I stood alone in the center of Clackamas Town Center mall on a temporary stage. I wore a pleated skirt, black flats, a blouse, a sort of perm.
Without any musical accompaniment and with fear like I’d never imagined, I gripped the sides of my legs and prepared to sing a heart-stopping ballad. A song my hero, Whitney Houston, first had sung about me.
“I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside.”
In a shaky soprano, I deliberately sung each note of “Greatest Love of All” while my papa offstage looked at me proudly, tears welling in his eyes.
With everything in me, I wanted to impress the people in the audience, the skaters who’d stopped on the rink, the people holding shopping bags who paused for curiosity-sake.
I wanted my talent to startle the production assistants holding the clipboards and the mix of middle-aged men and women who sat at the judging table, choosing kids for a national cable channel talent contest.
I was 12-years-old, at the height of insecurity, and yet something in me believed I could do it.
I believed I was the future. I believed somewhere deep inside I did possess the something beautiful Whitney sung about, even though most days it felt hidden behind scraggly bangs and bad posture.
Some girls took the stage that day with their batons, their keyboards. A boy might have played a trumpet, cheeks puffing. I don’t really remember.
What I do remember is how I wanted more than anything to sing like Whitney. I wanted to sing for Whitney.
For years before and after, my sister and I danced whenever we’d play her cassette or hear her on the radio. I loved the slow songs — “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” and later “I Will Always Love You” — and the upbeat “How Will I Know?” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” I studied her jeans and mini skirts and white tank top dance moves, and I wanted to move like her, be like her, sing like her.
Months after the talent contest, I’d sit in the upper balcony of Memorial Coliseum with my Uncle Don and watch the most beautiful earthy angel sing elegant and confident in one gorgeous outfit after another.
White gossamer gown, jade mini dress. I had them all memorized.
Over the years, as I watched her decline, I felt sad for the loss of a hero. I could no longer find in her eyes the sparkle light or see the strength that ran deep.
The other night after I heard of her death, I cried for addiction-ravaged lives. I cried for Cicely Tyson’s little girl who sang gospel in the church and who ended life early, with a voice unable to hit the notes that once covered my arms and legs with chills, made me cry, made me want to sing.
The other day, I watched a clip of Whitney singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl back in the early 90’s and noticed something I’d forgotten.
As she proceeded to the anthem’s crescendo in the most exquisite version of the song I’ve ever heard, I saw a glimmer of shine on her upper lip.
And I remembered. Remembered the way her face gradually covered with beads of sweat when she sang.
As a girl, that was the only giveaway to me that her singing required any effort. That her gift didn’t just slide across golden vocal cords and a perfectly opened mouth of bright teeth.
When I saw the glisten those many years ago, I would remember, oh yeah, my hero, she’s human.
She’s like me.