Why I Hate Valentine's Day
You would think I would be all about Valentine's day. It hits on so many of my favorites: pink things, red things, floral print, hearts, lips on things, presents, gratuitous expressions of love, etc. etc. Logically you would be right - I love all of those things. I love them all smushed together in a sparkly collage with some puppies and chocolate. I should by all rights be deeply enamored of this holiday. I was a cupid-soaked superfan in my youth. I went all out for it, in all my late-blooming boyfriend-less, never-been kissed glory. I would be the first one perusing the racks of cards at Walgreens every year, looking for the perfect boxed set for my class - and the last one to finish the candy hearts, hoarding them in all their pastel, chalky tasting glory until they were too stale to chew. I was the one delivering the secret-admirer cards for my friends, the purveyor of the "check yes or no" notes. The tomboy who safely traversed the boy/girl segregation of middle school to spread love and joy. It was my moment to shine. And then, my freshman year of high school, Valentine's Day became my least favorite day of the entire year.
In case you think this is a story about romance, let me stop you right now. In elementary school I bought a giant raspberry-cream heart and left it on the desk of my crush. I probably signed it "your secret admirer" or some other Sweet Valley High-inspired nonsense. I watched him take one bite of it on the playground, spit it out in disgust and then lob it aggressively into the trash can. I felt my little heart break, and still it was barely a ripple in the pool of my love for this, the pinkest and most loving of days. This is not about some boy.
In February of 1999, I was half way through my freshman year of high school. A late bloomer, I had barely been kissed. I wasn't even sure I wanted to be. I had a desperate, pining crush on a boy who barely knew I was alive. I would watch him across the grass during lunch period. I stared endlessly at his symmetrical face, a brunette Devon Sawa in the flesh. I'm not even sure what I would've done if he had noticed me. Most of my fantasies just involved him knowing my name and saying hi to me in the hallway in front of my friends.
I had two other friends, equally intrenched in long distance pining over older boys, and the three of us made Valentine's Day plans to have a sleepover at my house.
Two days before Valentine's Day my dad went into the hospital. He was always doing that. He'd already had several major surgeries (including the implantation of a defibrillator device) and the last time he went out in public without an oxygen tank was my Bat Mitzvah. He was so smart, so kind and generous and funny and full of life, that I never thought of him as being sick. He was just my dad.
I knew he was different than the other dads. He was older, and he was the one who picked me up from school while my mom worked. There was nothing he wouldn't do for me. We bartered for kisses on the cheek - I could get him to do almost anything for about 14 kisses, including ice cream for lunch. He always tricked me into extra by saying his other cheek was jealous. Even when he had his oxygen tank we would race to the car, neither one of us pulling our punches. He was my best friend.
This year, my first year of high school, my dad had started needing regular trips to the hospital to drain the fluid from his lungs. He would always come back from these trips energized, pink-cheeked and feeling much better. How was I to know this one would be different?
On Saturday morning, I pestered my mom into buying a giant red mylar balloon from the hospital gift shop. It was exorbitantly over priced, but I felt guilty for wanting to spend the night with my friends instead of at the hospital with my Dad. I asked him to be my Valentine. He said yes. I went home to my friends and we ate pizza and watched a movie and ate too much candy while gossiping on my canopy bed.
The next morning my friends left and my mom went to visit my dad. I didn't go - I was tired from staying up all night. I just wanted to lay around in the house by myself. Then my mom called. I was coming to the hospital, someone was fetching me. Something had happened. I didn't understand. When I got there he was not conscious. He looked like he was sleeping, but he was pale, so so pale. I kissed him a thousand times and then I left the room. I asked to go home. I couldn't see this.
My mom told me later that right after I left he was gone. He waited for me, to hear my voice one more time before he let go.
I got home to a ringing phone and the worst news I've ever heard in my life.
I punched a wall.
One of the biggest problems my mom and I share is our discomfort with sadness. Happy we do really well. Anger we embrace. Sadness is very far outside our emotional wheelhouse. We don't like it, we don't know what to do with it. We spent years trying not to be sad around each other because we spark off of each other like the best friends we've become - spiraling down into tear soaked puddles. I feel bad that my feeling bad makes her feel bad so I feel worse. So. Many. Feels.
On Thursday when my mom washed my hair she asked me why I don't get more excited about this amazing weekend my husband has planned. She told me that thinking about Daddy (yes, Daddy, always Daddy) makes me sad. I told her that it doesn't. I love talking about my dad. I write about him, I mention him in speeches, I share stories and memories about him all the time.
Valentine's Day makes me sad because it doesn't remind me of him. It reminds me of losing him. It reminds me what it feels like to have your world burst open like rotten fruit. To have your guts ripped out. It makes me feel guilty for being with my friends and not spending that last night with him. Now, after my own experiences with hospitals, it reminds me that it sucks to be in a hospital alone, without the people who love you to keep you from being scared, to demand that the nurses do something RIGHT now about the pain. It sticks it's little chubby cupid finger in the little hole inside of me that has never fully healed over.
I love my stepfather more than I have the words to explain. I don't think my mom and I would've survived without him. He's amazing. I feel so blessed and lucky to have him in our lives, and he's been my dad for longer now than my Daddy ever was.
I say that here because I miss my Daddy. I wish he could've met my husband. They would've loved each other so much, even as they shouted in their big loud voices about politics over the dinner table. Even as they fought over who would get to sit next to me and hold my hand.
I hate this love holiday because for me it will always be about the day I lost my Daddy, and learned that loving someone is painful.
On our honeymoon my husband and I invented a silly game. It was like the newlywed game - we would challenge each other with questions about ourselves. The trick was to pick something you could also answer about the other person. It started innocuously - "How do I take my coffee?" and "What foods do I hate?" but as the trip (and the wine) flowed it became more serious. "What am I the most afraid of?" I asked my husband. "That I will stop loving you." He said, deadpan and rapid fire. It was the baldly honest truth.
Self awareness is a bitch.
If there is any lesson in this Valentine's Day massacre of my heart it is this. I have learned that love doesn't die. I still love my Daddy as much now, 17 years later, as I did on the day he died. I still believe that he loves me, still feel his love in the lessons he taught me, in the person I grew up to be, in the parent I will be someday (hopefully) and in the people who still love and remember him.
My first real experience with love on Valentine's Day was "losing it." The feeling of loving someone so much you can't imagine your life without them... and then they die. That's some irony right there stupid Cupid.
But now, with the clarity of vision only hindsight can give you, I know that he's still a part of my life. He didn't go away. Dying didn't make him stop loving me, or me stop loving him.
So yes, I am afraid that my husband will stop loving me. Not because I think he is anything other than head over heels for me, because I've learned that love doesn't die. So I needed to find something else to be scared of. Duh, obvi.
If pain and sadness have a lesson, it is one of gratitude. To think about the things we have, not the ones we don't. I may not still have my Daddy in all the literal, earthly senses of the word "have" but it would be false to say he could ever be gone from my life. If there is anything in this world that could be immortal, it must be love.
originally published 2/15/16