I might be learning to hate Valentines Day. But this isn’t a rant against singledom or the tyranny of Hallmark holidays.
Last year over Valentines Day weekend, we received news of dad’s stage 4 colon cancer, which had already spread to his liver, lungs, and other tissue. The prognosis was bleak. For a tense couple of months, our family waited to see if the chemo would work. It did. He lived, and thanks to mom, awesome doctors, family, and friends, (but mostly mom) he lived damn well.
We had planned a family party for this year’s Valentines Day weekend to celebrate our good fortune and my two sisters’ winter birthdays, but dad was struck down last Tuesday, exhausted and feverish, by an opportunistic infection that remains a medical mystery to those trying to diagnose him.
We’re back in the hospital for Valentines Day.
I hate seeing him in a hospital bed, requiring assistance to turn on his side. He needs help standing. His skin looks worn, used up, and his legs are pencil thin. My mind refuses to believe this is possible.
This is the man who strode across our steeply-pitched roof with a storm window in his hands and nails in his mouth while I watched, terrified, from the ladder propped against the house. In high school, he broke football records. Several categories. Decades later, as the school athletic director, he chalked the football field himself before Friday night games, then coached the games. This man fixes everything around the house himself or stores the broken item in the basement until he ‘gets around to it.’ (My parents’ basement is packed with ‘get around to it’ items.)
Despite his broken body, dad remains uniquely dad. He thanks the hospital staff profusely, and learns all of his caregivers’ names. He worries about mom driving home from the hospital after dark, and in a soft voice urges her to leave his side. She is always reluctant and sometimes ignores his pleas.
Sunday morning, when I arrived at the hospital to sit for the day, Clarice and Ed, his and mom’s best friends, prepared for their exit after an extended visit. I hugged them eagerly, because I like them too. They’re goofy and charming, great friends to my folks. When I asked Ed how he was doing, he responded confidently, “Almost perfect in every way.”
As they buttoned up their coats, I kissed Dad on the cheek and said, “You look good. You must have been energized by a visit from good friends.”
“Oh yes,” Dad said with enthusiasm. “But they left. Then Clarice and Ed showed up.”
Ed howled with laughter and as dad joined him laughing hard, he looked like my father once again.
I’m trying to be grateful, I really am.
Since last Valentines Day, we enjoyed another full year of Dad’s cheating at Wheel of Fortune and unusual culinary advice. We played card games, told stories, argued our traditional family topics. One summer night after evening meal, he explained that his oncologist explicitly forbade his helping with dinner dishes, as it might “undo” the chemo’s impact. As always, he turned to mom for confirmation. As usual, mom wrinkled her face at him and said, “I’m staying out of this.”
Last August, all six of us attended a joyful family wedding at the Ritz Carlton. We celebrated Christmas this year with hilarity. The previous month at our extended clan’s Thanksgiving, Dad led the prayer before eating. Many of us cried as he asked God to help us accept the death of a beloved, young cousin. Dad’s close-to-tears prayer helped us all feel that horrible loss again, and I remember thinking, ‘Who will bless our hurts when he is gone?’
Friday night, after hospital visiting hours concluded, I did his Valentines Day shopping: a beautiful card for mom and her favorite candy, the Whitman Sampler. On Sunday afternoon, we gathered around his bed to celebrate and as mom was presented with her wrapped gift and card, she said with some surprise, “Who did this?”
Dad said, “I have people.”
Inside the card, he had written in his own faltering handwriting: “My hand is shaky but my love is not.”
I think perhaps the point of Valentines Day is to remember love’s vulnerability. You can love someone, something, a time, a place, an age, a feeling – love it with all your love – and still, it ends. One of my warrior friends once told me, “When you think about it, all love ends in someone leaving. Even after 60 years of marriage, one of you dies and deserts the other.”
Okay, perhaps a little grim for Valentines Day.
But I get it: your heart gets broken in this world. I’ve been in love and it did not last. I’ve experienced friendships that end and it just fucking hurts. My childhood hero is in a hospital bed unable to turn over. Still, I’d rather bawl my eyes out than miss love’s vulnerable gift. So, I guess I’ll give Valentines Day another chance next year.
Between Clarice and Ed’s Sunday visit and our family celebration later that day, I watched him doze on his side. I studied his face, trying to remember every detail, every crease, the shape of his head.
He startled me by suddenly talking loudly into his pillow. He said, “Are you driving back to Minnesota today?”
I said, “Yes, Dad.”
I got choked up and said, “I’m sorry I have to leave.”
He grunted from the bed and said, “You can’t stay forever.”
Sometimes, I hate it when he’s right.