It’s strange, hearing that phrase in February. We’re so used to hearing it at Christmastime, with continual exhortations about the “reason for the season”, that it seems odd to refer to the “true meaning” of any other holiday. But the strangeness of it doesn’t change reality at all.
We saw the valentines at the local mega-store; the type of cards that show up after the New Year’s decorations come down, the kind that parents dutifully buy year after year for their children to distribute in classroom parties.
Last year we had made our own cards, scanning pictures of wildlife and creating cheesy captions to go with them (an orange orangutan proclaiming “I’d go ape for you, Valentine!”). This year, though, has been busier than last, and besides, we both like the utterly insane Australian naturalist (and his crocodilian friends) that graced the cards.
Even though they were little more than scraps of colored paper, they met with my son’s approval, and so they ended up in our cart.
In my adult life, I have only gotten valentines from relatives. I remember going through old cards when I moved out of my parent’s house. Many of them I saved – and still have, somewhat amazed that there were a cards wishing a three-year-old with my name Happy Birthday, or Merry Christmas. I remember tossing out those class-distributed valentines from people I now barely remember, watching them arc a pathetic path through the air towards the trashcan that they usually missed. I regret throwing them away.
When we got home, he pulled the box of cards out and inspected it carefully. Among the benefits of living in a rural area like this one is class size – there’s only sixteen students in his classroom. My son has progressed well beyond simple math like that, especially when there’s goodies involved.
“Dad!” he said, “there’s more cards than people in my class! I can send the rest to me!”
My wife (now ex-, or as ex- as possible when a child is involved) never gave me a valentine, even when we were married. This – unlike so many other things – was not her fault. I always told her that I didn’t want one, that I didn’t believe in Valentine’s Day, that it was a loathsome holiday of spending excess, little more.
I was lying. It was an act – an affectation adopted after years of geekish solitude and holidays spent alone. Yet somehow, unfairly, I felt she should have known.
He dropped the box in shock – he hadn’t expected this kind of outburst.
“You don’t send valentines to yourself! That’s not what Valentine’s Day is about! Don’t you know the reason for Valentine’s Day?”
Embarrassed, he whispered. “No.”
The rehearsed answer, the one I’ve practiced so long that I almost believe it, streams from my lips: “Some people believe that Valentine’s Day is just commercialism and trite sentimentality. It’s just another excuse for big companies – and everyone else – to guilt-trip you into buying cards and flowers and candy you don’t need in a desperate attempt to convince someone else that you love them – and hope they send you something so you know they love you back.”
His face is unreadable. He’s seven, he doesn’t deserve hearing the result of my decades of (mostly self-inflicted) anguish. Besides, even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean that something more can’t come out of the holiday. So I take a deep breath, and try again.
“But most people believe that somehow, despite all the commercialism and stupid cards and fattening candy and flowers that die, the true spirit of love shines through. They say that Valentine’s Day is not only a celebration of romantic love, but of the friendly love of all humans. The kind of love that God has for the world.”
He wipes a little tear from his eye – how did I not notice that I had made him cry? – and asks, “Do you believe that, Daddy?”
The television plays in the next room; the network news has just come on. Interspersed between commercials are the stories, the stories of human hatred, the stories of human greed. Stories of pain and suffering over differences of opinion, stories of death over something as transitory as land and money. Stories where innocents are hurt, maimed, die, and no-one moves to intervene.
From a strictly biological point of view, “love” can be quantified as a hormonal reaction, as neurons firing in specified predetermined patterns. Whenever we fall in love, all other relationships pale in comparison – until that one is over, and then we question whether we ever were in love to begin with. Sometimes it seems as though love is little more than a self-delusion… but yet we believe in love and believe in its power.
A friend of mine once stated that his religious belief could be summed up in one sentence: “I believe because I believe.” No amount of proof could ever verify his belief for anyone but himself, but he knew it to be true, beyond any facts and figures. He knew it to be true in his soul.
“Of course I believe that,” I tell my son, trying to forget the heart-shaped scrap of paper I had thrown in the trash years ago, a valentine I had sent myself in fear that no-one else would give me one.
Of course I believe in love. This time it’s the real thing.
I wrote this in 2001. It’s still true as well.