death of a spouse

John Lennon in guns

Image by afagen via Flickr

Today is one of those anniversary days of the death of a famous person who somehow binds all humanity, depending on one’s perspective.

All over the blogosphere and in every other conceivable news and social media, people haul out their “When John Lennon was killed, I was …”

It just so happens that I do remember where I was when Lennon’s murder was first reported.  I’d just gone to bed and my father rapped on the door,

“Are you still awake?”


Howard Cosell just announced that John Lennon was shot and killed in New York,” he said. “He’s that Beatle you like, right?”

It didn’t occur to me at the time to be touched by the fact that my father, a man who loathed popular music dating back as far as Elvis, had even been paying attention to my music likes and heroes.

“Yeah, thanks for telling me,” I replied.

“Are you going to be okay?” Another shocker that didn’t register at the time.

“Sure,” I said.

He closed the door and went back to the living room to finish watching Monday Night Football.

That was thirty years ago. I was just sixteen and days away from my birthday.

Dad’s died since then. I’ve grown up. Married. Twice. Had a child. Emigrated to another country. Changed careers. All fairly important mile markers and yet the tragic death of a pop star is still etched clearly enough in my memory to earn a pivotal moment position if only because it connects me to millions of people I will never know personally, but who share this memory with me in their own way.

It was not a personal tragedy. Only those closest to him can claim that and even so, I hesitate to call it a tragedy because I don’t know what doors or paths were opened to them by his ending. Endings are necessary after all for beginnings to have their day.

In retrospect, Lennon was past his creative prime in 1980. Double Fantasy was mediocre and certainly no less fluffy and inconsequential as the music he criticized his old partner, Paul McCartney, for producing. Old men lose their edge, I guess. Love and parenting do that to most people and they weren’t exceptional in that regard.

I suppose there is a larger point to taking stock of his death. It marks time and change. There is nothing wrong with noting where we were or the journey we’ve taken to where we are now.

As I was driving home from town this morning, the disc jockey reminisced about that evening long ago. His mother had knocked on his bedroom door to tell him the news too. He played a snippet of an interview Lennon gave shortly before his death where he admitted that he’d like to grow old with his wife, but that he wasn’t afraid of death. He felt it was nothing “like changing cars”. His life would go on in any event. A lovely sentiment that I don’t think too many share, which is sad.

If nothing else, this anniversary pulls people together to a common place for a moment before they diverge again and can see only their differences.

Like many people, I followed the Natasha Richardson story this week. She is the actress wife of actor Liam Neeson who was fatally injured in a skiing accident in Quebec. While details remain sketchy, it appears she suffered a head injury from a fall during  a ski lesson that initially did not seem serious but progressed rapidly to brain death and she was eventually taken off life support and allowed to die.

I am drawn to stories like this.

I shouldn’t call them stories, should I?

Natasha was a wife, mother, daughter, sister and on and on. A person who the other day was fine in all respects and is now gone. She leaves behind a husband, whose pain I wish I didn’t have first hand knowledge of, and two young sons. She’s not a story, but she is. 

We are all stories in the end.

I didn’t have to give the okay for Will to be removed from life support, but I did have to make the decision to refuse further treatment for his recurrent lung issues caused by his being bedridden and the aspiration issues caused by his increasing inability to swallow. I had to say no to the feed tube. Both things that could have prolonged his existence a few more months, or not. 

So I do know what it is like to have to decide for someone else and have that decision result in death. Even though it is the right thing to do, it doesn’t make it any easier or make you feel as though you did the right thing. Life should be fought for but existence should never be a goal.

My father suffered the last half of his life under the weight of such a decision. His younger brother was declared brain dead after a fall from a barn loft when I was eight years old. My sister, DNOS, and my mother always believed his drinking stemmed from the aftermath. He became the guardian of his father’s youngest sister who was living in a nursing home and of his mother as well. He also had to deal with his two oldest siblings and their coveting of Grandma’s inheritance which was considerable. There was quite a bit of rancor in the family for a number of years. But that is not what pushed Dad into the bottle.

It’s my belief that he struggled with the guilt of having been part of the decision to remove Uncle Jimmy from life support. Having to make the decision, even when it is right, is something that a person never quite finds peace with. I don’t believe Dad really ever did.

I feel for Natasha’s husband. Losing your partner is a terrible blow but having to make the call – makes it worse. I still sometimes feel as though I should have let the doctors’ treat Will one last time, but I know it wouldn’t have changed anything. He had been gone forever already – two and a half years – before he was physically able to die. My decision was the last gift I could give him. His freedom to go on, finally, to what comes next for us all – whatever that may actually be. 

This isn’t my tragedy, but it is a more common one than most of us realize.