All at Once: Remembering Whitney

02/12/2012 04:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2012

When did we get this grown? Because we are, aren't we? Grown. Lawmakers ("I pay the rent here"). Enforcers ("There's the door"). Wise women and men with lives and tales of our own -- our parents' stories interesting if no longer instructive. And far from dazzling because: now we have our own.

Whitney Elizabeth Houston died yesterday. I was in a theater when word spread like digital lightning if the near constant cell phone flashes were any indication. "Who spends $12 on a movie and uses the time to trawl Twitter," I wondered.

There will be others, many others, whose powers surpass my own to tell the tale of what her music meant and means. To catalog their favorite performances (mine is "One Moment in Time" at the Grammy Awards in 1989). To say where her voice -- that Voice, the one that launched more than 200 million albums; that Voice, the one that gripped millions and drenched millions more in sweat spilled on dance floors from Atlanta to Beijing; that Voice, the one that lit countless smiles, broke hearts, renewed spirits, dusted off weary souls, sent us up, sent us on, sent us searching within -- ranks in the pantheon of greats.

I'll leave those assessments to them. I only ask, "How grown was Whitney?" Too grown to be told what to do? Too grown to listen? But then, what did we say when we saw her warring with demons in the spotlight? What did the people closest to her say? Who tried to get her help, and failed? Who didn't try at all? Who watched in silence? Who mocked her? Who turned away as if the there -- the drug use, the slow self-immolation -- wasn't there at all?

How grown was Michael? Too grown for Jermaine or Latoya, Janet or Mrs. Jackson to say: "Enough"? To say: "You've reached the end," when the saying could still do some good?

How grown are you? How grown am I?

Weeks before my 30th birthday, I asked my Grandmother, 92, if I was old.

"You ain't got your toes wet," she said.

It reminded me then, and makes me think now, of a passage in Toni Morrison's novel Jazz. Violet Trace and Alice Manfred are seated at Alice's kitchen table. Violet is recounting for Alice how she found Joe, her husband. How she claimed him. Retracing their steps to better see how their paths diverged -- he in love with a school age girl that was Alice's niece and she bearing beneath the weight of a wild and outsized sadness.

I can see Violet so clearly. Recounting her father's absences. Recounting her family's dispossession. Recounting her Grandmother True Belle's arrival. Recounting her family's salvation that came too late for Violet's mother, Rose Dear, who jumped into a well and "missed all the fun."

"We born around the same time, me and you," said Violet. "We women, me and you. Tell me something real. Don't just say I'm grown and ought to know. I don't. I'm 50 and I don't know nothing. What about it? Do I stay with him? I want to, I think. I want... well, I didn't always... now I want. I want some fat in this life."

"Wake up. Fat or lean, you got just one. This is it," said Alice.

"You don't know either, do you?"

"I know enough to know how to behave."

"Is that it? Is that all it is?"

"Is that all what is?"

"Oh shoot! Where the grown people?" Violet said. "Is it us?"