Thirty years ago, I was nine years old, a fourth grader at Silas Willard Elementary. The most exciting thing in my life that year was the fact that I was attending the same school once attended by the new president of the United States. The fact that Ronald Reagan had only attended Silas Willard for one year didn't matter; his election was a powerful message to all of us that the future just maybe could hold great things. As December rolled around, the only thing on my mind was Christmas. By December 8, I had surely completed multiple drafts of my list for "Santa". I'd figured out the truth a couple years before, but I had a three-year-old sister who still believed in the old guy. My list was something I obsessed over, ranking the items I wanted most and then also adding a star system to make my preferences absolutely clear so that my parents would know what misstep on their part had the potential to ruin my Christmas. A precocious kid, I often made sure to include stores where the item could be found, prices, or the page of the JC Penney catalog that would direct them to my heart's desire.
I woke up the morning of December 9 and snuck a quick glance out my bedroom window like I did every winter morning as a child. As much as I loved school, I loved snow days even more and woke up hoping to discover a blanket of snow covering the lawn and streets and making a trip to school virtually impossible. I clung to the memory of the huge blizzard two years before that had shut schools down for a week, a week I spent building forts and sled runs and tromping through snow that came up to my waist. The morning of December 9 was clear -- no snow. Rats!
I blearily stumbled out to the living room, hoping for a good bowl of Frosted Flakes before getting dressed for the school bus I hated more than just about anything else. A typical morning at my house would usually find my dad drinking coffee and watching the news (Good Morning America, of course), Mom getting lunches packed and urging me to move a little quicker. This particular morning was different. When I walked out into the living room, my dad was standing in the middle of the room with this stunned look on his face. My mom was sitting in her chair, crying. Even in my self-centered, pre-Christmas haze, I knew this was not good. The year before, my older brother had died quite suddenly, and I immediately felt a tremendous sense of fear and panic.
"What happened?" I demanded.
"John Lennon died," my dad told me somberly as my mom continued to cry.
What came out of my mouth next still kind of embarrasses me, but remember ... I was NINE.
"Is that the guy from The Odd Couple?" I asked.
Yes, I was confusing John Lennon with Jack Lemmon. I was nine, you guys! How about we all marvel at the fact that a nine-year-old kid even knew who Jack Lemmon was rather than latch onto the fact that I didn't know who John Lennon was? (And to explain this particular oddity, I will again remind you that I was very precocious and that The Odd Couple was one of my parents' favorite movies. By the time I was nine, I had probably seen the movie three or four times -- whenever it was on television.)
My dad gave me a "are you kidding me?" look and explained, "No. John Lennon was a Beatle."
I turned at that point and looked at the television screen. They were showing a clip of the Beatles playing on the Ed Sullivan show. (I did know who the Beatles were; I just didn't know their names.) I remember suddenly feeling very sad and starting to cry. Maybe it was just seeing my mom cry; maybe it was just sensitivity at the thought of anyone dying. I like to think, though, that some of my tears stemmed from the realization of what a profound loss the world of music had just suffered.
My mom let me stay home from school that day. I wasn't sick. I think it was mostly a case of she just wanted company as she mourned. We spent the day listening to Beatles and John Lennon music. I "discovered" "Imagine" that day. Even at nine, I can remember the tremendous sense of tragic irony I felt in the song. Who could possibly want to murder someone who wrote so hopefully about a world of such beauty and peace? That just didn't seem right -- and it still doesn't.
Thirty years later, I still find myself turning to the Beatles and John for comfort, entertainment, and enlightenment. While I've become more of a Stones fan than a Beatles fan, there's this sense in me that you can't love music and not love the Beatles. It's a band you kind of take for granted. Do you have to list them as one of your favorite bands? Shouldn't it just come with the territory that if you love music, you love the Beatles? Like many, I wonder what would have happened had John lived. What music was still in him? What paths would he have blazed as he started a new chapter in his art? Would he have become (sorry) bland and adult contemporary like bandmate Paul? Or would he have found ways to continue to challenge himself as an artist and still find a way to surprise us like his old smokin' buddy Bob Dylan? We'll never know. But how lucky are we to live in a world filled with his music? How lucky were our parents to live in a world where the Beatles were releasing new albums that were filled with surprise and innovation? It still kind of stuns me to think that I once lived in a world where a Beatles reunion was a much-hoped-for possibility. And I didn't even know how lucky I was until it was too late.
So today when I get home, I'm going to curl up and spend a little time with John and his mates and find the same peace and comfort in their music that I have found for thirty years. And I'm going to keep imagining about a world where peace and love and hope are not just dreams but vivid, tangible realities.
(PS -- Thanks to the intrepid reader who pointed out that all this would have happened on December 9, not December 8, so I have changed it accordingly.)