The Last Valentine
by Pastor Dan White
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Was it really two months ago? Family and friends had gathered. Church people brought food - cakes, casseroles, beef roasts, and fried chicken - all lovingly prepared. Thank you cards had been mailed. And now, a dark loneliness set in. Everyone had left to return to their own families and routines, and now she was alone.
The long January night with its shortened hours of sunshine sure didn’t help either. The house was deafeningly quiet. His chair was empty. The table set for only one. What was the point of even fixing anything for one?
She reached for the TV changer. They only watched two or three channels in spite of the multitude of choices available. She scrolled up to the cable news channel they had always watched together.
Often her husband talked back to the commentator as if they could hear each other. It was a lively debate each night. She really didn’t care for it, but she just wanted to be with him. Sometimes, it was interesting. Most of the time, the ranting bored her. On this Saturday night, the commentator’s fuming only deepened her solitude. She channel surfed and paused on a few stations. One TV preacher appealed momentarily to her, but when he started his pitch for money, she kept on surfing. Nothing interested her. She turned off the TV.
Politics and the economy didn’t seem to matter anymore. Nothing really mattered anymore. The man who she had shared her life with for forty-eight years was gone.
She picked up the phone to call her daughter who lived four hundred or so miles away in another state. “No,” that wouldn’t do either, she thought. “She has her own life. Her own husband and family. I can’t be bothering them to fill my emptiness.”
She turned on the lamp to read. Two magazines lay on the coffee table in front of her. She picked up the Better Homes, thumbed through it, and put it down. She tried finding something to read in Southern Living. But, it was no use.
It was too early to go to bed like she did the night before. She woke up at 3AM and couldn’t go back to sleep. “Might as well get up and make a pot of coffee and read my Bible,” she said to herself.
That was how her day had started. And, she had made it through. But now the long night had come again. Even though it was only 8 o’clock, she went to the bedroom to prepare for bed.
She looked in the closet to get her gown. On the opposite side, his clothes still hung there waiting for him. She spotted his favorite winter flannel shirt and took it off the hanger. She could see him in it. She put it on and went to bed feeling close to him again. Sensing his closeness, Beatrice drifted off to sleep.
Beatrice was an old fashioned name like Eula, Earline, Nettie, and Velma. And, most everyone had a nickname. Hers was Bee. Her best friend was called Boots.
The boys had nicknames too. There was Skeeter, always full of mischief. Cooter was as slow as his namesake, the turtle. He was slow in the school races, slow in school, and slow to get his chores done. There was Stick, Runt, and Wormy too. But those old names and those old days had long passed.
Bee still looked forward to Sundays. They broke up the monotony of the week and gave her a chance to be with people.
But even church was changing. She didn’t like the new hymns they projected on the screen. She liked the old ones and the feel of a hymn book in her hands. She knew all of the old ones by heart but stumbled through the new praise choruses.
Bee was hoping that it wasn’t 3AM again when she awoke. To her surprise, she had slept until 6 o’clock. A big improvement! When the first light of morning crept into her window, it didn’t seem as cold and grey as previous mornings.
She easily found a parking place and walked quickly to her Sunday School class on the cold, cloudless, and blustery January morning.
Her Sunday School class was missing many of the long time members. Too many funerals. Nothing was the same anymore. Autumn had turned to the bleakness of winter which had come to her with brutal force.
All of the young couples except for a few had moved to the suburbs and abandoned the once proud church. New people moving into the area had no interest in the old neighborhood. They were flocking to the new residential developments in the suburbs and to the suburban churches springing up everywhere. They had all of the children's programs and the young pastor. Bee’s church just couldn’t compete with them. Her church was growing old.
After church, she and her long time friend who lost her husband about a year ago went out for dinner. They enjoyed the companionship and even managed a laugh or too telling old stories that they shared.
Bee pulled up in her driveway and looked at the house she and her husband had worked so hard to pay off and where they had raised their daughter. But now, it looked so big and so empty.
Sunday afternoons were hard. She remembered as a child growing up in the country how family and friends used to visit in the front room by the fireplace in the winter or sit on the front porch in the summer while she and the other girls played hop scotch and the boys played marbles or mumblety-peg. “Where did those Sundays go?” she asked herself. They had passed quickly away like a morning winter’s frost rapidly dissipating under the morning sun.
Only two months ago? That too seemed like yesterday, and yet it seemed like forever ago.
She looked out the picture window into the bleak mid-winter afternoon. The sun cast long shadows through the trees in the well-kept yard.
Rayford always was so meticulous and proud of his yard. “Washed, starched, and ironed,” he would say proudly on spring and summer Saturday afternoons after the weekly yard work was done.
He was the most handsome man she had ever seen - a far cry from Skeeter, the boy she had had a teenage crush on.
It was a hot day in August 1960. She was at the downtown diner where she and some other girls from the office had lunch each day.
Annie poked Bee in the side. “Hey, check him out. I haven’t seen him in here before.”
One look was all it took for Bee. Cupid’s arrow hit the target.
They were like two school children. She would gaze at him, and then he would glance at her causing her to blush and look away.
After several days of hide and seek, Bee told the girls that she wanted a table by herself. They giggled and obliged her.
Sure enough, Rayford McDowell, swallowed the bait. “Mind if I join you?”
Bee’s heart pounded so loudly to the point that she feared he would be able to count the beats. She tried to hide her blush.
They continued their rendezvous for lunch for several weeks.
Rayford was all she could think about. Each morning flowed like molasses in December until finally, it was time for lunch and time to go to the diner. He was on her mind night and day, day and night. The first thought in the morning, The last thought at night.
In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm,
And let us hear no sound of human strife
After the click of the shutting. Life to life--
I lean upon thee, dear, without alarm,
And feel as safe as guarded by a charm.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
And now that he was gone, he was all she could think about. Day and night; night and day.
Night and day, you are the one
Only you beneath the moon or under the sun
Whether near to me, or far
Its no matter darling where you are
I think of you.
Looking out the window that winter Sunday afternoon, the image of spring suddenly filled her reverie. Flowers budded. The little house wrens built their nest under the front porch’s eve. Love was in the air.
Her thoughts carried her back to a beautiful spring Saturday morning, April 22, 1961, when she married Rayford only eight months after they had met in the diner. She was 25.
Just a few family members and friends gathered in the pastor’s study to witness the exchange of vows. Bee’s mom and dad were there. He was a hard working, small time tobacco farmer near Mullins, SC, in the Pee Dee region where tobacco flourished. He had little left over for a fancy wedding.
They spent a weekend honeymoon at Folly Beach near Charleston, SC, in a beach house. It was too chilly to swim in mid-April, but the warmth between them glowed as they walked the beach together.
The happy couple returned to their little rental house and began making a life together in Columbia where they eventually bought their dream home.
Forty-eight years of happy images whirred through Bee’s mind that Sunday afternoon. She sensed a smile forming faintly until it grew from ear-to-ear. It felt good to smile again.
There had been so many tears over the past weeks. Sometimes she was so overwhelmed with sorrow, that she broke down unable to stop crying . Even when she told herself to stop, she couldn’t control herself.
Bee walked into the bedroom and over to the chest of drawers. It was the middle drawer. She retrieved the shoebox stuffed with pictures and notes and all sorts of assorted memories.
“I’ve got to get these things organized,” she thought. “But, not today.”
Bee returned to her chair with the box and cast her eyes over to his chair. It was like he was still there watching his Sunday football game while she busied herself with reading, solving a crossword puzzle, or crocheting.
A peace swept over her emotions as she eagerly opened the box to dig into its forgotten treasures. It had been almost a year since she had rummaged through it.
Sitting on top of the nostalgia was an envelope with a card in it.
She put the box in her lap and looked at the inscription on the envelope.
“To Bee, always making honey for me.”
She laughed to herself. “He could be so silly sometimes,” she mused. That’s one thing she loved about him.
She withdrew the card and opened it. She had forgotten about it. How glad she was to have saved it!
I love you all through February,
Not just on Valentine’s Day;
I cherish you when flowers of spring
Appear in the midst of May.
I adore you in the summer,
When the air is filled with heat;
Without you in my life each day,
I wouldn’t be complete.
I treasure you in fall,
When leaves are turning gold;
I loved you when you were younger;
I’ll love you when you’re old.
I prize you in the winter,
When colder days are here;
I love you, love you all the time,
Every minute of the year.
So I’ll give to you this Valentine,
But I want to let you know,
It’s not just today, but always,
That I will love you so.
- (signed) your loving husband, Rayford, with this inscription after his name, “the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13).
“I prize you in winter, when colder days are here,” she read aloud to herself as a tear formed and trickled down her smiling face. The tear was the rain. The smile was the rainbow.
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine,
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Yes, the winter of her life had come. Death’s cruel hand took him away. Yet, God was giving her the rainbow of promise.
Trixie roused from her nap, stretched, and walked over to Bee for a scratch. “O my goodness. It’s time for your supper.”
Bee walked into the kitchen and their Boston Terrier pranced and danced in excitement as the can opener whirred. “There you are. Enjoy,” she laughed. Trixie too missed Rayford. She had moped around whining for days, but here lately, her grief seemed to be abating.
That Sunday afternoon passed quickly for Bee - quicker than any of the others since that day.
Spring follows winter. The darkness was lifting and the snow was thawing giving way to rebirth.
Living in the past is like trying to grasp the wind. But, thinking of the past, Bee felt God’s goodness and that sorrow has its sweetness. She prayed for the Lord to keep her today and tomorrow.
Bee had found the usual platitudes about her loss and subsequent sorrow to be about as useful as the advice of Job’s friends after Job’s horrific losses.
“Time heals all wounds,” some told her. But, the hole in her heart never completely healed.
“You’ll find someone else.” Bee thought about that remark a friend had said to her and was happy for her that her friend had found another companion. But, such words were of little comfort to her.
One Sunday, a widower came to sit down by Bee at church. For a moment, she felt that she might be interested. But, she excused herself, walked out, got in her car, went home, and watched a local church service on TV. “I ain’t studying’ no man - at least not right now,” she said to herself.
“He’s waiting for you up there in heaven.” That’s what the preacher said at the funeral. “He may be waiting for me up there, but I’ve still got to live down here,” Bee wrote, somewhat perturbed, in her journal a few days after the funeral.
In the months that followed the discovery of the last Valentine, Bee slowly but surely accepted the new reality that Rayford was physically gone and could never be replaced.
She still had her down days especially on birthdays, holidays and sick days. The house was still way too quiet especially at night. It took a long time not to jump at every creak and groan that the house sometimes made. She was thankful for Trixie who had made her way into the bed and slept peacefully at her feet.
With the help of a few true friends who ministered Christ’s love to her through hugs and understanding, she recognized that her new reality was her permanent reality. Loyal hearts can change the face of sorrow and softly encircle it with love’s gentle radiance.
Bee couldn’t maintain life as it was before that awful day. Her life was forever changed, and she decided by the grace of God to rediscover herself like spring rediscovers life after the dead of winter.
She was drawn to a Bible passage in Ecclesiastes chapter 3. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
The seasons change. Life changes and can change fast. Nothing remains the same. But the one constant through it all is the never-changing love of Christ and the love she felt from Rayford - even after his death.
She knew the winter was long but that life would eventually be born again. Just as a beautiful iris takes time to bloom in the spring after its dark winter stay in the ground, so she found that she could not instantly get over the loss and loneliness that followed Rayford’s death.
She began to take a great interest in prayer after reading about Anna the eighty-four year old widow in Luke 2:37 who never left the Temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
Bee even bought a computer at the insistence of her daughter so that her daughter could share pictures of her grandchildren and messages through email. Bee became computer savvy after taking free classes at one of the suburban churches. She connected with pastors and missionaries from around the world offering them encouragement and prayers.
Bee incarnated the truth in 2 Corinthians 1:4-5. “We can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” God gave her the gift of comfort - a gift that she had never possessed until after her agonizing loss.
One young husband in her church was devastated when his wife left him for another man. Bee was there for him helping him through the grief of a broken family and assisting him in processing the pain.
Bee knew from her experience that you just could not “snap your fingers” and get over it. In some ways, she found that she could never get over Rayford’s death. She had to grieve and work through all the pain.
Bee discovered that it is not time that heals all wounds. Instead, it is Christ’s wounds that heal suffering making us like Him in his suffering and death and conforming us to His image however painful that may be. The blood from his stripes and wounded side are the balm of Gilead. And, relationships from loving and caring people helped restore her life anew.
She found the strength from love to begin loving others again. She crocheted heart shaped afghans to give to the sick and bereaved. She sent out notes of encouragement to the disheartened and always remembered birthdays with a card.
She eventually went on a few dinner dates with the widower from church and seriously considered his offer to go on a Caribbean cruise together. But, she wasn’t ready for that - at least not now.
Bee still had her “down days.” Her life had changed forever. So, she kept the ‘last Valentine’ in the drawer of her night stand. And sometimes after a bad day, she would get it out and read again, “It’s not just today, but always, That I will love you so. The greatest of these is love.” She then could lay her head on her pillow and drift off to sleep hugged in the love of Rayford and the love of God through Christ.
'Tis my happiness below
Not to live without the cross,
But the Savior's power to know,
Sanctifying every loss;
Trials must and will befall;
But with humble faith to see
Love inscribed upon them all,
This is happiness to me.
- William Cowper (1731-1800)
Rev. Dan White is a free-lance writer and founder and pastor of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Wonderful! Heartwarming! Certainly will be a source of comfort and solace to readers who have lost loved ones. Glad you choose to submit it to this section of FW. You were able to bypass the word count and expand the story. Even though the anti-climax came somewhere in the middle, you managed to grab my interest again in the end. Great writing, great story!
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What a wonderful, very readable story, heart-wrenching and charming both. You certainly got inside the thoughts and feelings of Bee and made her and her husband seem as real as family members. I hope you're able to publish this for a wide audience. Thank you!
I loved reading this beautiful and poignant story. What a hope-filled message.