from her third album became one of our first songs. Another lesser known cut from that album, After We Make Love (which, by the way we hadn’t yet) was another favorite of mine. I wrote lyrics to songs I loved in my journal back then. These were included and I still have it (see below). I can’t find the one with “All the Man I Need” but I can tell you that I had planned my deflowering to a tee and it was to be on July 4th so that there would be fireworks involved and that song was to be playing in the background. Didn’t quite go down like that, but Whitney was apart of the dream.

I was in college when I Will Always Love You hit. I have worn my lungs out on many, many occasions trying to hit those notes. It was just perfection. I used to feel so irritated towards white people, especially in the deep south where I was at the time, who acted like she just became relevant with this monster hit. I can remember walking to my apartment from campus with my walkman on singing I Have Nothing at the very top of my lungs. I also remember a guy who I was sort of seeing at the time calling and leaving “I Will Always Love You” on my answering machine. I was so annoyed because his intention was to woo me but I had to let him know that although a beautiful ballad, it was a BREAK UP song. Which of course leads me to her next album. The Waiting to Exhale Soundtrack.

When I tell you that I could barely believe what I was hearing when I found out that Babyface was putting together this all-star album with all of my favorite singers: Anita Baker, Patti Labelle, Faith Evans, MARY J. BLIGE and…Whitney Houston – I nearly passed out. To this day, Exhale (Shoop, Shoop) just makes me feel better. Seriously. Her voice in that song, the words, the lullaby like repetition, it just soothes me. In the same regard, Count on Me takes me through it. I love my friends so much. I can’t think of that song without thinking about that love, particularly for my best friend. When I hear that song I always get choked up thinking about the ways in which I have been able to count on her through the years. Makes me sad for Whitney’s close circle of girlfriends like CeCe Winan and Kim Burrell and Perri “Pebbles” Reid. There is a version of Bridge Over Troubled Waters that Whitney and CeCe sang on a Vh1 program years ago that shows the power of their connection.

My connection with her grew even stronger when she released the Preacher’s Wife soundtrack. I had never really listened to gospel music growing up but my relationship with God was growing and I felt like I needed to move away from secular music. The problem was, all I knew was secular music. I lived with a constant soundtrack in my mind and there was no way I could give that up. I felt so torn. Then I heard Whitney’s version of I Love the Lord and it turned it all around. I played that soundtrack out. I do to this day. I Go to the Rock and I Believe in You and Me are mainstays in my gospel rotation. Whitney ushered me into gospel. Her version of This Day is perfect. Bar none. The familiarity and comfort I had with her voice allowed me to be introduced to gospel at my own pace and eventually just fully embrace and love the genre.

I have to admit as much as I loved her first big “come back” with the 2007 release of Your Love is My Love. I wasn’t a fan of much of the music Whitney put out after that. It was hard for me to hear the straining in her voice and see the fear and anxiety in her eyes as she realized that we realized that things were not the same. Like most of her fans, and there are legions of us, we spent much of the new millenium deeply worried about her. And to be honest, it might have been easier to take this news six or seven years ago when we were watching her public spiral and challenges with addiction and sobriety. I can remember saying on more than one occasion, “please Whitney don’t die.” I also remember being moved emotionally watching her Christian sisters praying for her on live television during Cece Winans religion channel program.

After watching all of these clips of Whitney what has dawned on me is that this is harder because we were all rooting for her full recovery. The world of her fans, those of us who believed most in the possibility of her triumph – not as a singer – but as a human are that much more devastated by this loss. Many of us have dealt with drug abuse in our family. I know I have. And if you have you know that it’s often, more often than not, not a happy ending. Whitney represented the possibility of a happy ending. I joked after her return that I couldn’t wait for the tell-all autobiography ala Tina Turner that reveals the depths of despair that she pulled herself up from to become the beacon of hope that she would go on to be for so many who thought it wasn’t possible for them. She would be for addicts what Tina was for survivors of domestic abuse. When she came out on stage on Good Morning America last year I was moved to tears. Not by her voice, but by her spirit. That she did the work, took on the challenge and fought back for her life made me so happy. Watching her sing to her mother who has never once left her side and never once stopped praying was overwhelming. I didn’t care what her voice sounded like. I just knew we had Whitney back for the long haul.

You can’t imagine how sad I am that I was mistaken.

There are so many more Whitney memories I could share. I mean Heartbreak Hotel and Why Does It Hurt So Bad have stories that are worthy of their own posts. The names say it all – but I will digress. Our generation is loosing it’s “icons” way to soon. When I think about the legends of my mother’s time and her all time favorites: Patti, Aretha, Gladys…they were all able to come through rough times, continue with stellar careers and move easily into legendary status. They are here to be honored and cherished. It’s so perplexing to me that Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston would be lost at these young ages. And when I think about who my daughter will call icon, it just makes me sadder. There is no one in her generation and no other in my own who could do this or this or this or bite your tongue THIS.

Whitney was an original. Inimitable.

I’ll leave you with this clip. I feel like it embodies everything I (we) are feeling right now and why. We believed in Whitney. We wanted the best for Whitney, we wanted her to win. And maybe in some way that we aren’t meant to understand — she did. Maybe she won because she’s free.

Rest in Peace Whitney. We love you.

Kim Burrell tribute to Whitney