Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.
Beautiful Boy, from Double Fantasy, John Lennon
When you’re drowning, you don’t say ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream.
When I was 23 years old, I found myself a single college drop-out, with a new baby, no job skills, and no money. After I left my ex-husband George, for a while I tried to make it on my own in the college town of Gainesville, Florida. I took two waitress jobs, had friends keep the baby, and tried my best to stay in the place I felt was more like home than any I’d ever lived in. But George wouldn’t/couldn’t pay child support, and being a single mother with an infant was just too damn hard.
The day I moved back in with Mom and Dad, I went out and got a waitress job, even though my father told me to take some time and think things over. Determined to finish my education, I immediately enrolled in the University of Alabama in Birmingham. For a whole year, between raising a child, working full time and going to school full time, I was too busy to miss my old hometown. Much.
That is, until Dec. 8, 1980. The day John Lennon was shot and I had no one to talk to. It wasn’t that people in Birmingham weren’t sad. But this was the disco era, and for most of them, the Beatles were so over. Not for me. John Lennon had been my hero since I was ten years old and my cousin, Cathy Ihnen, gave me my first record, a 45 RPM Beatles record. Cathy had actually been to see the Beatles in the early sixties, but I was too young back then to go to rock and roll concerts. When she gave me the record, I didn’t even know there was an A side. I fell in love with the B side, “I’ll Get You.”
Imagine I’m in love with you/it’s easy ‘cause I know/
I’ve imagined I’m in love with you/Many, many times before.
I knew John Lennon wrote that song. Not only was he funny, smart and talented, but he said things and did things that made people sit up and take notice. He wasn’t shy, like me. He was fearless.
During the sixties, there was a theory that you could tell a lot about people based on which Beatle they liked. If you were a fan of Paul McCartney, you were upbeat, fun-loving, probably attractive. If you were a fan of George Harrison, you were serious, soulful, possibly religious. If you idolized Ringo, you were full-speed ahead, outrageous, humorous. And if you adored John Lennon, you were snarky, sarcastic, maybe a bit too much of a smarty-pants for your own good.
When we were kids, we would pretend to be the Beatles. We’d play air guitar (before we had a name for it). I was always John. I could sing his parts, imitate his movements, even though I hardly ever saw him on television and certainly never saw him in person. We didn’t have posters, we didn’t see the Beatles everywhere we looked, the way kids do with pop singers nowadays. But somehow Lennon’s image, burned into my brain, was part of my life.
Okay, so he wasn’t always appropriate. The people who burned his albums and protested some ill-advised statements were proof of that. Even I had trouble with his “bed in.” Protesting the Viet Nam war by going to bed? Huh? But I have to admit, he got a lot of publicity for the anti-war movement. Here was a man who said what he believed, did what he wanted, followed his heart, damn the consequences. I respected that.
Though Lennon stirred political activism for many years, in his final years he basically became a house-husband, taking care of his young son, Sean. Again, I related to him, since I too had become a parent.
Somehow I just thought he’d be around forever. I thought I’d one day be an old lady listening to that British accent—John Lennon making some outrageous statement about old age that pissed half the people off but made me half laugh hysterically.
When my mother came into my bedroom that Dec. 8 to tell me I needed to turn the news on, I could not believe what I was hearing. Part of the horror was that I had already been through so many assassinations – the death of John Kennedy; the murder of my hero, Robert Kennedy; the shooting of Martin Luther King. But an artist? Why? I kept saying to my family, “But he’s a singer. Why would anyone want to kill a singer?”
He was forty years old. He had straightened out his life – stopped the drugging and drinking, found a place where he could be anonymous and raise his child. But not anonymous enough. His death convinced me – there are always crazy people. And it convinced me of one other thing – your world can change in a moment.
I had no one to talk to. My parents were wonderful – kind, warm, sympathetic. They encouraged me to talk about my sadness. But it wasn’t enough. They hadn’t been through the hero-worship my generation had for the Beatles. No one in my classes or at work seemed affected by his death. I told a man I was dating that I was sad about Lennon’s assassination and he said, “Well, I’m not really a Beatles fan.” I didn’t go out with him again.
I became depressed when I heard from friends in Gainesville that there were spontaneous gatherings of people there celebrating Lennon’s life and music. I felt old and sad and isolated. I was a quarter of a century in age (notice – not 25 – but a quarter of a century), divorced, living with my parents, supporting a small child, with no education, nothing to look forward to. Life could change in an instant. Or, maybe, mine would drag on like this forever – work, school, parenting, small amount of sleep, work school parenting, small amount of sleep…
For the first time in my life, I went to a psychologist and told him I was depressed. He told me to go home that night and do one thing I really wanted to do. I went home and thought about it. What did I really want to do? I reflected on the suggestions he’d made. Go out on a date? Go to a movie? Go to dinner?
Couldn’t think of a thing.
Well, yes, actually, there was one thing I wanted to do. The only thing I really wanted was to go home to Gainesville where my friends loved and appreciated the same things I did. My mother strongly objected. “I’m sure that’s not what your counselor meant.” But I didn’t care. I literally left for Florida that night. I drove all through the night, music blaring on the car radio, to get to a friend’s house. Within weeks I had a new job and a new home and was back in college working on my English degree.
I wonder if I would have had the courage to come back here to the place I consider home if it hadn’t been for the tragedy of that horrible December night. I wouldn’t have met my present husband, wouldn’t have my son, Bryan Sean (Sean which is the Irish spelling of John, the Celtic/Gaelic name meaning “God is gracious”). I wouldn’t have the friends I have, the vibrant life I have, the blessings I count every day. Today someone played the song “Imagine,” as a tribute, and it brought me to tears. Surprised me, too. After all, it’s been so long.
A few years ago, on New Year’s Eve, I went to a concert downtown, provided free by the city of Gainesville. A group of musicians sang Beatles songs, and the entire crowd joined in. I looked around and here were all these young college kids singing along to the Beatles’ songs. They knew every word, every note. John Lennon would have been proud. Probably would have made some snarky comment about living forever…
Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.