Friday, April 8, 2011

Liz and Whitney: Acquainted with sorrow, familiar with grief

I hold respect for Elizabeth Taylor and an affinity for Whitney Houston that have little to do with celebrity but a lot to do with tenacity.

While driving to an out-of-town meeting days after Taylor’s death, iconic images of the violet-eyed legend passed through my memory as the car radio began playing the haunting a capella opening to I Will Always Love You. The lyrics accentuated the sultry earlier voice of Houston, focusing my thoughts on the striking and sensuous early life of Taylor, whose death I had yet to process.

One represented a voice no longer able to be heard even though the one who gave it life still lives. The other personified an iconic face that lived on even after the one to whom the face belonged no longer resembled its visage.

Unparalleled talented. Incomparable beauty. Inimitable lives.

Legends – one living and one no-longer-alive.

I regard both women as more than a metaphor for what was but cannot be again.

They are examples of life continuing beyond tragedy whether the deep heartache came circumstantially or was self-inflicted.

For Taylor the heartaches were borne from life-altering injury, addiction, divorce, widowhood, debilitating illness and personal despair.

For Houston the heartaches are tied to addiction, divorce, illness and personal demons that haunt a complicated future.

I find both women inspirational and relate to both on a level I don’t fully comprehend. My best attempts to understand lead me to my own past, yet I can list nothing comparable to what these women have accomplished, wrestled with or conquered – unless I get to count struggling with grief over a life that felt promising once upon a time but no longer seems recognizable some days.

It is a but-of-course sort of grief that says, “Your life was beautiful back then, but you weren’t fully aware of how beautiful it was, were you?”

But it doesn’t matter, I guess, for who truly does realize life as they live it? Thorton Wilder offered that poets and saints perhaps do – at least some. But I would venture that survivors surpass even poets and saints, for survivors have a perspective that reaches from depths to heights. Surely that makes the milestones in between noteworthy whether measured in moments, minutes or minutiae. Surely survivors realize life more fully as they live it.


They understand that living means embracing a new way of being – a new standard for beautiful. And the beauty of survival is breathtaking. The tenacity of time, astonishing.

If I get to claim any similarity to Elizabeth Taylor or Whitney Houston, perhaps it lies in an understanding that life continues to be wonderful despite it all – whatever “all” might be. Life insists on moving past what I recognized as my life’s previous dreams, toward new dreams that are capable of carrying me toward something more.

Elizabeth Taylor kept making life something more. She showed what it meant to champion the beauty of others who were fighting to survive through her establishment of AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Whitney Houston keeps putting herself out there, giving something more. She continues to influence beauty in others: Beyonce’, Mary J. Blige, Rihanna, Brandy, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Lady Gaga. Each has shared they look to her as inspiration for what’s possible.

Perhaps I am on the verge of discovering my something more. My what’s possible.

As Taylor once said: "I don't entirely approve of some of the things I have done, or am, or have been. But I'm me. God knows, I'm me."

She was tenacious, authentic and genuine. And she never stopped fully being who she was. The same is true for Houston. She never pretends to be anything more or less than who she is. That is enough.

I take comfort in that. I admire that.

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor and listening to Whitney Houston that day helped me celebrate what had been – what I knew as my personal past. In doing so I was reminded to cherish what continues to be. But I also know I need to keep finding my way forward. To tenaciously determine what is possible, because life keeps marching on.

Being familiar with sorrow and acquainted with grief puts me in good company.

Grief lingers, but it is love that lives on.

To that I say: Sing it, sister.


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