I've never really had a problem with Valentine's Day. I spent a lot of years heartbroken on February 14th and still, I've never really felt bitter about a celebrating a day for love. I do have cause to though. Both of my high school boyfriends broke up with me shortly before Valentine's Day. One dumped me on Groundhogs day and subsequently for a couple of years I harbored ill-will against all woodchucks. Since that first heartache fifteen years ago (wow, I love that I have been falling in love for fifteen years!), I still managed to keep my optimism and I really have family to thank for that. One family member in particular was always my Valentine and always will be. My grandpa.
Lloyd and I were pals since the day I was born. We fell in love that day and that was that. We were solid. I knew he had my back and I had his, even as a newborn. It took me a while to learn this, but I had the power to melt this tough Italian man with a simple smile.
I never took advantage of my power of him. Well, maybe sometimes, when I was home sick from school and I really wanted a McDonald's Happy Meal (the cure-all for 'I-don't-want-to-go-to-school-itis'). We spent countless hours driving in his old gray Chevy pick-up truck. He was always whistling or humming or singing something. He used to walk my brother's and I to the bus stop. We helped his farmer friends sell their corn on the road side. He told us stories about how he and his siblings would get oranges for Christmas. He loved fruit. On Valentine's Day, he bought me candy hearts. I loved the mixture of sweets and words. He was there for me. He and I loved unconditionally.
This is a strange and wonderful kind of love. It sets the bar to an almost impossible high. Having loved and been loved unconditionally, it set me up for some serious heartache in my teens and twenties. Many of the people I dated felt I was too intense, too emotional, too attached. I realize now that they did not recognize my fervor. It took me a long time to realize how unusual it was share this kind of love.
It wasn't all hugs and candy hearts. There were tensions with my grandpa and I. It was difficult to form an adult relationship with him. His fondest memories were from my childhood. He saw me grow and get married, and then get divorced. His dreams of becoming a great-grandfather were put on hold. He was old-fashioned. Didn't I want a family like mine? He didn't want me to leave Pittsburgh. Why would I leave? My family is in Pittsburgh.
When my grandpa died last December, it really shook me. I had been mentally preparing myself for a decade, since he'd been sick for that long. But you can't really prepare. You can't know what it's like to watch your family all simultaneously want to curl up and be alone. Especially a family that is normally so extroverted, so inclined to be together. You can't know what it will be like to watch your grandmother mourn the loss of her partner of 63 years. But also, I was surprised by how life has to continue. He died during my finals week of my first semester in graduate school. While I got extensions for all my assignments, after the funeral I was relieved to have something to keep me busy. Something to help distract me from this loss.
This morning I woke up thinking about my grandpa. I saw an orange on my desk. It started me thinking about how he was instrumental in my becoming a poet. I have always had poetry inside of me. But having loved and been loved unconditionally, I know about living life with passion. The notion that art is about suffering is false. Life includes suffering, always. There are times when we will find ourselves on the ground, without words, drained of life's poetry. But like love, poetry is a way to survive that suffering. A way to celebrate our continued survival. To celebrate our thriving. Poetry causes us to pay close attention, to value every word, every minute, every song. My grandfather taught me how to be in love. Poetry taught me how to crawl my way back toward that love. We must crawl back to it. This poet is building bridges toward an unconditional love with each poem, stanza, line, word, letter.