No matter how chaotic things were growing up, my mother and I always paused for holidays. We'd brainstorm quirky Halloween costumes, make elaborate Christmas ornaments and greet our neighbors with giant snowmen on West Virginia's first snowy mornings. Of all our traditions, I looked forward to Valentine's Day the most. Mom and I would pick out funny cards, and I'd write messages to my classmates, making sure to dot every "I" with a heart. Mom would stuff the envelopes, and I would seal each one with a red or pink sticker. The holiday dedicated to love was our special day.
In 1989 my mother found a lump in her breast and was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. By 1991 her doctors were doubtful she'd survive. Mom shielded me from the news, telling me only that she was very sick. For Christmas that year she gave me the gift I'd always wanted: a puppy I named Tiffany. By February the cancer had spread to her brain, and my mother could no longer walk or speak. At 9, I found losing her incomprehensible; I still expected her to recover. The afternoon before Valentine's Day, my father took me to buy cards for my classmates. When I got home, my mom was sleeping, so I filled out the cards alone. I went to sleep excited to wake up early and show her the peach envelopes I'd carefully decorated. I was too late. My mother passed away at five o'clock the next morning.
People say time heals all wounds and I have to agree. Each year I spent without my mother became a little easier to bear, but Valentine's Day—our holiday!— remained ruined. While others celebrated, I was reminded of all I'd lost. It hurt my father to see me dread a holiday I once adored, so every year he sent me nine roses to mark the years I'd spent with my mother. When I was in high school, he'd leave them in my locker; during college they'd be at my dorm. I'd smile when I received them, but tears always followed.
When I was 21, I met my husband, Gibran. Our connection was instant and he was quite the romantic. After two months of dating, I told him about my loss and not to bother trying to make me smile on February 14. He replied, "I love you too much not to try." On our first Valentine's Day together, my father stopped sending roses and said I should make new memories with someone special. He was right: It was time to reclaim my favorite holiday. I wasn't sure how, but I wanted to try.
Gibran and I have shared nine Valentine's together—three as husband and wife. Each one he started by saying, "Good morning, beautiful. Today's going to be special." The first few Gibran begged me to get out of bed to try to enjoy what he planned. Every year he'd organize something new to remind me that I'm loved and not alone—a horse-drawn carriage ride; handmade cards filled with words of encouragement; a romantic, home-cooked meal. Eventually, I began to let go of my grief and open my heart. On our fifth Valentine's together, we went to Las Vegas. It was the first time since my mother's passing that I greeted February 14 with a smile. The loss of my mother will always leave a hole in my heart, but the men in my life have helped me push past the pain. My life now is filled with love and happiness. I know my mother would be proud of me, and that's worth celebrating.
Charli Penn (@ManWifeDog) is the relationships editor at ESSENCE.com and founder of manwifeanddog.com.