Red hearts and boxes of candy are all around this month. Every pharmacy is festooned with naked cherubs covered in foil, and their shelves are lined with gifts themed for Valentine's Day. Women wear heart earrings and bangles, and hope that their men are paying attention to their desire for romance. Men with genuine love in their hearts try to properly express their emotions with cards and rings or arrange dinners out away from the kids (if they're wise). We will see ads for Lifetime movies and lobster dinner specials as companies clamor to use the holiday and our deep addiction to it to boost sales.
I also have no doubt that Valentine's Day will result in visits to the ED for some. It may be for food poisoning after the lobster or for a bad hangover from Jell-O shots (or a bottle of Boone's Farm Tickle Pink, for those who remember). It may be for embarrassing and seemingly inexplicable injuries a la “Sex Sent Me to the ER.” Sadly, some will be for anxiety or depression when things just don't work out just right.
Inspiring and cautionary tales alike are to be had this month. We can learn about superficiality, about wounds and treachery, passion and joy. We can ooh and aww at the incredible lengths some will go to declare and demonstrate their love. Someone will get a dozen roses; another will go away for the weekend and come to work with tales of joy. But even the most romantic return to business as usual when the weekend is over, putting away fancy dresses and suits, tossing out withered flowers. Men and women slide back into the routine of loving one another commonly but without public fanfare.
Yearly reminders of the season, however, are as close as your next shift. If you want to see the real meaning of Valentine's Day, watch closely the older couples who come to see you in the hospital. They bear the deep, burning embers of love for a lifetime. Many of them carry Valentine's Day in their hearts all year long.
I have had the delight of caring for many seniors over the past year, and have made a casual study of watching them. They teach us that a couple can stay together happily for a lifetime, that leaving isn't a foregone conclusion, that sickness and struggle can fuse a couple more closely than anything.
And they teach us that every second is precious. How often have we all seen the critically ill senior with a condition that she is unlikely to survive, and asked ourselves, “What does her husband think will happen? Why doesn't he just make her a DNR?” Yet the thing is, whether he knows, he wants every second he can eke out of life with his darling.
Good Love Lasts
What these precious couples show us is that love is not defined by age, infirmity, or gray hair. The old vows say “for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part” for a reason. The good love lasts. If that love glows hotter with age, then why wouldn't a man or woman want everything done for their loved one?
The thing they are demonstrating to us as we stumble along with bodies full of life and potential, unaware of its fleeting value, is that our older patients know the score. That person before them on the gurney sick or even dying may be the last repository of all of their own stories. Nobody else knows the way their wedding day felt, the names of their friends when they were young, and how it felt to dance all night together. Even their children don't understand their pet names, or how they have the right look or touch to comfort one another in any situation at all. The smile, the coo, the caress, every second, every touch is precious and priceless.
The older couples live in perpetual Valentine's Day because they know that it will end one day. We in medicine should understand that we sometimes live as if we are immune to sickness, death, and trouble. Our patients in their 60s to 100s have made it through. And still they grasp the treasure of every breath and heartbeat, every second spent holding wrinkled hands. And in their survival against all odds, they want more and more. This is not out of greed but sheer love for life and one another.
This Valentine's Day, recognize the love being demonstrated all around you by those who seem infirm, but whose hearts are stronger than ever. Be patient with them, comfort them, and take home the lesson they offer for free. Our bodies may grow old, but our love, properly cultivated, only grows better, deeper, and brighter.
Take that, Cupid.
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