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Bobbi Kristina Brown: A protector who never got to stand on her own

Bobbi Kristina Brown died nearly six months after being found unresponsive in a bathtub at her Georgia home. No cause of death has been revealed. But questions have been raised about what happened before she was found, with suspicion cast on boyfriend Nick Gordon. The Times’ Christy Khoshaba reports.

Bobbi Kristina Brown's death at the age of 22 on Sunday was the final chapter in a tragic narrative that unfolded over the last six months.

But going back even further, it was always tough to think her story would end happily.

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I saw Bobbi Kristina with her mother, Whitney Houston, just days before the superstar died in 2012. The role reversal between mother and daughter was painfully apparent.

Whitney Houston would later be found in her Beverly Hills hotel room, submerged in a bathtub, the victim of an apparent drowning aided by cocaine use and heart disease.

Houston's death just hours before the Grammy Awards shook the music industry and beyond.

But details of the incident that took her daughter's life are mired in controversy and theories, ranging from homicide to accidental overdose and suicide.

On a late January morning, Houston's only child Bobbi Kristina was found unconscious in a bathtub at her suburban Georgia town home.

It's especially devastating because it happened a few weeks before the anniversary of her mother's death. Bobbi Kristina never regained consciousness from the incident and was moved to hospice care in June.

Back in 2012 when I saw her with her mother, it was in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton where Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy gala was getting underway. The lobby buzzed with journalists who gathered to witness rehearsals of Brandy and Monica, singers who long regarded Houston as a mentor and were slated to headline the event.

Houston greeted everyone in the room with a warm smile when she arrived unexpectedly during rehearsals.

After initially leaving, Houston returned to the ballroom with a then-teenage Bobbi Kristina. Camera crews were set up for the stretch of on-camera interviews when an obviously intoxicated Houston arrived. There were snickers and stealth cellphone pictures snapped by a few of those in attendance.

Houston's disheveled appearance and erratic behavior made headlines as stories pieced together her last hours, but that rehearsal was the first and only time I witnessed the depth of the bond between mother and daughter. My memory is just as colored by the image of teenage Krissi, as she was affectionately called.

There she stood, inches away from us amid the growing chaos, her wide smile unaffected by our growing discomfort.

She was surrounded by nearly a dozen reporters with her mother in the other room. It was another tabloid headline waiting to happen (and a global one after Houston's death), and that  smile -- accentuated by a gap between her teeth -- never dimmed.

She's done this before, I thought, remembering images of Kris and Houston splashed across gossip magazines and blogs in those last years of the singer's life.

The role was usually the same, Bobbi Kris at the forefront, leading her mother with a protective touch. Her smile always broad and toothy in the way you'd expect a daughter to be with her mother.

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That day, it was Bobbi who pulled Houston out of the room and away from the cameras, with the two skipping out of the ballroom -- smiling -- as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

It's how we saw them since the beginning of Bobbi Kristina's life.

When Bobbi Kristina Brown was born in 1993, her mother was at the height of her career as America's preeminent pop vocalist. In the years before the birth of her first and only child, Houston had often been forced to defend her union with Brown's father, R&B bad boy Bobby Brown.

She was still riding the heat of her career-defining "The Bodyguard" soundtrack and Brown, who had broken out as a solo act from R&B boy band New Edition, had recently issued an album.

They were an unlikely union. The press wondered why an artist regarded as pop royalty was in love with a streetwise R&B singer amid rumors of Brown's infidelity and Houston's sexuality. But Bobbi Kristina's arrival helped to silence that chatter.

A visibly pregnant Houston can be seen beaming and rubbing her tummy at the tail end of the music video of her remake of Chaka Khan's empowering anthem "I'm Every Woman."

Whenever Houston won a trophy at an award show, Bobbi Kris was seldom far behind, with the superstar doting on her daughter during acceptance speeches. Images of the two on red carpets or vacations or in paparazzi shots typically showed the pair smiling or giggling.

And when Bobbi wanted to follow in the footsteps of her famous parents, it was her mother who guided her.

That's her on Houston's 1999 single "My Love Is Your Love," encouraging Houston to "Sing, mommy!" The pair also performed a sweet duet on "Little Drummer Boy" for Houston's 2003 holiday album, "One Wish," and Houston's pride could be heard. "That's my baby," she says after Bobbi's opening verse.

Unfortunately Bobbi Kristina never got around to releasing her own music despite the continued promise she made, especially after her mother's passing.

She never really had a chance to find her own voice. And how could she? Even amid all that motherly bonding, her upbringing was permanently swirled in controversy.

There was her superstar parents' widely reported drug use, which made them targets for late-night jokes and the tabloids. The slow-burning train wreck of the reality show "Being Bobby Brown" captured the dysfunction.

Headlines of domestic strife, and even violence, between the couple stretched until their 2007 divorce and a nasty public custody battle over Bobbi Kristina.

Later, the image of Bobbi Kristina looking after her mother became a frequent one during the last years of Houston's life -- a reversal from all the mother-daughter doting during those award show and red carpet moments.

Long after Bobbi led her mother out of that rehearsal and once the shock of Houston's passing faded, I wondered: Who is now leading Bobbi Kristina?

A few days before she was found unresponsive in January, Bobbi Kristina may have answered that question with a cryptic tweet. "On my own," she wrote.

For more music news follow me on Twitter: @gerrickkennedy

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