Legacy Writing 365:343

Since today’s the anniversary of John Lennon’s murder, I think of Riley. The other day when I posted about my high school band director’s death, an old friend from high school commented, saying she’d checked my blog to see if I’d heard the news. It made my heart ache a little, because I know she’ll never forget what happened in 2008.

I’d mentioned Riley in a post I wrote about the Beatles, because their music was all over the manuscript I was working on (which would become A Coventry Wedding). Susan happened to read it and sent me an email to tell me she was sorry about Riley. When I answered with panicked questions, she was horrified. She thought I wrote the post knowing that Riley had died. She didn’t know that no one was sure how to find me, so I hadn’t heard the news. (If you read this now, Susan, I hope you never feel bad about that. You had no idea, and without your telling me, I wouldn’t have known to get in touch with Riley’s mother and a friend of his who could tell me all that had happened.)

David was visiting, and he and Tom were in the living room watching a ball game. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to tell anyone; that would make it true. I couldn’t breathe. I walked out of the house and stood outside, blind and stupid. Finally I went inside Tim’s place, walked upstairs. I stared at him a few seconds, then I broke down. Tim thought something had happened to my mother. I don’t know how long it was before I was able to tell him that Riley was dead.

I haven’t lost as many friends to death as some people I know, but I’ve lost too many, and Riley’s death took something from me that I’ll never get back. No one outside my family and Lynne knew me so long, and I’m not sure anyone has ever known me as well as Riley did and STILL loved me. He was part of my soul. He always will be.

John Lennon… I never, ever forget hearing that awful news on the radio that late night when I was visiting Tuscaloosa, cutting my trip short, and getting back home to Riley as quickly as I could. I remember every one of those days afterward vividly. Riley and I had endured such misery in 1980, and still we’d never imagined the year could end with something so shattering, something that would make us feel like all the things that youth offers–resilience, hope, giddy excitement, promise–would vanish on one cold December night.

Today, I decided to open up the bin of my old journals and see if I’d managed to write anything worth reading about that December, that event.

In all that mess–of course not! Why write about something profound when you can instead be a stupid girl and waste pages and pages and pages on some guy who broke your heart and whose memory means absolutely nothing to you now and you wish you’d never even met? Or worse, some boy who you THOUGHT broke your heart that now you don’t even remember knowing and have to struggle to see a face with the name you’ve wasted so much ink on?

Maybe the real heartbreaks are written somewhere deep inside us, where no one else can ever read them by accident, but only if we choose, after time has tempered them and given them context, to put them on paper. I don’t know. But while going through all that stuff, I did find a bunch of Riley’s poems and songs. I smiled over a song he’d written for me, that I’d typed for him, which is still so, so dear to me. Then I flipped through a few more pages and found two versions of that song in his handwriting–one with strikeouts and one final draft.

“Becky’s Song (I Knew You When)–dedicated to a best friend” he’s written on the top and bottom of the page.

Like the world, Riley and I lost all the music John Lennon still had left to write. I had twenty-eight more years of Riley after that, and I’m grateful for every one of them. If I close my eyes, I can hear his guitar and hear him singing “Becky’s Song” to me again, and like a world grateful for what we were allowed to have from John Lennon, I’m grateful for these words, music, and memories I still have from Riley.

The last two lines of the song:

I wrote this song for you
’cause you knew me then.

I wrote this post for you, ’cause you knew me then.

I miss you.


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