"I love you so much," I say.
Rowan snuggles his face into my shoulder, then pulls back to free his mouth. "I love you to the moon and back."
I kiss his forehead. "I love you to the stars."
He stiffens up, excitement rolling through his body. Ideas push away sleep. "I love you around the world and to the galaxies and back around 50."
I push his hair back from his face. "I love you to the sun. As hot as the sun."
He nods his head hard. "And your feet would burn. You'd need ice."
"It feels like that sometimes," I say. "Love does. Like burning feet. Superhot."
It starts this way. Declarations of love. Adoration. He cuts out pink hearts and pastes them to white paper, sprinkles them with glitter, and signs his name. I'm his first valentine, and he is mine. Someday, he'll find another one. Hopefully, I'll like them. Hopefully, they'll be smart and funny and kind, and they'll treat him with the kind of love that keeps you patient when you're raging and brings you coffee when you're tired. The kind that snuggles you in and holds you close for no other reason than you are who you are. That kind of love. A really big love.
But until that day comes, and he finds that love, his hearts are for me.
The candy, though. That's all for him. He knows about it. He's seen it. He loves candy—almost as much as he loves me. He says it's his superhero power: He's the Sweety Eater. All cookies shall crumble beneath his touch. Cakes shall collapse and crème brûlées crack. Sugar shall fail, and he shall prevail. Bring on the Valentine's Day sugar-filled declarations of adoration.
Me? I've always been apathetic about Valentine's Day. It rubs me the wrong way with its shoddy red bears and chalky candy sweets and stale heart-shaped chocolates.
But this year, it's different.
Confetti hearts. A heart-shaped box of chocolates. Mylar heart balloons, swaying in the air above his head. Those Sweethearts-brand heart-shaped candies.
He stares down the aisle, looks at the shades of pink, red, purple.
"Can I have one?"
Could you say no?
"Which one?" I ask.
"All of them," he says, then laughs maniacally, his sugar-crazed eyes sparkling.
He picks up a box of heart-shaped candies, shakes it twice, then gazes through the tiny plastic window on the package to the heart shapes underneath.
"What does it mean?"
"Be mine," I read. "What do you think it means?"
He stares down hard at the tiny heart. "That you should be with me. All the time."
"That’s right. I'll be with you."
He smiles that smile. The crazy one. The one that has ideas. "You'd come to school. You'd do work with me."
"We'd play on the playground."
"And you'd go down the slide. The two slides. I'd go down one, and you'd go down the other. We'd hold hands. You'd have to."
I would. I'd go down the slide.
I'd do anything. I'm flailing. Drowning. Reaching for straws. Making imagery and metaphors out of everything. But I see his real heart everywhere, big and red. It explodes from his body and rains down confetti and sprinkles. It's the donuts, the chocolates, the Snoopy card with the big red heart that says, "You're PAWS-itively special."
I'm trying to find a way around the thing that I can't get away from. I'm trying to be in the moment, to love what we have right now, and love him as real as I can, but it's hard with all these symbols crashing into my face and his heart enlarging inside his tiny body and me without a plan for how to move forward or away.
We're working on staying sane and staying open. And, we're working our way through a hell of a lot of candy.
That's the plan, for now. Candy hearts. Valentines. Boxes of chocolate. Declarations of love, like the tiny white heart with splashes of color that my friend knitted for him. It filled him with joy. We'll keep filling him up, straight to the top, showing him how much we care. We'll raid the grocery stores today and buy out their old stock. Send him notes and cards full of sweetness and love. In the face of the unknown, the pain and the grief, we create. We tell stories, shape our symbols, and bind together what we can in the best way we know how. We bring out our pens, our paint, our knitting needles, and our soup pots. We hold onto each other.
We can't fix Rowan's heart—that's the surgeon's job. It took me a long time to accept that. I wish I could be in control, or that I could make it all go away, but I can't, and that sucks. But you and me, we can hold him up, pull him in, and make him stronger. We can cut and glue and paste and glitter. We can make our symbols, share our love, and push down the ache. We can create our own kind of magic, full of stories and light and possibility.
At the end of it, that's all I know, and all I understand. We can't do any of this alone. We're made for each other, like sprinkles on a donut, the words on a candy heart, or glitter on a valentine. The sweetness and the sparkle hold back the pain.
So get out your glue.
If you want to send Rowan a valentine, write him at:
PO BOX 230684
Tigard, OR 97281
His surgery is scheduled for March 3rd. We'll save the valentines up, and give them to him over the next few weeks, before and after his surgery. We'll heal his heart with hearts of our own, great big red and pink ones. We'll make him feel safe, and happy, and strong. We'll cover him in glitter.