A Lifetime of ValentinesbyJoeDreamer©
"Happy Valentine's Day Maddie," I said softly as I leaned over and kissed my wife of forty-nine years. Maddie was oblivious. Morphine did that to a person, morphine and the last stages of cancer.
"And Happy Anniversary," I added, kissing her again. I couldn't stop the tear from falling and landing on her cheek. I wiped it, but another took its place.
"I put your roses on the credenza near the window," I said, sitting in the chair I'd come to think of my own over the last month. It only seemed fair since I spent the bulk of that time sitting in it and watching my wife slowly die. "I tried to arrange them, but you know how bad I am at that."
I always bought Maddie two-dozen roses on Valentines Day. One dozen red because of the holiday and one dozen yellow for our anniversary. Maddie used to smile warmly and spend hours arranging them to perfection. I would have given every last dime I had to see that smile one more time.
"Kyle and Danny send their love," I said, wiping the tears from my eyes. "Danny is away on business and Kyle, well you know Kyle."
Both of our sons had grown into fine men. Kyle was the oldest and had a family of his own. Daniel was too busy conquering the world for a family. I worried about Danny being alone, but he had a good head on his shoulders.
Kyle was very close to his mother. He couldn't accept that she was dying despite Maddie's three-year battle with cancer. The truth was that it was a miracle she lasted this long. There was little I could do for him, but his wife Beth and children would help him through it when the time came.
I on the other hand, knew and accepted my wife's pending death. I didn't really have a choice, not after watching her decline these last few months. My problem was that I just didn't want to live without her.
"Good morning," a nurse I didn't know said as she walked in. "My name is Elli and I'm covering for Sandra today." She seemed vaguely familiar, but the name wasn't one I knew.
"John Hutchens," I said, offering my hand as I fought to regain control from my maudlin thoughts. She took my hand, but instead of shaking it, she squeezed it, letting me know she understood.
"What beautiful roses!" Elli said a moment later as she checked my Maddie's medicine and stats. "I'm sure the red ones are for Valentine's Day, but why the yellow?"
"Our anniversary," I answered in monotone. "Yellow roses are her favorite."
"How many years have you been married?" Elli asked. I frowned. She was a lot more inquisitive than Sandra.
"Forty-nine years today," I replied, and then added sadly, "Maddie wanted a big party on our fiftieth. She used to say that was why she fought so hard against the cancer."
Elli smiled sadly and nodded. I didn't need her to tell me that Maddie wouldn't live that long. My wife was only days away from dying, maybe hours. She had been for nearly a month.
"It sounds like Valentine's Day is very special to you both," Elli said gently. "Maybe she fought so hard these last weeks because she wanted to share one more with you."
"Maybe," I shrugged, but then nodded sadly and added, "It would be just like her. She saved all the important things for Valentine's Day."
"Really? Like what?" Elli asked. She was done checking on Maddie, but Elli didn't seem to be in a rush to leave. That was different too. Sandra or whoever else was covering Maddie's room never stayed very long.
"Well," I replied, smiling for the first time in a long time. "I learned about the pending births of all three of my children on Valentine's Day. It was funny with my youngest Danny because Maddie was nearly four months along. I knew she was pregnant with him almost from the beginning, but I let her tell me when she was ready."
"How old are your children?" Elli asked, making conversation. I knew it was a kindness. She must have seen my tears when she walked in.
"Kyle is forty-five," I replied. "And Daniel is thirty-five."
"And your third child?" she prompted.
"Elizabeth would be forty this year," I answered, losing my smile. "She died in a car crash when she was seventeen."
"I'm sorry," Elli said gently. I shrugged.
"It was a long time ago."
"So, what made Valentine's Day so special to Maddie?" the nurse asked, actually sitting down in the room's spare chair.
"Well," I said. "Part of that's my fault and part of it was fate."
"Fate?" she asked.
"We met, had our first kiss and were married on Valentine's Day," I smiled.
"I hope not all the same year!" Elli laughed.
"Actually, none of them happened the same year," I grinned. "It was ten years to the day I met her that we got married."
"And your first kiss and date?" she asked.
"Oh, that's a long story," I sighed.
"I have time," she replied confidently.
"What about your other patients?" I asked.
"The hall is pretty quiet today," she replied. "The other nurses will come and get me if they need me."
"You're being very kind, but it's not necessary," I said. "You don't have to sit hear and listen to an old man ramble on."
"I don't plan to," she smiled. "Maybe it's the holiday, but whatever the reason, I'm in the mood for a good love story and it sounds like you have one to tell."
"I'm not sure I want to share it," I said honestly after a brief hesitation.
"I know," Elli said cryptically. "But you need to. It will help you remember Maddie as she should be remembered, not like this."
"Are you studying psychology?" I frowned.
"Hardly!" Elli laughed. "Like I said, I just like a great love story."
"I don't know how great it is," I shrugged. "But it is very much a love story."
"Then tell me, please?" she asked again. I surprised myself by smiling and nodding.
"I haven't thought about how Maddie and I met and fell in love in quite a while," I began, but then grimaced and admitted, "Or should I say that I haven't let myself remember?"
"It doesn't matter," Elli said. "You're remembering now and that's all that counts."
"Come on mom!" I cried. "It's an upperclassman dance and I'm one of the few sophomores who got asked to go!"
"I'm sorry John," my mother replied. "But it's your cousin's wedding and we already responded that you were coming with us."
"What kind of sap gets married on Valentine's Day!" I snapped angrily.
"Your cousin Thomas," my mother replied. I could tell there was no point in arguing with my mother. It was her brother's son getting married.
"Dad, you understand?" I asked, turning to him. "Shelly Bonia asked me to go with her and she's a senior. If I don't go, she'll never speak to me again!"
"Is she the girl you've been mooning over for the last month?" my father asked.
"I wasn't mooning," I said in embarrassment. My father laughed and I continued quickly, "But I do like her."
"Then tell her why you can't make it and ask her out," my father shrugged. I looked back and forth between my two parents and tried to think of something to say that would convince them, but I knew it was pointless.
"I can't wait until I get out of this house!" I cried in frustration. "And live by my own rules!"
"That's nice dear," my mother said, only making me angrier.
I told Shelly I couldn't go to the dance the next day at school. She was surprisingly good about it, but that didn't stop her from asking one of my best friends instead. I was so mad that I barely spoke with my parents for the next two weeks.
"You look nice," my mother said as I climbed into the car wearing the new suit she bought me for the wedding. I grunted and she shook her head.
"John, don't you think it's about time you stopped moping?" my father frowned. I didn't bother to answer and he rolled his eyes.
The drive should have taken an hour, but of course it took two because of an accident. We barely made it to the church on time and the mass was long and boring. I was sitting next to my mother checking out the girls on the other side of the aisle. I couldn't find one that looked close to my age.
I noticed that my cousin Jenna wasn't anywhere to be seen. She was the only cousin close to my age and we got along, but she was probably home watching her younger sister. Lucky her!
I was so bored and distracted that I almost missed the bride suddenly bursting into tears and running out of the church when it was time to say the vows. The room filled with a not so low murmur.
"Oh my!" my mother said.
"Poor Thomas," my father added.
"It serves him right for ruining my chances with Shelly..." I began, but my father cut me off.
"That's about enough of that!" he snapped, surprising me. Pop wasn't the type to get angry easily. "I know you're fifteen, but do you think you can break away from your self absorption long enough to feel for someone else?"
"This was supposed to be Thomas's special day," my mother put in. "The day he married the woman he loved. Now all it will be is a painful memory."
My parents fell silent and I looked around the church. People on both sides of the aisle looked upset. My aunt Eve was in tears and my uncle Charlie was doing his best to console her. The bride's mother looked mortified and confused. She obviously had no idea her daughter was having doubts.
"I'm sorry," I said a few moments later, realizing just what kind of a jerk I was being. My father nodded and my mother patted my hand.
"I'd better go help Charlie with Eve," she said before standing and making her way toward my uncle and aunt.
We spent another half hour in the church before the bride's father stood at the podium, apologized and called off the wedding. The church emptied very quickly. I wasn't sure where we were going. Neither was my father. We waited for mom by the entrance.
"We're going back to Charlie's," she said without preamble. "Thomas and his brother are on their way there. We'll probably be sleeping over." I took a step toward the car, but mom stopped me.
"John, you're not coming," she said. "There isn't enough room for everybody. You're going with aunt Judy. She has a spare bed and only lives twenty minutes away. We'll pick you up tomorrow."
"I really am sorry," I said, surprising myself.
"I know John," my mother smiled sadly. "It's okay. Be good and we'll see you soon."
The trip to aunt Judy's house was uneventful with the exception that she spent the bulk of the time gossiping about the family. I learned more of our family's little dirty secrets then I knew existed!
"Your cousin Jenna is home watching little Francine," uncle Karl said during one of the few breaks in aunt Judy's diatribe. "Her friend Madeline is keeping her company. She's sleeping over tonight."
'Oh great!' I thought. 'This should be fun!' I was certain it was going to be a long night. 'Just what I need! Two giggling girls!'
"Don't worry," my uncle laughed after seeing my expression. "They'll probably hide out in Jenna's room when we get home."
"You know," aunt Judy said with a smirk. "Madeline is a very nice girl."
"I'm sure she is," I said, hiding my groan.
"She's cute too," uncle Karl put in. This caught my interest. "Strawberry blond hair and she plays soccer."
"What's that have to do with anything?" Aunt Judy asked. The two argued for the few minutes we remained in the car. I ignored them. Uncle Karl and aunt Judy were always arguing, but it didn't mean anything.
"Hello John," my cousin Jenna said in surprise when we entered the house. Her parents explained what happened and Jenna shook her head sadly.
"Poor Thomas," she said.
"Go introduce your cousin to Madeline," my aunt said in that tone. Jenna and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. My aunt either ignored or missed it. She added, "Your father and I are going upstairs to get changed."
I heard giggling in the other room as we neared and fought back a groan. I walked into the living room and saw that it was little Francine laughing, not Madeline. That was a relief! I really hated giggly girls. Madeline was tickling my younger cousin unmercifully.
"Madeline," Jenna called, getting the girl's attention. "This is my cousin John."
The strawberry blond let go of Francine and stood to meet me. She looked a little embarrassed. I couldn't tell if it was because we caught her tickling Francine or just because of meeting me.
"Hi," she said, smiling gently. I smiled back and stared into her eyes. For some reason I was expecting blue or green even, but they were a soft brown.
"John?" my cousin prompted with a frown. I blinked and suddenly realized I was staring.
"Hello Maddie," I said as if nothing odd had happened.
"No one calls me that," she said with a frown.
"Don't worry," I grinned. "You'll get used to it."
"John!" Francine cried and jumped into my arms before Madeline could retort. I hugged my younger cousin and gave her a quick kiss, but my eyes kept drifting back to Maddie.
"Sorry to ruin your night," I said once Francine let me go.
"You're not ruining anything," Jenna smiled. "Now there are four of us and we can play charades!"
"Oh no!" Madeline cried.
"Don't bother arguing," I laughed. "Jenna loves charades."
"I know," the strawberry blond moaned. "She beats me every time!"
"Oh will you two stop complaining!" Jenna laughed. "You can be a team and I'll play with Francine."
"I guess we'll have to humor her," Maddie said.
"If we must," I sighed loudly.
"She is my best friend and your cousin."
"Are you two done yet?" Jenna asked with a raised eyebrow.
The game actually ended up being fun for a change. The teams were pretty even and Madeline was a good guesser. Somewhere in the middle Uncle Karl and aunt Judy joined us and formed a third team. Uncle Karl also gave me a pair of sweats and a tee shirt to change into. They were big, but at least I was able to get out of my suit!
I spent much of the time stealing glances at Madeline. She was wearing flannel pajamas just like the other girls, but I thought she still looked amazing in them. I think she saw me looking, but she never said anything.
The game ended and uncle Karl and Aunt Judy went to bed. It was getting late. They took a complaining Francine with them.
"What do you want to play now?" I asked, not ready to go to sleep and not wanting the night to end.
"I'm getting hungry," Jenna said. "I think I'm going to sneak into the kitchen and make us some snacks. Why don't you two play a game without me?"
"Don't you want help?" Madeline asked. Jenna smiled and shook her head.
"So Maddie, what do you want to play?" I asked as my cousin disappeared.
"Call me Madeline," she said, but I thought she was smiling slightly.
"Howe about we play..." I began, but she cut me off.
"Let's play chess," she said. "Jenna hates the game and I haven't played in a while."
"Okay," I shrugged and we set up the board. Madeline was very good. I loved watching her stare intently at the board. She beat me the first game pretty handily.
"She cheats!" Jenna said as she rejoined us with a bowl of popcorn and some drinks.
"I do not!" the strawberry blond snapped.
"Maybe not," I grinned. "But you lie! You said you haven't played in a while."
"I haven't!" Maddie argued.
"Didn't you say you beat your father for the first time recently?" Jenna asked helpfully. Her friend gave her a nasty look.
"That was last week!"
"And a week isn't recent?" I asked.
"Not considering how often she normally plays!" Jenna laughingly answered.
"Do you mind if we play again?" I asked my cousin.
"No," she shrugged. "It will be fun to watch her trounce someone other than me for a change!"
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," I frowned, causing both girls to laugh.
"How about we make a bet?" I asked Madeline.
"What kind of bet?"
"Well if I win, you be my valentine and let me call you Maddie," I smiled. "If you win, I'll call you Madeline."
"Deal!" she grinned.
We were only a few moves in when she took one of my knights. A few moves later I lost a bishop. I finally took one of her pawns, but she took my queen the next turn.
"This is almost too painful to watch!" Jenna laughed. "She's killing you!" I shrugged and remained silent.
I watch Madeline's face. She was so intent on boxing in my king that she barely paid attention to my moves. I saw her smile triumphantly when I didn't protect my other bishop. She took it and Jenna shook her head. I moved my remaining rook across the board and ended the game.
"Maddie, that's checkmate," I smiled.
"What?" my cousin asked in disbelief as she stared at the board. Madeline shook her head as she realized what I'd done.
"He let me take most of his major pieces while he maneuvered me into checkmate," she said.
"Sometimes a good offense is not necessarily a good defense," I put in.
"Let's play again!" she demanded.
"Another time," I said.
"Chicken!" Jenna laughed.
"Maybe," I shrugged. "But I won the bet, didn't I Maddie?"
"Yes," she said with another shake of her head. "Just don't let my mother hear you call me that. She hates that name!"
"I won't," I grinned. "Maybe I'll just call you 'my valentine' in front of her?"
"Oh brother!" Jenna snorted.
We stayed up until four o'clock in the morning playing games and watching television. Jenna was the first to poop and go to sleep. Maddie and I got into a marathon game of monopoly. I didn't want it to end but eventually one of us won and it was time to go to bed.
My parents came by relatively early the next day. They said my cousin was doing as best as could be expected. We shared brunch with uncle Karl and Aunt Judy before leaving.
"You owe me a game of chess," Madeline said with a smile as I grabbed my coat. "To see who's better."
"That's easy. You are," I smiled, and then laughed and added, "Unless of course we make a bet."
"Happy Valentine's Day," Maddie laughed with a shake of her head. She surprised me by leaning forward and giving me a quick peck on the cheek.
"Happy Valentine's Day!" I nearly stuttered. I took one last look at Maddie before saying good-bye and leaving.
My parents and I were on the road soon afterward. My mother and father told me some of the details of what happened. I didn't really pay that much attention. I was thinking about Maddie. It was too bad she lived forty minutes away.
"Did you ever get a chance to play that chess game?" the nurse asked me as I came back to myself from my memories.
"Eventually, but not until years later," I replied, taking Maddie's hand in mine and squeezing as I smiled down at her.
The cancer ravaged my wife's body until she was only a shell of her former self. Her hair was gone and her complexion was yellow and jaundiced. It was sad, but I could still see my Maddie there despite it all.
"When did you meet next?" Elli asked.
"Not bored yet?" I asked.
"Hardly," she replied with a smile.
"Okay," I shrugged, finding myself enjoying the memories despite the pain they caused. "But there really isn't much to tell."
"John! You came!" my cousin Jenna cried.
"I told Jill that we had to at least stop by," I smiled. "Otherwise you'd make my life a living hell!"
"You've got that right!" Jenna laughed.
"Jenna, this is my girlfriend Jill," I said in introduction. "Jill, this is my cousin Jenna."
"Nice to meet you," Jill said.
"You too!" Jenna smiled. "Welcome to the first annual Leighton Valentine's Day party!"
"First annual?" I laughed.
"I plan on keeping the tradition going," Jenna grinned.
"One year is not a tradition," I argued.
"It is if I say so," she retorted.
"I believe you," I laughed, holding my hand up defensively. "It's too bad I'll be in the army this time next year. I'll miss the party."
"Still planning on joining up?" my cousin frowned. She didn't like the idea of me becoming a soldier. Neither did Jill so I quickly changed the subject.