It’s Valentine’s Day again. And again, we aren’t really celebrating. We never do. It’s a Hallmark holiday, and love, any good love deserves celebration 365 days a year.
Instead, I’m going to tell you a story; a story about a man and a woman, who met each other with a little help from God, and a website called Match dot com. In this story, the man and woman lived a block away from each other, and she was raising a nice little boy all by herself. She liked his smile; he liked her red hair. And little by little, they fell in love and decided that they should marry and when they told their families, there were loud shouts of excitement. Everyone was happy.
And on a mild summer day in a tiny quaint town on a picturesque and majestic river, they held each others hand and said ‘I will’ when the pastor asked them about the divine love, and the journey ahead of them. Then the little boy joined them, they all held hands again, promising to be good to one another as a family, and to love each other, even in their imperfections. They never got to just be a couple. From the moment the rings went on, they were a family, all three of them. And afterwards, they held hands once again -it was a big day you know, for hand holding- while a prayer was said before the first meal they’d share as husband and wife. On that beautiful day, everyone ate a picnic lunch at colored tables, topped with glitter and balloons, while happy children in smart suits with ties and beautiful dresses ran around the room, and leaned in anticipation on the table that held a cake, because it was a celebration, after all, and celebrations meant cake. And the cake was good. Everyone was so happy.
And soon enough, the man and the woman decided they wanted a baby, so they crossed their fingers, prayed and tried, but there was no baby, month after month. They prayed more, and they hoped hard, and everyone they knew prayed with them. The little boy was happy and excited; he’d wanted a brother or sister ever since he could remember, like from the age of 4 and he was eager to be the best big brother he could possibly be. But there were problems, it seems. There were terrible pains in the woman’s belly; pains that scared her and made her fearful that maybe she couldn’t make a baby like God had designed her to do, and so she went to a doctor, and listened as he talked about tests, and listed names of things that sounded odd and scary. And the man held her hand to soothe her (see? more hand holding), and he held her shoulders tight against him and comforted her because all of it was so scary, and there were serious faces and lots of ‘Hmmm’ and ‘Huh’ when the doctor read her charts. On the night before a surgery that would give them all the answers, she wept from the uncertainty and cried to the man’What if you don’t want to stay married to me if I can’t have children?’ The man laughed because he thought that was so silly. But the woman was very serious. The nurses soothed her as she wept before the surgery again. She was very scared. What if she didn’t wake up? The kind doctor, his eyes crinkling as he smiled through the mask that covered his face, assured her that she would be fine, and soon she was deep in a sleep so black and solid and thick that it seemed like only two minutes passed before she opened her eyes again. There was so much pain, and her mouth was dry and she really, really wanted to see the man. So she waited, and took her pain medication, got up and moved around and did everything she was asked in hopes it would get her to see the man sooner. It took forever for the nurse to wheel her into a room where the man was waiting for her.
But nobody was happy. No one was smiling. There was no joy.
Right away her eyes asked him the question, and he knelt in front of her, grasping her hands tight in his like he always had while he carefully said ‘We can’t have any babies.’ and then when the woman fell into his embrace sobbing and apologizing, he held her close to him, stroking her back and said to her “I still want to be married to you.” and even in the hardest moment of her life, through a pain she never felt like she deserved, she knew that the only thing that mattered was that one sentence, and the love that had been sealed with a kiss in front of a hundred people in that lovely river town, under a prayer on the wall of the church with a ring on her finger and a vow to hold fast forever. The happy had been stolen.
There would be no shouts of joy in their families for them, announcing that a new life was on the way. Instead, there were tears, a lot of embraces and sorrow, and life moved on for everyone but the woman and the man. They faced a challenge now in their married life that they never expected, and certainly not this soon, still in their newlywed phase. The woman had no idea that she could cry so much, that she could experience such a pain within her heart. She learned to move, stepping one foot in front of the other and exploring her new normal, but the pain within her clenched hard and left her in agony. She leaned on the man, and he leaned on her and the life that they’d started together sometimes slowed down a lot in those moments, shoulder to shoulder, fending off a world that had turned hard and raw. They tried to remember all the good in their lives; the beautiful home, the love between them, the young man who was growing in front of their eyes. But she learned how deeply she could miss someone she’d never even met. She learned to smile when someone announced they were expecting. She learned a lot of things, like how hard God cried along with her, how to lean on Him, her faith and her need to move forward despite the desire within to simply lay down and never stir from that spot.
But moving forward was agony, and it was slow and for so long it felt like the happiness would never return.
So finally, the most painful part of this season passed, but now almost 8 years later, it isn’t gone. It never will be; it still simmers below the surface of her heart. But the love, the one that started on that mild August day, in 2002, with hand holding, the shouting children and the cake and celebration, it’s strong and powerful and seems to get better with every year that passes. The woman feels the inevitable ups and downs of sharing a life, a home and everything with the man, but knows that the hardest peak they’ve ever had to climb came early, a journey that was so difficult and treacherous that they learned quickly how to lean on each other, how to guide each other through, how to survive against what very well might have been an insurmountable sorrow. The man still grasps her hands when she needs the support, his embrace is still warm and soothing. And on occasion when the inevitable pain of loss rises to the surface of her heart, she can turn to him and whisper ‘I miss our babies so much’ and he knows that all she wants is her shoulders drawn to him in silent understanding. The happiness has returned, but tarnished in too many spots that will never again feel shiny and new and full of promise.
And on Valentine’s Day, this kind of love is the only thing she needs. ‘Happily Ever After’ was suspect from the start and really, it only exists in stories of impossibly perfect people with straight white teeth, but what comes in real life is actually much better, far deeper, more powerful and with meaning that dashes the perfection of fairy tales to bits. She learned that happiness comes when the pain is hardest, even when you can’t see or feel it, when the only tether you have to life is a hand in the darkness. Happiness is never found in some box of chocolate, or a special dinner or a frilly card with a red heart, but in the blood and guts of life, of a real, honest, and hard life, the life that forms after the bomb drops and the smoke clears. Because this kind of love isn’t celebrated only once a year; it’s a feeling worthy of a daily toast, a celebration every night with a kiss before sleeping and the assured grip of warm comforting hands on the rough seas.