I have been married for 30 years, so Valentine's Day is a familiar ritual. Never having forgotten to acknowledge the day...always having some flowers, (graduating from the cliché of roses to the more thoughtful tulips)...procuring candy from Sees and presenting cards of various types, I was proud of not being the stereotype of the thoughtless male who just went through the motions or blew the day off completely. After all, I was an incurable romantic. Wasn't I?
A recent conversation with my wife shattered any remaining pieces of this romantic, thoughtful-man construction. The subject of Valentine's Day came up and she casually commented on how much of a no-show I was year after year. Shock was the only reaction I had to her observations. Reminding her of the flowers and the candy and cards, I made the case I was a romantic husband who never missed the chance to remind her how much I loved her. She laughed and proceeded to present a litany of unmet expectations, missed dates and hackneyed or stale attempts to seem like a modern day Don Juan wooing his ladylove.
At the top of her list was an annual event which started out as a stunt. The news director was looking for something to jazz up Valentine's Day on the afternoon news. He remembered I had been a priest and wondered if I could legally marry a couple. I told him I doubted I could, and went about my daily assignments. I got a call from the desk saying they researched the question and I could legally marry someone. "Go to City Hall,” they told me, "...go to the clerk's office where there will be hundreds of couples trying to get a license to be married and find a couple who want to get married on the air." The marketing department scrambled and got the Fairmont to offer a suite for the night and a local restaurant offered a free wedding meal. This sounded crazy and I tried to talk them out of it, as I doubted it was legal and I didn't want to look like an idiot. I lost the argument and approached a line of couples. I was told to,"...go away, hell no, do you think we are stupid?, someone call a cop," and other warm reactions to my offer. Eventually, I did find a couple. They had known each other years ago, gotten separated across the country, and now he was back to ask her to marry him after realizing she was "the one". They came back to the station, we cleaned up the green room, put some candles out and they were married on the air. It was weird, but romantic.
It turned out to be a triumph. Management loved it. The couple loved it. The audience loved it and the marketing department could market the hell out of it. It became an annual event which eventually involved a honeymoon trip, hotel stays, meals and all kinds of other goodies. Couples competed and sent in letters explaining why their circumstances were the most romantic and deserved to be picked. I loved the romance of it. (Rosie Allen loved it and would gush and we would talk afterwards on the air together) It was perfectly designed to appeal to my ego and my romantic self. I think we did it for 10-12 years in a row. My wife reminded me on each of those years I was preparing for the wedding on the air while dropping off the flowers and candy and card and telling her to listen on the air. Couldn't get more romantic than that could I? How could anyone not be moved by a husband so committed to making sure a new married couple got a great sendoff on their most important of days?
In our home, it's known as "The Day". It is a story my wife never fails to tell at least once around Valentine's Day. I will never live it down. We had arranged to meet, yes meet in person, for lunch at Perry's on Union Street for Valentine's Day. Lunch was perfect because it didn't interfere with my wedding performance later in the day. Why hadn't we thought of this sooner? We both loved Perry's and we could have a leisurely lunch...a romantic lunch.
She arrived a little after noon. I was running late after having dashed to get flowers and candy. I got my tulips from Mia's Flowers on Church Street. (Mia and Glenn were friends and one of the couples I married on the air years later) I headed out Divisadero Street heading towards Union. Stopped at a light at Post St., I looked over and saw an entire building burst into flames. I called 9-1-1 and in the next breath called the news desk to report this live, breaking news. (Breaking news is mother's milk to a reporter. Being first on the scene just adds to the thrill. I made my bones as a reporter on breaking news. I was better at it than anyone in the Bay Area. I could set the scene, paint the work picture, and communicate the drama and urgency in one minute or less. I loved it more than anything.) It looked like it could be a huge fire. (I was almost addicted to covering fires. As long as I can remember I could distinguish between the sirens of an ambulance, police car and fire rig. My dad kept a scanner by his chair in the front room. My brother is a firefighter, a chief, and I knew tons of SF firefighters. I was the only local reporter to make it into the midst of the East Bay hills fire) I kept making live reports as rig after rig arrived. They knocked it down quickly. As the black smoke turned to grey and then white, I caught my breath and saw it was almost 2pm. It dawned on me slowly. She was at Perry's. We were supposed to have lunch. I looked at the tulips and candy on the car seat. I went from high to low in a moment. Our friend Mike was bartending that day. I called him and asked him to explain what had happened. (a coward I know) I rushed over only to find she had left. I had blown the lunch, Valentine's Day, everything. I still performed the wedding that night on the air however.
On the phone, "the day" came up along with all the other misses and slights and it hit me I was all hat and no cattle when it came to Valentine's Day. I touted myself as a romantic, but it was clear I was in love with the idea of being in love and in love with my own ego, but I want not so in love I could do the little things necessary to nurture it. I was great with grand gestures, but had failed to realize she was an after thought, a duty to be fulfilled...one more thing to check off the list on this day.
For the last 4 Valentine's Days, I have had cards made by some talented local artists, and written streams of words. The most difficult realization to come from all of this is that her experience of Valentine's Day hasn't changed much in the years we have been separated. Gestures on Valentine's Day have no substance or power unless they reflect the work done the other 364 days of the year. I had created an image in my head of a romantic husband, when the truth was I put my ego and needs ahead of hers. Had I been a true husband, in total love with his wife, I wouldn't be here, because I would have seen how much this would hurt her and devastate her and derail her life. If my love were demonstrated daily, rather than with occasional grand gestures, I would have never risked losing her and being so cavalier about our relationship. I took her for granted and needed her to point it out.
Love initially can be combustible and exciting. It can eat up our emotions and leave us breathless. Eventually, though, we have to start breathing again, and the work of being in love and staying in love starts. It's work which has to occur every day and not just on a few special days. It's work which can be pushed aside for other priorities or demands, with the intention of returning to it later.
It turns out I sucked even at the one special time each year to highlight how much we love someone. It also turns out by some miracle I have a chance to take another shot at all of this in a year or two. I don't intend to take it for granted or depend on grandiose gestures. If you are in love, I hope you figure out a way to make it visible every day and don't wait for commercialized gestures. For me, Valentine's Day is one more event reminding me how far I had gone down the wrong track and how I need to take advantage of any second chance I am offered. I don't need tulips or candy or cards. I need to be present and to be thankful to have someone in my life who loves me in spite of my shortcomings. Now that should go on a card somewhere.