I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Valentine’s Day, having been born within such close proximity of the holiday; I’ve avoided any expectations, because I’ve seen how miserable they can make people. By de facto, I’ve tried to just focus on the verity that I was born within a month designated to showing the love, and making sure others feel cherished and appreciated. And also I have considered that I am probably better at loving others, than being loved or loving myself.
Five years ago, how I celebrated and thought of this day, really changed. I had been living in Boston, a couple years out of undergraduate school, and was working for a sizeable marketing company. My job was literally to make clients happy, so that they maintained loyalty to our firm and our long lineup of elite brands. Some requests were over the top—renting yachts in the French Caribbean, arranging a meet-and-greet with Elton John in Vegas, getting into El Bulli in Spain. Yet with some of the other requests, I rose to the challenge—finding the best burger in Manhattan, helping to arrange a picture-perfect wedding proposal, helping a dad get tickets to Hannah Montana to have a father-daughter date. With anything, there were the rewards, and then there were the moments where I had to stop and assess what I was aiding/condoning, which was well-packaged confirmation of entitledness and outright extravagance—to break it down: what I was earning as an annual income (which was pretty decent at the time), was what these people could spend in a matter of hours without flinching. Needless to say, this made me question what was most important to me.
Right after Christmas, only after six months with the firm, my much adored grandmother was diagnosed with stage-three cancer. She had gone to the hospital with a stomach bug, and left with an appointment for chemotherapy. This news knocked our whole family blind-sided, as she was the light that guided us all home, and we just couldn’t imagine her not being around for any occasion. And though her chances seemed meek, we rallied around her, taking turns with her care and making time to be with her. How much we hoped for a miracle when we prayed each night, wanting to believe a mistake had been made, and even those of us who had lost our ways a little, reined it in to be there for her through hell and high water.
I flew from Boston to Philadelphia one long-weekend at the end of January, to see her. My mother had flown there the week prior, and had hated leaving her mother and sister, just to return to a job that now felt meaningless to her in the scheme of things. My mom warned me of what to expect, but nothing prepared me for the heartache I was about to experience.
There is nothing more depressing than the oncology ward at a hospital. When I sat there waiting with my Grammy and my uncle for her appointment, I could still see so much life in her, even with her head shaved and her feet swollen, while everyone else appeared a faded grey of too many cigarettes, too much time in the steel mills, or too many years of vice and stress. She liked to tell us stories of how the one time she got drunk on champagne she had danced on tables. Now here she was with terminal liver cancer, and I couldn’t help but feel like the hand she'd been dealt was unfair.
She called her doctor, Dr. Ponytail. It was cute to see her blush over men who were kind and attractive to her. I held her hand as he told her they wouldn’t be continuing the treatments, her eyes full of tears, and her fleshy body trembling. It was as though someone had dimmed the switch of hope inside her, and that car ride home had never felt so long.
I flew back to Boston, with that voice in my head, saying, “Sarah, you need to get back as soon as you can.” But when I returned to work, we were preparing for Valentine’s Day, my voicemail box was filled with the demands of my clients, and I couldn’t keep up with the flower and gourmet chocolate deliveries.
My boyfriend asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, which I hadn’t really had a moment to think about. I was turning twenty-five, “a quarter of a century”, and I guess I was supposed to want something a step up from the usual. We talked about maybe taking a trip somewhere, Vieques sounded devine, a nice escape from the madness and corporate drudgery. Though making plans to enjoy myself on some island removed just didn’t seem right, and so we ended up keeping our fingers on the trigger which never got pulled.
The night of February 13th, I was at home in my sterile barely-furnished condo, reading a book to fall asleep. But my mind kept on drifting to another time, when things were easier, when my Grammy was healthy, and I really didn’t have a care in the world. A time when I would sit in the backseat of the family minivan, face pressed to the glass, as we would drive down my grandmother’s lane lined with big old maples, anxiously waiting to see her and to get that full warm-body hug of hers. As I slipped into sleep, it felt like someone crawled into bed with me, just as I used to snuggle up with her in the mornings before breakfast, and I felt held and a euphoric feeling of peace.
My phone rang the next morning on Valentine’s Day. It was my mother. She didn’t speak at first, but I could hear and sense her pain through the line.
“She’s gone, Sarah,” she said.
I swallowed hard and said, “I know.”
We wore red to her funeral—just another piece in the family lore of Norma Lenore. She was a woman who worked hard, who loved her family, and who never wanted a parade. And today when we wake on this day, we tell each other how much she is missed, and how thankful we are to have been taught the reminder: to love like there is no tomorrow.