John Lennon was murdered in New York City. I was a really young teenager, deep in the middle of that stage that most read-y and write-y adolescent girls go through where I had discovered the Beatles like they were a brand new thing. (I understand with boys it’s Led Zeppelin – bless their sweet hearts.) I was dead in the middle of a lot of other adolescent stages, too, the “no boy I like will ever like me” stage and the “this town is full of ignorant assholes” stage and the “Mama has no clue about my life” stage and the “Gawd, can everybody not just leave me ALOOOONNNEEEE!!!” stage. Consequently, I spent an awful lot of time lying across the foot of my bed with headphones on my head, listening to the stereo and pretending to be somewhere else. I had committed most of the Beatles’ albums to note-by-note memory, especially Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper.
So when I got up to get ready for school on the morning of December 9 and heard Lennon had been shot and killed the night before, I was devastated. For all my angst, I had never actually lost anyone before; my entire experience of death was as an abstraction, something that happened in stories, like Beth in Little Women or that could happen at any moment but hadn’t so far, like my mother. (My mom had serious health issues from the time I was eight years old.) This sudden, horrific murder of an artist and celebrity whose words I had taken so deeply to heart seemed like a vicious combination of the two, fantastical and personal at the same time. I didn’t know him, but he was a real person, and he was really dead; as much as I might admire him or fantasize about him, I couldn’t wish or imagine it away. If someone could kill John Lennon, nobody was safe. If John Lennon was dead, his art was over.
Even now it’s hard to explain, but I know a lot of people who knew him only by his words and his legend who felt the same way that day. And I know now that it’s not just Lennon’s death that inspires that kind of reaction. My brother-in-law wasn’t alive when JFK was shot, but he mourns him just the same. The mention of the name Princess Diana still moves people to tears. Most of us felt sad when we heard last week that Nelson Mandela was dead, even though he had lived a long, magnificent life and died knowing he had accomplished the impossible. Somewhere right now somebody’s watching Paul Walker drive like a lunatic in The Fast and the Furious and weeping silent tears, and no one should mock them for it. We identify with the projected images of these people; we admire their work or their lifestyle or their philosophy. And when suddenly they’re not here any more, we feel the loss not of a human being but of a piece of our own identity. Their families and friends mourn the real man or woman. We mourn the archetype we knew.
But Lennon was my first, and I hadn’t figured any of that stuff out yet. I just knew I was sad, sad, sad, and there was nothing I could do about it. I cried all day long. My mother told me I was being stupidly dramatic, and everybody at school thought I’d lost my mind. Again. (I had rather a reputation.) My dad, who ordinarily had much less patience with my fits of melancholy than anybody else, surprised the hell out of me by buying me a new radio so I could listen to the marathons of Lennon music every station played for the next three days–I’ve never forgotten that, Daddy; thank you very, very much.
Since then, I’ve lost a lot of people I actually knew and actually loved whose absence I will feel every day for the rest of my life. And because of that, I’m a lot more sensitive to the real loss felt by people like Yoko Ono and Sean and Julian Lennon; you know, the people who actually knew him and loved him and don’t get to see him any more. But thirty-three years later, I have to admit, I still miss him, too.