Happy Valentine’s Day, all! I absolutely adore Valentine’s Day, primarily because it’s one of only two holidays that begin with the letter V and, as a kid, I had an uncontrollable love of chocolate and could satisfy it so easily on this day.
Valentine’s Day became more special for me when I was a senior in college, back in 2007. I woke up to find my college campus shimmering with a foot of snow. Excited at the prospect of a snow day curled up in bed with a book (for pleasure!) and a hot toddy, I turned on my cellphone to call the college weather hotline. I had a habit of turning my phone off at night to charge it, uninterrupted. It took its time turning on, and while it did, I decided that, in addition to reading with a hot toddy, I would have brunch with my friends in the cafeteria and invite the guy that I was sort of interested in back to my room to hang out for just a little while longer. It was going to be the best day ever, and it happened to be Valentine’s Day: the ultimate excuse to indulge oneself in chocolate and wine.
Immediately after my phone came to life, it notified me that I had a new voicemail. I listened to it right away, sensing that something must have been wrong if someone had called me between the hours of 3am and 8am.
It was my mom.
“Vonetta, it’s your mom,” she always said, as if I couldn’t recognize her voice after more than 21 years of being her child. “Call me as soon as you get this message.”
Part of me was afraid to call her; what if she had terrible news? On the other hand, I thought, what if she had really good news. Like, what if she’d just won the lottery and I no longer had $25,000 in student loan debt with no job prospects?
Barely fully conscious, I called her back.
“Hi, Vonetta,” she said, lacking the joy that belonged in her voice. After a hard childhood and two failed marriages, my mother was a survivor, and she carried that triumph with her always, even in her shy voice that she insisted was incapable of projecting.
“Hey, Mommy, what’s up?”
“I just wanted to let you know that your Nana passed away.” She’d delivered the message about my grandmother as gently as she could.
I blinked for a second as my brain pushed sleep out of its way so that it could register her words.
“No!” I said as soon as the word “Nana” hit my grey matter. “No, no, no!” I screamed and cried instantly, like someone had flipped a switch on the back of my neck that made me make sounds.
“I’m sorry, baby, I’m so sorry.” Mommy’s voice was calm, calmer than it should have been given that her mother—the only biological parent she’d ever known—had just entered eternity.
I told Mommy that I would call her back. I told my roommate what had happened, and she gave me genuine condolences in her Korean-accented English.
What I’d thought would be the best Valentine’s Day ever turned into the worst. I spent the day in bed, not reading, but crying. I saw my friends at bible study that night, and I was afraid to tell them what had happened, for fear of spoiling all the fun they’d had on their snow day. I didn’t have any chocolate, denying myself just to make sure I wouldn’t take things overboard. The next day, I had a phone interview for a job; I completely botched it, unable to make myself sound enthusiastic about anything in life, much less a potential career in finance as an English major. I remained depressed and grieving for several months. From that day forward, I have not turned off my phone at night, more willing for my sleep to be interrupted than to be rattled in the morning.
By graduation that May, my good spirits had returned as, with therapy and talking to my family somewhat frequently, I remembered that my grandmother had lived a full life. She died instantly of congestive heart failure at the age of 77. She didn’t suffer in pain for months or years. She didn’t die young. She’d had seven children and multiple grand- and even great-grandchildren who she’d lived to see and hug.
Nana represented the ultimate in love. She sacrificed a potential career to raise her children and help my grandfather sustain their family. She babysat my sister, me, and my cousins for years without pay. Although she spoke her mind when she was in the right mood, she was kind and giving. She loved the nuns at our Catholic school and always went out of her way to say, “Hi, sister,” to them if she passed them on the street. Nana idealized sacrificial love in a way that, perhaps, only those nuns, who sit at the foot of the cross for a good bit of the day, understood, and that’s why she felt a kinship with them.
For years, Valentine’s Day for me was about which boy didn’t like me and who I wouldn’t be receiving a valentine from. From that fateful Valentine’s Day ten years ago, it became about Nana and all of the love she showed me. I can only hope to emulate a sliver of it for the rest of my days.