It was our second date.
Friday, February 14, 1997.
I was a senior in high school, he was a freshman at college.
I had waited all day, thinking I would be called to the office to pick up flowers, like many of my friends.
But, there were none.
I was a little disappointed, but reminded myself that our first date was only a week ago. I shouldn’t expect flowers.
We weren’t even, technically, dating. One date does not a relationship make.
I hurried home from school, knowing he would pick me up around 6pm.
I watched the clock, getting ready and singing the latest hits along with the radio.
He arrived, we talked briefly to my parents, and we were out the door.
We were meeting up with another couple, as we were both pretty uncomfortable being alone on a “date”.
The other couple was our buffer – someone else to talk to if the conversation between us went stale.
The guys has made no real plans, so we decided to grab a quick bite to eat.
But…it was Valentine’s Day. All the nice, college-kid-budget-friendly restaurants were packed.
We could have waited and been seated, but I had a strict curfew of 10pm. And we were all hungry.
We meandered around town, trying to find anything to eat.
We settled on something else…a small hot dog place not far from the high school.
My napkin and hands stuck to the table; grease permeated the air.
And I couldn’t believe I was eating hot dogs and french fries on Valentine’s Day.
It definitely wasn’t the image I had in my head earlier in the evening.
I gave up on the traditional idea, and just decided to have fun.
I was there, with a boy I really liked, my best friend and her date.
And fun? Oh, yes. We did have fun.
We had plans to see a movie, Stephen King’s “Thinner”, which was at the discount theater.
About fifteen minutes in, we decided were too bored (and much too fabulous) to watch any longer.
We left, in search of something to fill our time before my curfew.
I was, of course, the only one with a curfew.
Being kids at heart, we went to Toys R Us after our super-stellar meal of beef byproducts and the lackluster opening of the film.
Why Toys R Us? I do not remember. It was open and close to the theater, I think, and that was all it took. Something, anything, to do other than going home.
Geesh. It was Valentine’s Day.
Soon thereafter, my best friend and I (I’ll call her Shannon), were bouncing down the aisles on one of those huge inflatable balls, like you use in elementary school during recess.
We were in hysterics. We were, clearly, the funniest people we knew.
The store was empty and the employees were not interested in anything we were doing.
It was soon time for us to head back to the other side of the river. I did have a curfew looming near.
We had all piled into one car at some point, so my date & I had to retrieve his truck and be on our way.
I fondly remember on the way home that the conversation was limited and a bit awkward.
He did reach for my hand at one point at a stop light and told me had a good time with me, no matter where we were.
We reached my driveway and the porch light flipped on.
A signal to me that my parents were wide awake, probably watching through the garage window.
He parked, we checked the clock, and decided we would talk a for ten minutes before I had to go inside.
I don’t remember what the conversation was about.
I do remember that when he looked at me, my stomach did somersaults, my palms were sweaty and I couldn’t think of anything else.
He walked me to the door, and leaned in for our first kiss.
I was giddy.
But, I turned my head instead – he caught my cheek.
I could see the disappointed look on his face and with true Southern Belle charm, I quickly told him I wasn’t ready for all of that.
He backed away.
I apologized again.
He disappeared around the corner and I was mentally kicking myself for not kissing him after all.
I was very modest girl; and truly knew that, eventually, one of my relationships would ultimately turn to marriage.
I was careful, guarded.
I wanted to take it slowly, react with thought and care, and truly believe that I was doing the right thing with the right person at the right time.
He came back around the corner from his truck – with his hands behind his back.
He smiled at me and told me he would settle for a hug – and in exchange, I would be able to see what he was hiding.
A tender hug, and then gifts.
A white gorilla and a small bouquet of flowers.
My college boy had thought of me as his Valentine after all.
We were inseparable since that night.
He came home on the weekends and we talked everyday.
He set me up with my first email account so we could correspond virtually — which was a crazy thought to me back then.
We officially started dating a few months later, on April 13, 1997.
And we were married a few years later, on August 4, 2001.
We built a life, managed a home and discovered the true meaning of happiness.
We welcomed two beautiful daughters into this world.
Dealt with the joys and trials of parenthood, marriage and life.
We lived 5,017 days together since that second date.
When he died last November, I was devastated.
I lost my true Valentine.
I still miss him fiercely, his gentle nature and determined attitude.
I miss the way he looked at me, across the room, without saying a word. Or needing to.
We were best friends.
This year, Valentine’s Day will definitely be different.
He is not here; there will be no romantic meal to prepare and share, no couch cuddling or giggly talks about our first Valentine’s Day together. I never did let him forget the hot dog feast.
That first Valentine’s Day wasn’t perfect.
But it was the start of something new.
The start of something good.
The beginning of the rest of my life.
Only, I didn’t know it at the time.
Even though our story didn’t end the way I had dreamed of, it was still beautiful, challenging and full of love.
I would not change a moment of our life together – even the stomach pain caused by our 1997 Valentine’s dinner.
After that date, every day was like Valentine’s Day.
Full of dreams, promises and love.