Anybody know why St. Valentine was imprisoned and martyred? His real name was Valentinus and he was a Roman priest who was executed for marrying people. Which is to say presiding over weddings – he was not known to be a polygamist. He was beaten, stoned, and beheaded.
There’s a part of me that wants to make a cheap joke about how this was only fair, inflicting as he did marriage upon unsuspecting Romans. I will refrain from making joke, however.
The skull of St. Valentine, which is crowned with flowers, adorns the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome.
So the modern day holiday – the celebration of romantic love – was born in blood. If you look with enough care, you will nearly always find our occasions, our feast days, our annual observances all had a bloody beginning.
I’m not getting all Wikipedia on you to create the false impression of myself as being especially learned or smartypants. I am not.
I’m just reminding us all that things are not always as we take them to be – oftentimes the unexamined surface of the thing bears little resemblance to the origins of the thing.
St. Valentine, for instance, whom we today commemorate with cellophaned chocolates and overpriced roses, has come to be a figurehead for the superficial-expression-of-love-industry, when he was actually a thousand-year-old religious fanatic who pissed off the prevailing power structure and got his head handed to him for his trouble.
Which serves as a preface when I tell you that I proposed to my wife Hallie on Valentine’s Day, 1997.
I did not do so because the date was fitting, or because I was swept up in some crescendo of emotion arising from the bewitching elixir of the day and the elevated pheromones it carries with it.
Quite the contrary – I chose Valentine’s Day to ask my then-girlfriend-now-wife to marry me precisely because Valentine’s Day is exactly the WRONG day to do so. In fact, I’d say it’s the last day on the calendar you should propose to somebody, the VERY LAST DAY – even during a leap year.
To do so in complete seriousness would make me a chucklehead of the worst sort, a dillweed of such jaw-dropping severity, a cliché-perpetuating, orthodoxy-embracing nimrod epic proportions. I would have such a stunning lack of imagination that I would make lemmings look like paragons of initiative and individuality.
Hallie and I had long agreed that Valentine’s Day belonged in the same bucket as Secretary’s Day and the rest of the Hallmark holidays. Valentine’s Day was to be shunned. Like a leper on a lace doily.
So it was that I was able to maintain the element of surprise.
We go to dinner – all the while disparaging the strained-seeming couples around us with their mylar balloons and fur-bearing Beanie Baby cherubs. And carnations. The blossom that says “I comPLETEly forgot till the last minute and bought these off a sketchy dude on the train platform on the way over here.” And all of them murmuring along to the version of “Candle in the Wind” Sir Elton did to memorialize Lady Di that was so huge that year.
So it was, in the wake of this forced march into the gulag of warm fuzzies, that I popped the question, and in so doing, I outflanked my adversary – in effect tricking her into saying “yes”. It was, in all modesty, a masterstroke of subterfuge. Hallie has had the good sense to regret her decision ever since.
Valentine’s Day, 2003, I once again concealed myself behind the cloak of frilly and lightweight ridiculousness by giving her the… best… Valentine… ever. Our son was then just a week shy of his second birthday.
The consensus among any who met him was that our boy was the single most sweet-tempered baby ever to draw breath. And they were correct in this – our boy was a dewy-eyed and beaming little thing. He was unfailingly happy and curious and engaged, he was expansive and trusting and free, and above everything, he was at peace always.
Rather than getting a sitter and going out for a “romantic” dinner, I hatched a plot, and enlisted as my henchman my not-yet-two-year-old associate.
I dressed him in his red footie pajamas. I made a pair of cherub wings and affixed them to his back. I put shining red heart stickers on the pudge of his cheeks. I made for him a “Happy Valentine’s Day” sash we slung over his shoulder and across the roundness of his belly. I turned him into a living cherub and carried him into his mother’s office.
The other people there – not just the women, but the women in particular – lost their minds when they saw him. I had to shush them so they wouldn’t give us away before we could surprise Hallie. He was SO cute, that people bit their knuckles and drew blood. He was so adorable – so soft and sweet-smelling and happy-making – that he singlehandedly accelerated every biological clock in that place.
The moment Hallie saw him, she didn’t just SHED tears, tears SQUIRTED out her eyes. Like a Super Soaker. Or the final panel of a Cathy cartoon, where she’s going “Ack!” I was like four feet away from her and I got doused like her tear ducts had been replaced by old-timey seltzer bottles.
The onslaught of that much adorableness in so concentrated a form, was more than she could withstand. She has been powerless to leave me ever since. My victory is complete.
Valentine’s Day, 2005, wherein we return to the blood-soaked historical roots of the day.
Some background: in 1986, my dad killed himself. Sorry, there’s no genteel way to say it. So there it is. It’s a fact. I had succeeded in suppressing this fact for the better part of the next twenty years.
As the 20th anniversary of his death was approaching in 2006, I’d begun looking into this previously disregarded episode in my family history. I got the police report. Found some news clippings. Xerox of the suicide note. My mom sent me his death certificate. Tucked inside a Valentine’s card.
Now – let’s be clear. I knew she’d be sending the death certificate. I had been anticipating its arrival.
What rendered it jarring was the fact that it was inside a Valentine. I think you have to have had something like the life experience that I have in order to fully understand why this was so hilarious. I laughed like a maniac when I opened that thing.
For most people, black humor is entirely theoretical. For me, it is real and present and true. For me, having my dad’s actual death certificate unfolding like a punch line from inside a sappy-ass card not only makes the incident of my dad’s death more bearable, it makes the world a slightly less perplexing and horrible place.
For me, encountering real events that by any measure are cause for despair, and that involve real, actual human beings – myself included – flailing and failing as we all must, and responding to this confusing miasma by laughing my ass off may strike the untrained observer as me being a callous a-hole with no regard for others.
But really, what the sound of this laughter – which at first may seem vicious or fatalistic or unkind – is really the sound of the ragged and ungainly hope that has taken me this far. When I laugh at misfortune and heartache and brutality, it may not seem like it to you, but it is a love song. It’s just that melody isn’t as trite, and the rhyme scheme isn’t as stupid and crappy as “Candle In the Wind”.
The sound of this laughter is like Valentine’s Day. If Valentine’s Day was a plant, the foliage up top would be showy and dumb, insincere and pretty embarrassing, but the taproot of this plant would draw from a pool of blood deep underground.