Valentine’s Day generally evokes images of romantic love involving dinner dates, flowers and chocolates. It’s a florist’s delight and most likely a restaurateur’s nightmare with all those irksome table-for-two bookings. For me it’s a little different. For many years, Valentine’s Day never factored very high on my list of important days. Yet it has now become one of the most significant moments in my year, and even though the reason behind this shift initially had nothing to do with love, it ended up being all about love.
On the 6th February, 2006 I sat in stunned silence as my doctor told me I had breast cancer. Two days later I saw a surgeon who immediately organised an operation to remove the very aggressive tumour growing inside me. The surgery was booked for the following Tuesday, which just happened to be February 14.
So on that Valentine’s evening while other couples wined and dined, I spent hours in surgery as my husband sat alone in my very empty hospital room contemplating an unknown and scary future. I will never know what it was like for him, but I do know that rather than fall apart from the stress, my wonderful husband chose instead to become a kind of superman. From the moment I was diagnosed, he was by my side. In the weeks after surgery he anticipated my needs, helped me shower, dressed my wounds, cried with me and comforted me. In the months after that he stuck like glue to my side during every round of chemotherapy, and then supported me through the six long weeks of radiation therapy. In between all these treatments, accompanying appointments and the extra household tasks he added to his own, he continued to be a loving, involved father with our daughters and still managed to hold down a full-time job. And he never complained. Not once. Best of all, despite my bald head, scarred body and bloated face he held me tight every day and told me how much he loved me.
In the months and years following my breast cancer I became a different woman and the change was not always positive. When I lost my confidence my husband became my support team, when I changed jobs multiple times he said “go for it”, when I became depressed he just held me tighter. Like a true knight in shining armour, he rescued me by the strength of his unconditional love. And whilst breast cancer was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face and despite it being the scariest time of my life, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so secure.
That security was grounded in more than one man’s love for me, as my entire family swept me up into its loving arms. Every morning during the long months of chemo my beautiful mother would arrive at my house to cook me a soft egg – the only thing I could eat. Then she would do all my washing. This was despite the fact that just two months before my diagnosis Mum broke her foot in five places and had only just begun to walk unaided, with significant pain. My father was her partner in goodness; he drove my little girls to and from school on the days when my husband couldn’t. Then he would do all my ironing. But the love didn’t stop there. My lovely aunty kept buying me gorgeous little gifts to boost my spirits and regularly took my girls for outings on the weekends while my kind uncle fixed the things around the house which all seemed to break at the same time I broke. Other relatives and friends provided a freezer full of meals and some treasured family members provided discreet but much appreciated financial support to help pay all the bills. Perhaps the most precious demonstration of love was a gift from my beloved grandmother (a talented landscape artist) who painted her first ever portrait: a soul wrenching painting of my two beautiful girls. That portrait was hung on the wall where I could see it from my convalescent lounge and it represented everything I wanted and needed to live for. Even today it remains a powerful reminder of the love of one generation for another, through the image of the next generation.
Valentine’s Day may evoke images of romance, dinner and flowers but for me it conjures memories of an army of loved ones charging in to care for me, led by my gorgeous, beautiful husband whose love nurtured and sustained me, giving me hope and the promise of a future. What could have been the worst experience of my life actually became one of the best, as it taught me about the healing qualities of pure, selfless, unadulterated love.
Last Valentine’s Day was the five year anniversary since my breast cancer surgery and to celebrate the significance of the date, my husband gave me a heart-shaped pendant. On each side of the heart is a row of five pink rubies – one for each year of survival. I treasure that pendant as it is a daily, tangible reminder of how lucky I am. And whilst giving me the pendant was a truly romantic gesture, when I think about the most romantic thing my husband has ever done I believe it’s safe to say that he loved me so much it saved my life. St Valentine himself would have to be impressed with that.
Karen Powers is a Teacher Librarian and mother of two teenagers who spends her spare time writing about books and reading. You can read her blog here.
What does Valentine’s Day mean to you?