Dead broke and riding home from Tampa halfway between paydays in my late husband’s Dodge Ram I wasn’t sure what we were going to do.
It was 1982 and we’d only been together a little over a year. Together we had seven kids, three elderly parents we helped out both physically and financially, and a whole lot of bills.
He fished commercially. I was a freelance writer.
Neither of us had a steady enough income to count on and now, the fish we had just sold had brought less than half of what we’d expected. Worse yet- we weren’t going to be paid for them for three more days.
Food was scarce, and the gas tank of the truck nearly empty. The five-gallon gas can in the back had to be saved for the boat.
I remember the sound the home-made boat trailer made when it went over the tracks. The strike boat was on it, the one he used to make the circle around schools of fish when he threw the net.
Clack-clack, went the trailer. Bang-bang went the boat.
The rain started coming down softly, tapping on the metal roof of the truck. This was really bad timing, because when it rained, he caught the most fish, and we weren’t anywhere near a ramp where we could put the boat in the water. Besides, we had to get home and see to the kids. Somebody who knew how to cook a meal with practically nothing had to get there before too much more time went by. Mullet and grits. All-the-leftovers-stew. Tea if there was any sugar left. Water if there wasn’t.
I was silent, depressed and afraid, which wasn’t normal for me. Usually, I was able to take hard times with a shrug. After all, just a few years before that I’d come to Florida with three kids, $300, and everything we could fit in- or strap onto- my 12-year-old Ford Torino. Even then I’d made jokes and laughed as we headed for my friend’s eating peanut butter sandwiches and drinking from a jug of Kool Aid instead of stopping anywhere for meals.
Once, to break the monotony without spending any money, I’d stopped at a lake somewhere near Chattanooga, Tennessee, and we’d all taken a swim in the beautiful deep blue water and then closed the trunk over the edge of our wet clothes and let them flap dry in the wind as we sailed down Lookout Mountain between a line of honking semi-trucks.
“Why are you stopping?” I asked as my husband pulled onto the side of the road. We were only about halfway home.
Without a word, he got out and went over to an old man sitting under a blue tarp who was selling bouquets of roses. When he returned to the truck, he had a single red rose.
“A single rose means ‘I love you forever,’ ” he said, handing it to me.
Suddenly, I was laughing. The $3 he’d paid was probably the last cash in his pocket.
That’s how the tradition of the single red rose came to our house.
Every Valentines Day, Mother’s Day or other special time after that, he’d get me a single red rose. But he never remembered a card- not on birthdays, or any holiday.
So I started buying our cards. “This card means ‘I love you forever,’ ” I’d write and leave it for him by the coffee pot or on his pillow. We worked different hours, so more often than not he’d find it when I wasn’t home.
He started the custom of writing on the same card I’d given him and leaving it someplace for me to find. Over the years, he wrote all kinds of little notes and simple poems next to, or across from, what I had written. Sometimes he’d just write “Love you always,” and sign his name.
Every time I bought a card, he’d write on it and give it back to me. Our kids thought it was funny. Our parents thought it was cheap.
But the last Valentine’s Day my mother was alive, she bought a card that said to “My Daughter” and she wrote “And Son” on it.
I knew she had finally gotten the point.
Valentines Day 2003 went badly. I had a full time job by then and I’d worked all day and didn’t even think about getting a card until I walked in the door. Too much was going on in life.
I knew I wouldn’t get my rose that year because my husband could no longer get out of bed. I entered the house – suddenly remembered the card- went to my briefcase and got a single sheet of paper from my reporter’s notebook and somehow found a red marker. I folded the paper in half.
“Happy Valentines Day Sweetie” I wrote on the front in the best script I could manage.
Inside, I drew a picture of a single red rose. It’s one of the few things I can actually draw.
When I handed it to him, he insisted on being helped to a sitting position so he could write on the card. By then it wasn’t easy to move him without causing pain.
“Me 2” was all he could write before he dropped the pen and lay back against the pillows. Even that little bit had taken a whole lot of energy.
The next day, I stopped at the florist and got the most beautiful red rose she had and one of those inch-long cards that florists put in their bouquets. On it, I wrote simply: “Always.”
Valentine’s Day was over. Maybe the florist had over-ordered. She gave it to me free.
I thought of the $3 rose he had bought back in the day when $3 had meant so, so much more.
My Valentine’s Day rose sat in its small green vase next to his bed long after it had died. The petals gradually fell off, yet no one removed them, or threw out the naked stem.
My sweetheart died the next month, and on the table next to his bed, with several now-blackened rose petals, under bottles of pain medications and half-filled water glasses with bendy-straws, was the water-stained card.
“Always,” it read.
I put it in my purse without looking at it closely.
Days later, after his death, I took it out and held it to my cheek. As I went to return it to my wallet where it still resides, now too faded to read, I noticed on the back that it said, “Me 2.”
How he had written it, I’ll never know.
*Tell your dear ones you love them today.