My favorite Beatles song is In My Life. I love the song because, even though it’s a love song, it has a melancholy feel, as John Lennon recalls places, friends, and lovers from his childhood, things he’ll never forget, but whose meaning has changed because he’s fallen in love. What makes the song great is its universality—most people have experienced a feeling like this at some point, when a new love comes into your life, bringing bright new colors with her and reducing everything that was there before to black and white.
We usually associate John Lennon with Yoko Ono, his longtime wife. I’d guess that if you asked most people my age, who weren’t born until after John’s tragic death, they would guess that the “You” In My Life is addressed to is Yoko. Except it’s not. John met Yoko in 1967; In My Life was written and released in 1965, while John was married to his first wife, Cynthia, an art school classmate he married in 1962 after he got her pregnant. John and Cynthia didn’t have a good marriage. He was physically abusive and serially unfaithful, and he eventually left her for Yoko.
Does knowing these facts change the way we listen to In My Life? Does it matter that John wrote what many consider to be his greatest love song when he was involved in an unhappy marriage that ended less than three years later?
I met Lara at the beginning of my freshman year at UC Santa Barbara. We were friends throughout college, but never became romantic, in part because she always had a boyfriend, in part because I was an alcoholic who no one in her right mind would want to date. She graduated a year before I did, and enrolled in grad school at UCSB, but I rarely saw her that year, and halfway through it I found out she had dropped out and moved home to the Bay Area. This seemed very unlike her: She was a perfectionist, had been nominated for the award given to the top student in her graduating class. Not in her department–in her entire graduating class. I asked around, and found out through a mutual friend that she had Cystic Fibrosis, a fatal lung disease she had hidden from all but her closest friends and family, and that she had gone home because her health was failing.
I got back in touch with her, and when I graduated and moved home—to the town next to Lara’s—we began to spend a lot of time together.
I’d been In Love with women before. Being In Love is easy. It’s not consensual. You don’t have to know someone to be In Love with her. Usually, when you’re In Love, what you’re In Love with is the idea you have of a person, not the actual person herself.
But to actually Love someone is different. You can’t love a person without knowing her deeply, without being willing to sacrifice a part of yourself for her, and have her be willing to do the same for you. I wasn’t obsessed with Lara the way I’d been with some women. Instead, I felt a profound sense of loyalty to her. I wanted to help her through her hard times. That isn’t to say we became a couple because she was sick—I’d already liked her for years. Just that her illness, rather than being a barrier, was something that brought us closer, a challenge that we faced together. Some people said it was heroic of me to go through it with her, but I didn’t feel that way. If you really love someone, you stay with her through the good and the bad, right?
Not that it was easy. We had to live at our respective parents’ houses–I was a bookstore clerk making ten bucks an hour, she was on disability, too sick to work. She attempted graduate school again, and I moved to Portland, Oregon with her–only to move back after one semester because of her deteriorating health. She was incredibly tough about the illness–she refused to get a Disabled parking sticker for her car, though she could get short of breath walking even a block–but by the end, she was doing more than three hours of medical treatments a day, sleeping more than ten hours a night, and using a portable oxygen tank at all times. I knew she didn’t have a lot of time left.
But in June 2006, two weeks after my twenty-fifth birthday, a few months shy of our three-year anniversary, she received a life-saving double lung transplant at Stanford Hospital. Her recovery from the surgery was long and loaded with complications, both physical and psychological. The months after the surgery were, incredibly, even more difficult than the ones preceding it. But a year after the transplant she was as healthy as she’d been when I first met her, before I had any idea about the disease. This was great, but it was also difficult. The old bond of her illness was gone. She complained when I tried to help her with things, like carrying groceries, saying I was treating her like she was still sick.
With her health relatively strong, she took a third try at graduate school, at the same time I enrolled in my MFA program. More cracks started to show. I would be on campus all day teaching or tutoring or going to class, and even when I was at home I was always reading or working on my novel. For five years, she’d been the most important thing in my life, but I had a shot to chase my longtime writing dream, and that had to be my first priority. To make matters worse, I made new friends at school, and I wasn’t good about including her when I hung out with them. Some of these friends were women, and while I wasn’t unfaithful, I don’t blame Lara for being suspicious. It was all part of how we were growing farther apart.
We worked through a couple of near breakups, each time salvaging the relationship, but we finally split in November 2009, a month after our six-year anniversary.
We talked occasionally after the breakup, sometimes good (I bought her brunch on her thirtieth birthday), sometimes bad (the three-hour phone conversation in which she tearily said at least you won’t have to be there when I die). I finished my MFA the following spring, and shortly thereafter moved to Brooklyn. We didn’t communicate after I moved here—I think we both were trying to move on with our lives—until April of 2011, when I got a long, typo-ridden e-mail from her, telling me that her condition had suddenly crashed. The next day I started getting phone calls from friends on the West Coast—she was in the ICU, intubated and sedated, and probably wasn’t going to make it through the night.
I booked a flight home, hoping she’d hang on, and even though I ended up spending a night at JFK waiting for a delayed flight thanks to a storm, when I got to Stanford Hospital the following day she was still alive. Defiant and stubborn as always, she made small improvements, gave us some hope. Her eyes would open when I talked to her, which I did every day. But she never spoke, couldn’t speak with the ventilator tube in her throat, and after almost a month in the ICU, she passed away. I was in the room, with around a dozen other close friends and family members, when she died.
A few months after her death, most of these same people met at Lara’s favorite place in Santa Barbara, a small beach near campus she would run to in the evenings to watch the sun set over the Pacific. We sprinkled her ashes into the sea, and then we sang a song she had always liked, In My Life, a song about people we’ve loved, some dead, some living.
I wonder what John thought about when he heard In My Life years later. Did he come to associate the song with Yoko—about whom he wrote so many other songs—or did it always make him think of Cynthia? Did Cynthia go from being the focus of the song to being one of the people and friends who’d gone before? John expressed regret for the way that he treated her—no small thing, since he could be vicious with friends and partners, including Paul and even Yoko, who he separated from for a time in the mid ’70s—but did he ultimately feel that Cynthia was one of many steps on the way to finding the great love of his life? No matter what he felt, In My Life lives on, and because the song lives on, the love he felt in the moment when he wrote it also lives on.
How will I look back at Lara when I meet the great love of my life? Or was she that great love? Is there even any such thing as a great love of your life? I don’t know. I know that I wish I had made her happy more, that I could take back the times I hurt her, that I had handled the good times as well as the bad, that I could have always been the best part of myself that I was with her sometimes but ultimately not often enough.
But I also know that Lara wouldn’t want me to feel that way. She appreciated my good side, even after she couldn’t live with the bad side any longer. And I know that even though she isn’t here with me anymore, the love that I have for her still is, and always will be. Especially when I hear John sing:
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more.