Tuesday, December 8, 2020

On grief

The month John Lennon was murdered my grandmother also died, these two losses the first I'd feel keenly, though each grief originated from a very different source. My family visited my mom's parents in the small town of Coldwater, in western Ohio, for a week each summer, trips I cherished, yet I felt as if I knew John better, or was closer to him, anyway. My immersion in the family copies of the "Red" and "Blue" albums affected me as profoundly as any expression of intimate family love. When my grandmother died, my mom wept openly on her bed, among the first displays of unbridled emotion I'd seen her surrender to; after Lennon was murdered, I gathered in my sister's bedroom with one of my brothers, the three of us wet-eyed and stunned into silent disbelief. 

All of those tears commingle now in memory as my first headlong descent into the strangeness of grief. Neither loss was as personal as losses would come for me later, of course. I knew my mom's mom well, and loved her, but from the reserved distance that most children choose; I didn't know Lennon personally but knew and possibly loved him as deeply as anyone, it seemed. The man who sang "There's a Place," "No Reply," "Help," "Strawberry Fields Forever," Imagine," "Watching the Wheels" was now gone, bizarrely. I learned about the shooting on the radio in my bedroom as the news interrupted the Monday Night Football game I was idly listening to, and I learned about my grandmother's death in that awful moment in my parents' bedroom, where my mom sat with her face buried in her hands. In the following weeks I wordlessly pieced together how I was supposed to feel. One thing was oddly clear to me and that was that my response to Lennon's death was as sharp as my response to my grandmother's, one person I knew personally, one I didn't. What should have been a wide gap between my reactions was in fact uncomfortably narrow, and if you'd asked me in the months that followed which death was harder for me, I'd have answered you honestly only after I was sure that my mom was out of earshot. In retrospect, this is unsurprising: as a teenager I didn't know how to deal with intimate family loss, a rawly grieving mom, the profound weight of generations, but I knew how to deal with the loss of beloved if distant pop music figure, one who gave me countless hours of pleasures. I now forgive myself for my unspoken allegiance to the memory of John Lennon over the memory of Frances Mueller. At the time it was a vivid if puzzling lesson in the irrational nature of grief. 

By 1980, Lennon was an enormous figure in my life, looming as large as any friend or family member. The year before, I read, and subsequently clipped, an article in the "Style" section of the Washington Post about rumors the Beatles were going to reunite for a concert for the Vietnamese Boat People. This so-called news filled me with joy, and my friends and I thrilled to it that morning on the blacktop at St. Andrew the Apostle as we gathered to file in to classes. By this time I knew Beatles songs, and many Lennon solo songs, by heart, their lessons as potent and valuable as any I'd learn in school, in church, or around the family dinner table. After Lennon's death, as we all remember, his songs were everywhere, what my older brother's friend cynically (and correctly) dubbed "The Dead Lennon Factor" sending Double Fantasy up the charts. The tinkling of the bell at the start of the suddenly ubiquitous "(Just Like) Starting Over"—the irony of the title obvious to me, though I didn't know that word yet—now tolled for the onset of something other than a a pop song: the arrival of death and grief, personal and cultural, and the start of adulthood, or anyway my fumbling attempts at describing it.

Top photo by Bob Greun; bottom photo by Dad? Mom?

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