Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, and I have big plans for the evening. I won't go into the sordid details, but I will tell you that the highlight will be a candlelit, rose-scented bubble bath for three: Ben & Jerry and me. On second thought, I'd better do the bath alone and save the Cherry Garcia ice cream bar for afterwards. Wouldn't want the chocolate shell melting and dripping into my bubbles.
This will be my sixth consecutive Valentine's Day without my late husband, or any sweetheart, for that matter. But don't feel sorry for me. While my life may lack romance, it does enjoy an abundance of love. And as The Beatles said, love is all you need.
Ah, if only it were that simple. "I love you" is probably the most misused and misunderstood sentence in the English language. Some people say it when they don't mean it, to get what they really want. Others mean it when they say it, but it may not mean the same thing to the person hearing it. Most of us don't say it nearly enough.
I think Momi at Uptown Chevron has the right idea. She says it all the time to customers, sometimes with a hug over the counter. And I have no doubt she means it every time. I asked her about it once, after she hugged a little old Asian man, obviously a regular. "Uncle was having a rough day," she said. "He needed a hug. Everybody needs love, yeah?" I got a Momi hug that day too.
Like most local Japanese families, mine was not verbally demonstrative. In our house, "I love you" was only heard on TV or in songs. I never heard my parents say it to each other and although they both gave me lots of encouragement and praise, they rarely said it to me. Not as a stand-alone sentence, anyway. I do recall hearing more than once, "I love you, and that's why I'm punishing you, to help you learn to do the right thing."
Of course, my parents had many other ways of stating their affection for me, including hugs, lots of hugs. I didn't need to hear the phrase to know I was loved. In fact, I didn't even want to hear it. Not from my parents, anyway.
As a preteen, I longed to hear it from the lips of whichever classmate I happened to have a crush on. I practiced saying it myself, to Davy Jones' face on my Monkees album covers. My diary was full of declarations: I love you, (insert name here). But the notes passed between my 7th-grade classmates said "1-4-3" in place of those three little words. We were too embarrassed to actually say what we meant.
High school hormones easily conquered bashfulness, and it didn't take long for me to get comfortable with saying "I love you" out loud. It took much longer for me to grasp the consequences of doing so and the complicated politics of the phrase.
You know what I mean. If you say it to someone and they don't respond in kind, you:
A) Feel hurt.
B) Get angry.
C) Say it again, only louder.
D) All of the above.
The first time my late husband told me he loved me, it started a big argument. Not because I didn't respond with "I love you too," but because I did. Those four little words offended him as if I'd replied with four letter words. He felt that the "too" somehow diminished the sentiment. From then on, whenever Barry said "I love you," I answered with "I love YOU."
A year after Barry's death, I started dating again. I'm still not ready for a serious relationship; I'm not sure I ever will be. That doesn't mean I've given up on love, though. In fact, the last five years have broadened my definition of that particular four-letter word, and I now know that it really is possible - and preferable - to love more than one person at a time. In different ways and for different reasons, I love many people. Unconditionally. Even if they don't say "I love you too."
For those who don't share that perspective, Valentine's Day can be the loneliest day of the year. Tomorrow I will say "I love you" every chance I get, to the friends and family that I cherish and to folks who just look like they need it. I'll throw in some hugs too. 'Cause everybody needs love, yeah?
I love YOU! Happy Valentine's Day!
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.