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Yoko and Sean: Starting Over

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It has been two years now, but John Lennon is still very much present in these stately rooms on the seventh floor of New York’s Dakota apartment house. Sean Lennon, looking startlingly like his late father, leads a visitor past a pair of real Egyptian mummy cases, past the huge closet that still contains John’s clothes, down hallways lined with John’s gold and platinum records, his lithographs, his little presents to Yoko and pictures of John with his family.

Sean brings out a collage he has made with cut-up photographs and a photocopier. It shows his 7th-birthday party last Oct. 9 (also John’s birthday). Floating above the guests is a picture of John. Sean has pasted large paper tears streaming from John’s eyes. “He wanted to be at my birthday,” Sean says evenly.

His mother, Yoko Ono, is still at the recording studio, finishing It’s Alright, her second solo album since John’s death. Sean is disappointed to hear she will be late getting home. “I told Mommy she’s been working too hard,” he says. Between 8 and 9 it is his male “nanny,” Dane, who tucks Sean into bed.

When Yoko arrives, her ever-present dark glasses fail to mask her exhaustion. She complains about the schedule she has maintained for months, literally spending sleepless nights perfecting the album. Then, too, she has had to deal with relentless public scrutiny, a numbing series of lawsuits, threats on her life and even blackmail attempts by former associates.

Through it all, Sean and Yoko have had many things to learn about each other too. John, as a self-professed househusband, had raised Sean, while Yoko ran the family empire. But now their shared grief over John’s loss has helped engender a mother-and-child reunion.

At first after the murder it was Sean who comforted Yoko, saying, “Don’t cry, Mommy, everything’s going to be all right.” He told her that his daddy was in heaven, and he would point to a crack on the ceiling and say, “That’s Daddy. He’s watching over us.”

As for herself, Yoko recalls, “When John died, I was so shocked that I couldn’t move. There is nothing of you left. I could barely stand. But by the time I came back from the hospital, there was someone asking, ‘What do you want to do with his body?’ ” Her voice cracks with emotion and she reaches for a sip of apple juice and a cigarette. “Then people told me about all the suicides out there [because of grief over John’s murder] and they asked me, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ One side of me was saying, ‘How do you expect me to deal with something like that?’ But the other side of me just starts to deal with it.”

Yoko admits now that she could not face seeing Sean in the first few weeks after John’s death. “I felt so guilty towards Sean, like, ‘What did we do to him?’ Well, we didn’t do it, but somehow we had brought him into the world hoping that he would have a happy life. And then this terrible, cruel thing happens. How can a 5-year-old face that?”

Yoko still smarts about criticism of her decision to send Sean to their home in Palm Beach, Fla. soon after the death. “Sean asked me if he could go to Florida. I asked him why he wanted to go, and he said, ‘The weather is good in Florida,’ but I realized it was too much [for him] here.”

“Soon after John was killed, I started going for a walk in Central Park every morning. One morning I thought, ‘This is not right. I should take a walk with Sean.’ So I said to him, ‘You want to come with me?’ He was overjoyed. But when we started out, he lay on the floor and closed his eyes and wouldn’t move, he was so choked up. I said, ‘It’s not like going for a walk with Daddy, is it?’ He shook his head.”

Sean finally went on that walk, but every landmark evoked a bittersweet memory of his frequent walks with John, and he recounted the memories to Yoko. “Each time he said these things, my heart was breaking,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘No more walks in Central Park with Sean.’ I couldn’t stand it. But Sean is a remarkable child. I think he understands very well what is going on.”

Yoko is unapologetic about her working-mother relationship with Sean. “He has his independent life, and I have my work, but I think he sort of enjoys it. I don’t think he misses the fact that his mother doesn’t make his chicken soup and say ‘Drink your milk’ all the time. He seems to like me.” When Yoko finished her last record, Sean was waiting for her at home with a gift. The card with it read, “Thank you for making beautiful music.” “He was sitting there waiting for me to open it, and he was so excited,” Yoko recalls. “It was heart-shaped jade. It was so sweet. It was something John would have done.”

Yoko’s relationship with John’s bereaved fans has been more problematical. Her role was akin to that of the widow of a head of state who must act out the rituals of consoling the masses grieving over their fallen leader. Even though during John’s life she had been at best a cipher to many Lennon fans (some remained convinced that she had lured him away from their beloved Beatles), in his death she was the public’s most visible link to him.

“I felt—I’m sure many widows go through this—I felt I lost the purpose of living,” she says. “I thought, ‘He’s up there; I should go join him.’ The thing that kept me going was Sean; he’s going to be an orphan if I go. I have to stay. I’m responsible. I have to do it for both of us, for John and me, and I think John is helping from up there too. I keep saying to John, ‘Please help.’ ”

Sean Ono Lennon has coped with his unique situation better than any 7-year-old should have to. “I’m a Pac-Man freak,” he boasts, plugging a cartridge into his playroom Atari and proceeding to prove his point. Sean’s playmates include his bodyguards, his “nanny” and one 7-year-old neighbor, Maxi. He had been close to a 7-year-old girl until she broke her arm playing at the Lennons’ Long Island estate in Cold Spring Harbor and her mother sued Yoko for $1 million. (Other suits have arisen over a royalty dispute involving Yoko and John’s Double Fantasy album and a copyright infringement charge concerning a song from the same album.) Sean lost two close adult friends recently when an employee was charged with stealing from the family, and the employee’s aunt, Sean’s nanny, took a temporary leave of absence.

Sean is close to his godfather, Elton John, who showers him with presents, such as the small racing car Sean drives around the country estate on weekends. He says his favorite Elton John song is Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny), Elton’s tribute to Lennon.

Yoko rarely sees the surviving Beatles. “When John and I were in New York, we saw them once in a long while,” she says. “When he and I were together we talked about them and they were in our thoughts, and it’s the same now.”

Sean does well as a second grader at a Manhattan private school, despite occasional I-have-a-daddy-and-you-don’t taunts by classmates. And he sometimes exhibits a surprising maturity: “Mommy, please don’t go out without a bodyguard,” he reminded Yoko recently. “If you die, I’m going to be an orphan.” Still, sometimes at night, Yoko says, she hears her son crying in bed, “I want my daddy, I want my daddy here.”

To Yoko, John’s presence is still so palpable that there is no place in her life for another man. “I’m okay being by myself. I sort of enjoyed the solitude in 1973 and 1974 when we were separated. It was a rest from the whirlpool of being Mrs. John Lennon. When we finally got back together, it was not out of desperation and loneliness; it was out of love.” She adds, “It would be very difficult for anybody to try and have a normal relationship with me now, because this is not a normal situation. It would be nearly impossible.”

Yoko’s music and her involvement in running the various Lennon-Ono enterprises, with an estimated value of $150 million, occupy virtually all her time. She has postponed writing her much-talked-about autobiography: “I’m not ready for it. I’ll do it eventually, to set the record straight.” She says a number of former associates have contacted her, asking to be paid not to talk to the tabloids and other publications. “I am not going to comply with any blackmail,” she says. “We never hid anything in our lives.”

She pursues a detailed interest in her records, down to such fine points as using numerology tables to decide the number of seconds between tracks. Her new LP is much happier and more melodic than her past projects and has won over some critics. The first single release from the album, My Man, is getting extensive radio play. The song is, of course, about John: “My man is the best in the world, he’s got the sun in his heart and the moon in his soul.”

Yoko is also completing plans for Strawberry Fields, the memorial international garden in Central Park, set to be dedicated next spring. And she was recently visited by Julian, John’s 19-year-old son by his first wife, Cynthia. Julian had at one point reportedly accused Yoko of forcing him to live on $100 a week. She says, “When he said those things, it hurt me terribly. But I told him I understood. If I can make mistakes—and I’ll be 50—he’s allowed some at 18.” (Yoko has increased the amount of money that Julian receives from John’s estate, supplementing his stipends from a trust fund and from John and Cynthia Lennon’s divorce agreement.)

Julian never really knew John. Mindful of that, Yoko says now that she wants to spend more time with Sean. “Sean was always visiting the studio, and he was thrilled I was making the record, but I haven’t had much chance to just relax with him,” she says. “Now, for the first time after John’s death, I feel that I want to relax with Sean. I went through so much guilt. I once even asked him, ‘Sean, is it all right?’ And he said, ‘Is what all right?’ And I said, ‘I’m talking about life.’ It was very awkward for me, but he immediately caught on and said, ‘Well, I’m glad I was born. I’m glad I’m alive.’ ”

Yoko smiles at the memories. She will be 50 years old in February. “When I was 18,” she muses, “I had this image of a 50-year-old as very mature, someone who knows all about life. But here I am turning 50, and it’s like starting all over. I’m supposed to be old and wise, but I’m less sure of life than ever before. I thought I would learn by now, but things keep hurting me, knocking me down. I think to myself, ‘You mean, it doesn’t get easier?’ ”

Some friends have suggested that she might relieve some of the day-today problems of pressure and security by leaving New York, or at least the Dakota, so she wouldn’t have to pass the spot where her husband was killed every time she leaves or enters her home. Rare is the day when there is not at least one Lennon fan at the Dakota gates. And on Oct. 9 Sean was startled to hear people on the street singing Happy Birthday to You. (This year Yoko sent cake down to the fans.) Every Dec. 8 brings an even larger, stranger crowd. Yet Yoko remains rooted here. She explains, “This is where John and I built a beautiful life for ourselves, and being here is almost like still being with John. There are still a lot of things from the life we had together that are unfinished. You just can’t walk away from them.”