In her early 20s, my mum’s reputation as a Whitney Houston fan – and an unstoppable dancer – preceded her. It was the mid-80s, and she was a newly qualified physiotherapist living in Acton. After work, her khaki-coloured Fiat 127 became a karaoke spot for her friends, hosting warbled singalongs, windows rolled down, to the vocalist’s early classics.
I remember her belting out Whitney (often with wildly incorrect lyrics) around our house growing up. Mum’s enthusiastic singing was a permanent fixture, like the kitchen table. Even now, when I return to the house I grew up in, I still hear her cackling away and butchering the high notes of I Will Always Love You.
As a teenager I thought Whitney’s vocal acrobatics (and Mum’s theatrical imitations) were a bit cheesy. Popularity or simplicity struck me as bad things. While Mum jigged around the kitchen to the greatest hits, I was down in the garage making a racket with my secondary school punk outfit Moshpretty. Music snobbery was rife. Soon, “the band” were cadging afternoon lifts into Bristol to sneak into bars for punk shows before door security turned up for the evening. Occasionally, Mum would give us a ride and I’d put on one of her favourite Whitney songs to repay her for her troubles.
Once I turned 18 I didn’t need smuggling into beer-splattered bars, but the Whitney road trips with my mum continued. All at Once became my signature tune. I loved savouring the knowing melodrama of a line like: “I started counting teardrops / And at least a million fell / My eyes began to swell.” To an onlooker it must have looked farcical: the pair of us open-mouthed and careering around in a blue VW Beetle, smacking the dashboard to mark each dramatic key-change. These journeys are where my obsession with pop music began.
When I moved out, Mum ceremoniously packed me off with her collection of Whitney records – a 12-inch copy of Didn’t We Almost Have It All lived on a wonky shelf in my box room, and the singer looked on glamorously as I furiously typed in bed, trying to transform myself from an aspiring writer into a “proper” one. Mum was my most dedicated reader, and would often send me her amusing observations about the artists I was writing about. Soon, we branched out from Whitney and kept up a regular pop correspondence. Robyn, she declared through a smattering of emoji, was “fab”. Rihanna was “filthy” but “good fun”. Particularly taken by Christine and the Queens, she mastered her own avant-garde interpretation of the dance routine for Tilted.
Mum was chatting away one evening when her speech suddenly became garbled. Then she collapsed. When I turned up at the hospital, she didn’t look like a person who had just been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour – she was larking about and pretending the end of her bed was a ballet barre. It felt like a nightmare that couldn’t possibly be true. With steely determination, she promised to fight for every extra day. On the drive home, I listened to Whitney and cried for everything we had just been robbed of. The aching pain that throbs at the heart of I Have Nothing hit differently: “I don’t want to have to go / Where you don’t follow” seemed cruelly accurate in that terrible moment. While Whitney emotionally eviscerated herself on record, I imagined nonexistent photographs being ripped in two – Mum acting the fool and tearing up the dancefloor at my fictitious wedding while I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) blared; Mum teaching my hypothetical kids to lipsync into hairbrush microphones. I hadn’t even thought about wanting either of these things, until now.
The next five months were a blur. I paced around the hospital corridors listening to pop music for a brief escape. I would think about how closely they resembled a depressing airport, with gate numbers that made destinations such as intensive care, neurosurgery and acute neurology seem like bleak holiday getaways. The prognosis grew worse and worse, and at Christmas optimistic years chipped away to a few weeks. In those last days, we lay on her bed together at home listening to our favourite Whitney songs. She died on 12 January 2018.
It has been three years now, and time marches on. The old guilt that used to be underneath every new moment of happiness has quietened. I am learning to hold the joy of knowing her, and the pain of losing her, at the same time. And Whitney has helped me. As with grief, her music encompasses the generous, all-encompassing love and the bottomless pit left behind by a permanent goodbye, all at once.
These days I have a new signature song. Greatest Love of All reminds me of everything that Mum taught me, and I carry her brightness with me. Now I sing at the top of my lungs, and dance until my feet get sore, preferably to Whitney.