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‘Remembering Whitney’: The icon’s mother pays tribute

Upon hearing of the death of her daughter, global superstar Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston’s life was changed forever. In “Remembering Whitney,” Cissy Houston looks back at her daughter’s life and the tragic loss she continues to feel. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Upon hearing of the death of her daughter, global superstar Whitney Houston, on February 11, 2012, Cissy Houston’s life was changed forever. While the world had lost an iconic artist, Houston had lost her own beloved child. In “Remembering Whitney,” Cissy Houston looks back at her daughter’s life and the tragic loss she continues to feel. Here’s an excerpt.

CHAPTER ONE

The Night the Music Stopped

It was the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday when I heard my doorbell ring. I wasn’t expecting anyone, and walking to the door I felt a little irritated about a surprise visit. But when I opened it, no one was there, so I just shut the door and went back to whatever I was doing. Who would be ringing my bell and disappearing in the middle of the day? My apartment building had a doorman, and it wasn’t like people were just dropping by all the time.

Not long after, I heard that bell ring again. I got up and went to answer it, really irritated now. But again, no one was there. Now, this just didn’t make sense. Why would someone be messing with me like this? I called down to the front desk.

“Has anyone come up to see me?” I asked the concierge.

“No, Mrs. Houston,” he said. “I haven’t seen anyone on the cameras, either.” Well then, who was ringing my bell?

Not long after that, around six or six-thirty in the evening, my phone rang. When I picked it up, all I could hear was screaming.

“Oh, Mommy! It’s Nippy! It’s Nippy!” It was my son Gary on the line, and he was hysterical.

“Gary, what’s wrong?”

“It’s Nippy,” he said again. “They found her!”

“Found her where?”

“They found her upstairs,” he cried. “They found her upstairs and I’m not going back up there!”

“Gary, what happened?” I snapped, frightened now. “You’ve got to tell me what’s wrong!”

He never did say what had happened, maybe because he didn’t know exactly, or maybe because he was in shock. He just kept mumbling, “Oh, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” until I finally said, “Gary, is she dead?”

And he said, “Yes, Mommy. She’s dead.”

And that was the moment my whole world shattered.

I don’t know what I did or said after that. I was told later that I screamed so loudly that the whole building must have heard me, but my mind was absolutely blank, except for one thought: My baby was gone.

Somehow, people started showing up at my apartment. My niece Diane came, and other friends and family. The phone rang, the doorbell chimed, people brought food, people tried to hug me. But I just sat in my chair, crying. I was in shock, and even now, I really don’t know how I survived that evening—or the days that followed.

As soon as the news got out, all sorts of people surrounded my apartment building. Reporters lined the lobby trying to get in to ask questions, and strangers snuck up to my floor wanting to pay their condolences. The crowds got so thick outside the building that the police had to be called to keep people away. But I didn’t know any of that at the time, because all I could do was weep and moan and wail. All I wanted was to be left alone to grieve for my daughter.

Born into a musical family, the singer's stunning voice wowed many, but drug use, erratic behavior and a tumultuous marriage ravaged her image.

The last time I’d seen Nippy, I had been a little upset with her. It was around the Christmas holidays, just six weeks or so earlier, and she’d suddenly showed up in New York with my granddaughter, Krissie. Nippy wanted me to come into the city and join them, and my sons Gary and Michael, but she hadn’t told me they were coming, so I’d made other plans. I was going up to Sparta, New Jersey, to have Christmas dinner with my friend Nell, and I didn’t feel right breaking it off, since we’d been planning it for a long time. I wanted to see Nippy, of course, but I just wished she would give me a little more notice when she was coming through.

So I went up to Sparta and spent the night there, and then the next day Nippy called me again, asking me to please come into New York and see them. She was staying at the New York Palace hotel, and Gary and Michael and their wives and children were all there, so it looked to be a nice family reunion. I went into Manhattan, excited to see the whole family together, which was a real rarity these days.

Nippy had just finished working on her new movie, Sparkle, and she looked fantastic. The whole day she was in good spirits—laughing and joking with her brothers, and playing with the kids. She’d always had a good relationship with her brothers, and as I watched them laughing together it felt like old times. We had all been through a lot in recent years, but this day it felt like we didn’t have a care in the world.

At one point in the day, as I was sitting on the sofa, Nippy leaned over and put her head in my lap. This was something she didn’t do all that often, but I always loved it when she did. She and I were very different people, and like any mother and daughter, we’d had our difficult moments over the years. But when Nippy would put her head in my lap, those were the moments that bonded us together, and I cherished them.

I knew Nippy was returning to Atlanta the next day, and I hated that our visit was so short. I was always asking her to come up and visit, as I hadn’t gotten to see very much of her in recent years. But now that she seemed to be in a better place, with her new movie and a new lightness about her, I hoped that would change. As I got ready to leave, Nippy and I stood talking at the door.

“I’ll come back soon, Mommy,” she said. “I’ve got to go to L.A. for the Grammys in February, but I’ll come see you after that.”

My daughter had come a long way from being a skinny little girl with a big voice growing up in Newark, New Jersey. She had traveled the world and become a sophisticated, powerful woman—but there was something in our relationship that always brought out the child in her.

When I looked at Nippy, I saw the little girl who used to grab a broom and belt out songs in our basement studio like she was onstage at Carnegie Hall. And I saw the uncertain girl who wanted everyone to like her, who just wanted to sing to make people happy—not to sell millions of records or be a global superstar.

But she did become a superstar, and the pressures that brought eventually overwhelmed her. She endured so much, and was criticized so mercilessly by people who didn’t understand her—people who didn’t know who she was. She always used to say to me, “Mommy, I just want to sing.” Yet that would never be enough.

For everything Nippy went through, with drugs, with her relationships, with the pitfalls of fame, she really did seem to be on an upswing in the weeks before she died. During those weeks, whenever we spoke on the phone, she sounded so good, like she was feeling better than she had in years.

When she called me in early February, though, just before she left for Los Angeles and the Grammy Awards, she didn’t sound like herself. There was a sadness in her voice. Nippy never liked to share her problems with me, so I didn’t know exactly what was wrong. We all have our ups and downs, so I didn’t worry too much about it. I knew she’d be busy in Los Angeles, with the awards and all the other events that went on, and I didn’t really expect to hear from her again while she was there.

But on the Friday before the awards, she did call me. She sounded a little better, though she still didn’t share much of what was going on. I don’t remember most of what we talked about, but I do remember the last thing she said to me on the phone. Back in December, she had promised to come see me after the Grammys, and before she hung up on that Friday, she said it again. “I’ll be home soon, Mommy,” she told me.

“I promise.”

Those were the last words I would ever hear her speak.

The next day, Nippy died. And the days that followed were a seemingly endless blur of grief and pain. There were times when I didn’t think I could live through the despair of losing my baby girl. I just couldn’t believe I would never see her, or hear her voice, in this world again. I still can’t believe it.

But I did take solace in one thing. On that terrible day, when my doorbell kept ringing in those hours before Gary’s call, I believe it was my beautiful Nippy, keeping her promise to me—that somehow, some way, she came to see me, just as she said she would.

Excerpted from the book REMEMBERING WHITNEY. Copyright © 2013 by Cissy Houston with Lisa Dickey. Published by Harper, an imprint of the HarperCollins Publishers.