The stores are stocked with cards and candy to observe Valentine’s Day, but it was a recent trip to the veterinarian’s office that left me feeling better prepared to celebrate love.
I took my dog, Billie Jean, to the vet for her annual check-up, and ended up in a puddle of tears after a tender encounter in the waiting room.
Two gentlemen, one with fairly evident cognitive disabilities, were also in the waiting room with me. It looked to me as if the one man was helping the other bring his elderly dog to the veterinarian and manage any necessary care. The dog was dealing with ongoing arthritis pain, I overheard.
While my Billie Jean and this fellow’s big, red dog greeted and wagged at each other, I overheard the dog’s man ask the vet tech about the pills the vet had prescribed.
“How many do I give him?” he asked anxiously.
“Just one,” she said, “but you can give him up to three a day.”
“When should I give them?” he asked.
“Oh, whenever he seems like he’s having a hard time getting around and you think he needs one,” she told him.
“OK,” the man said soberly. “So whenever he tells me.”
The man then turned his attention back to his dog, and to me and Billie Jean, since we were right there. With no prompting, he started to tell me how much he loves his dog.
“He is a good, good boy,” he told me. “He’s getting old, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
I said something light, like, “Our pets are really good friends, aren’t they?”
The man got super serious with me.
“No, you don’t understand,” he said emphatically. “This is not just a friend. This is who I live my life with. We do everything together. I will do anything to make sure he is OK.”
I validated everything he said as I pet his sweet dog’s wrinkled forehead and thought of all the animal-loving saps he could say this to, I actually do think I get where he’s coming from. I got misty considering the aging beast of uncertain heritage with his head in my hands is a literally divine creature, devoted to his mission of being a loving companion to this man. Talk about ministering angels.
But what a learning opportunity for me.
How much energy do we waste attempting to be cool, acting like the people and pets and things in our lives that matter most to us are not all that important? Or feeling sheepish about admitting how much we care? Whatever disabilities this man deals with, they have relieved him of any burden of pretense. He doesn’t pretend—as I did only moments before, joking apologetically with the vet tech about how silly my family is for observing our dogs’ birthdays with extra treats—that it is crazy to love. This man is only honest and genuine.
What if we were all so emphatic about love? I don’t mean gushy. More like, open and clear and unembarrassed by our sincere affection. What if all the people we live our ordinary lives with knew how much we value them every day? What if?
One of the most popular legends about the origin of Valentine’s Day is that St. Valentine was a Roman priest who secretly married Christian couples, despite Emperor Claudius’ decree against it. He befriended his jailer’s daughter, and sent her a note signed “from your Valentine.” Hence, the tradition of professing love and sending sweet love notes on Valentine’s Day.
To love and be loved is divine. To express love can feel awkward in a culture where guarding our vulnerability is the norm.
But “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,” the Gospel of John tells us. It doesn’t get any more obvious about love than that, and Jesus spent his whole mortal ministry demonstrating what loving perspective and actions ought to look like.
Here’s to a holiday and winter season of unabashed, emphatic love, for all of our loved ones.