Every person’s grief has a season. Mine happens to be winter, and therefore it includes Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, this annual holiday of love and romance will always remind me of the darkest chapter of my life.
As a child, I would get very excited at the beginning of February as I prepared my Valentines for our class party. First, I went to the local drug store with my mother and selected the perfect box of assorted small cardboard Valentines. Each one had its own thin white envelope on which I carefully printed a classmate’s name.
Displaying my assortment on a card table, I carefully matched the colorful images with the perfect recipient. The typical romantic messages, “Be Mine” “4-ever” or “Sealed with a Kiss XX” had to be carefully aligned to the proper person lest the message go awry.
But the last Valentine card I delivered to my husband David was one that ended up being taped to the cold steel metal bar above his head in the neuro-intensive-care unit at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. It was never held in his hands.
As a result of a car accident four days prior, he lay in an oscillating bed as a quadriplegic. His spinal cord had been severed at the second cervical vertebrae and he was completely motionless and without the ability to speak. All he could do was blink his eyes and slowly mouth words that I was miraculously able to decipher.
This intelligent, loving, 44-year-old man was trapped in his deteriorating body. He smiled when he saw the large card with the humorous message that I carefully selected to lift his spirits. We expressed our love for each other and both knew that this was to be our last Valentine’s Day together. He died 10 days later.
As the first year of my grief journey was coming to a close, I dreaded the upcoming Valentine’s Day. Then forty-one years old, I had tucked away our last Valentine card in my desk drawer and could not bear to look at it again. I knew if I did, I would immediately be transported back to room #2 in the NICU with all of its memories.
Instead, I decided to focus on my now 13-year-old daughter Samantha and my 11-year- old son Rick. I wanted to make sure that they felt an extra dose of my love as I tried to compensate for their missing father.
I made a special meal and decorated the kitchen with red hearts and doilies. I even bought myself a bouquet of pink and white carnations and on each placement put our traditional red heart-shaped cellophane box of candy.
My heart was aching for the loss of my own Valentine but I tried hard to not let them down. We laughed as they shared their Valentines, which reminded me of my primary school ritual. Samantha and I especially giggled at Rick’s special homemade Valentine from a “secret admirer” that he preferred remained anonymous.
“Do you ever stop loving someone after you have to say goodbye?” asked a middle-aged woman at one of my speaking engagements. Without fully processing the question, I instinctively answered, “No, your love does not have an expiration date. You never have to let go.”
On the way home, I mentally revisited the woman’s interesting question. I really had never thought about it before. It has been almost 18 years since David’s death and I still feel my love for him.
But it has become a different kind of love. It is a soft, gentle nostalgic love that makes me feel safe. It is a nurturing love that I know my children still feel. After 12 years as a widow, I remarried and opened my heart again to love. There will always be a special place in my heart for my first Valentine.
I believe that we never have to completely say good-by to our departed loved ones. They are just not in our sight but remain in our hearts forever. We need to keep our hearts healthy and open to share again.
Now, for me Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love past and present, and I make sure to even save a little piece for the future. We never know what that will hold.
Kim Kluxen Meredith 2011