My Favorite Valentine’s Day Gift

Aw, yes, it’s Valentine’s Day.  Like everyone else, I think of long-stemmed roses, heart-shaped candy, and red ribbon and bows.  I’ve had plenty of these over the years, but what I associate the most with this day is the memory of my parents.  Both had surgery on Valentine’s Day and both were told they were about to die.

My father was barely 65 when he faced his second open heart surgery, primarily due to coronary artery disease secondary to diabetes.  For weeks he weighed the pros and cons but remained torn about his decision.  His health had been failing for many months – fatigue, palpitations, and chest pains.  Finally, my mother called me and said, “Gwen, you are the only one who can truly talk to your father.  Please come home and hear what he has to say.”


So I flew home to Kentucky from Washington, DC in a snow storm and spent a long weekend sitting by his side in front of a roaring fire.  He told me how scared he was of dying and becoming a frail, useless man.  He felt he had lost his pride and was no longer loved for his strength and ability to care for my mother.  His words tumbled; he cried without apology.  It was difficult to watch him express such deep emotions but I remained quiet.  My medical knowledge was of little use.  He only wanted hope, even if just a glimmer.  In the end, he felt he had to pursue any option available and decided to have the surgery.


A few weeks later, on Valentine’s Day 1991, my father went in at 6:00 a.m. for open-heart surgery.  Less than an hour later, a male physician assistant, the front of his scrubs covered in blood, came to find us in the waiting room.  “We’ve had some problems,” he said quietly, kneeling close.  I knew the minute I saw him, the news wasn’t good.  I had been in his place many times in my career.


“His heart stopped right after we opened his chest,” he said looking straight at my mother.  “We don’t think he’s going to survive the surgery.”


I had known this could happen but at the moment, my clinical training was meaningless.  I was crying and holding my mother’s hand.  It had been his choice to proceed with surgery and we had respected that.  My family huddled in a private waiting room staring in disbelief. This proud, engaging, gentle man who had fought in World War II, led a police force his whole career, and supplied the neighborhood with heirloom tomatoes was dying.


My father survived but never recovered.  The weeks that followed I stayed with him in Kentucky, my life on hold.  I took him to cardiac rehab, helped him bathe, washed his hair, and gave my mother some relief as she tried to keep up with her job.  He died peacefully in their home.  The last thing he said to me was, “All I ever wanted for you was to be happy and safe.”


As for my mother, she was living an active life when an abnormal lab result from a biopsy detected a fast growing cancer in her abdomen. She had 31 scans and tests yet the primary site of the cancer was never found.  Finally, her doctors decided to proceed the old fashion way — an exploratory laparotomy.  She went into surgery at 6:00 a.m. on Valentine’s Day, 1997, six years to the day after my father.  After surgery, the surgeon came to meet with my brother and me.  “Unless something intervenes, your mother will die very soon of ovarian cancer,” he said. “It’s stage four.”


For the next 18 months I flew home to Kentucky every weekend while working fulltime and going to law school at night.  She was completely lost and in shock.  Having never been in a hospital much less very sick, it was foreign for her to depend upon someone else to make the bed and buy the groceries.   Like watching a movie in fast-forward, the radiation and chemotherapy took her laughter, her rosy color, her ability to wash dishes, her hair, her skin, and finally her life the following year.


These tender memories don’t diminish one bit those that I recall with a smile – surprise trips to the beach, bouquets of flowers delivered to my office, more Godiva than I can eat, lacy lingerie from Victoria Secret, and a full box of cards in the third grade.  In fact, I’m glad I have all of them to remind me that love comes in many forms and in many ways.  I know that being able to be with my parents at the end of their lives, to be able to care for them, listen to them, hold them as they were dying, will always be my favorite Valentine’s Day gift.

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