Much like a long-standing relationship, my affection for Valentine’s Day has changed over the years. I used to love the faux holiday. What child doesn’t love a day dedicated to chocolate, and what girl immersed in societal traditions of girlishness doesn’t love heart-shaped sugar cookies and candy dipped in pink and red dye? Exchanging cards with friends and other children was a delight, too. In the Bring Enough For Everyone world of the classroom, it didn’t matter how unpopular you were; everyone gave you a valentine.
But once I grew old enough to change classrooms six times a day and to be surrounded by 30 or so different people in each classroom, bringing cards and candy for 180 people became unreasonable, and how much you were liked by your peers mattered.
I’ve never been physically attached to a romantic significant other on Valentine’s Day. Most of the time, I haven’t been in a relationship. Other times, I had a boyfriend, but distance kept us apart. Hence, like the fun but uneventful classroom parties of my elementary school years, most of the Valentine’s Days in my adult life blur together in one unmemorable picture. All except for one.
Sunday, February 14, 1999. I was 18. I remember the morning feeling more rushed than most Sundays, probably the environmental effects of our family’s tension. My mother and I went to Sunday School at the church in which she and I had grown up, but my mother didn’t want to stay for service.
“I would hate for something to happen while we’re sitting in church,” she said.
So after Sunday School, we drove to the hospital. A nurse saw us come through the door and head towards the room that was our destination. She came out from behind the desk, stopped us, took our hands and told us my maternal grandfather had died not long before our arrival.
My mom and I took each other’s hands and held each other up as we walked into the hospital room. Machines still attached to my grandfather’s body gave the illusion that he was still breathing, but he had died just as we had dismissed from a brief devotional service to go to our respective Sunday School classes.
My grandmother, my mother’s siblings, and their children were there within an hour or so, and the extended family—my grandfather’s siblings, nieces, and nephews—arrived as soon as they heard. They had been at church, and the pastor announced that our patriarch was gone.
Eventually, a chaplain arrived, talked to us, and led us in sharing memories and expressions of gratitude for the man who was our husband, father, grandfather, brother, and uncle for 79 years. And then we went home.
I had been home from college for two days because my grandfather was sick. When I called my roommates that night to let them know he had died and that I would be staying home until the funeral, one of them, not knowing what else to say, said, “Aw, Mariam. I’m sorry. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
I smiled. I said, “Thank you.”
The Valentine’s Day theme came up again after the funeral a few days later. My father’s parents attended and got in the car with me and my mom to go the burial. My paternal grandmother turned and looked out the back window as we neared the bottom of a steep hill. The line of headlights and little purple funeral flags stretched to the top of the hill and well beyond.
“What a fitting day for him to pass on,” she said. “Look at all those lights. Isn’t it beautiful how your granddaddy was loved?”