February 14. It’s only one day, after all, but expectations run high. Candy, flowers, candlelight. Music, movies, sex. A ride on love’s express, arms outstretched, waiting to capture the golden ring. One day in winter’s dark month to wish and hope and celebrate. So swiftly here and gone, which makes me wonder about the nature of expectations and the truth that underscores love.

Media campaigns convince us that heart-shaped valentines spell that truth, that a Hallmark card and an expensive bottle of wine equal the forever-love we all seek. I don’t believe it. Love, the kind we aspire to possess, lies deep below the superficial. It is mined from disappointment and grief, displayed in defeat and disaster, exposed when despair is replaced by hope.

I’m as romantic as the next person, some might say more. Last year I planned a special dinner, bought the perfect card, hoped that roses might appear by my plate. But life has a way of changing the most carefully laid plans. Right, Robert Burns? As Sunday morning rolled us toward delight, my mother-in-law struggled to breathe. By early afternoon, we were called to transport her to the emergency room. And that is where I spent my Valentine’s Day, interpreting the nurses’ comments (MIL is very hard of hearing), texting family members as the lab results came back, planning the week around the order to hospitalize. Romance took a back seat to familial love. Sitting beside her, watching her struggle to oxygenate, I thought about real love. Real love doesn’t flutter in and out, a naked baby with a bow seeking a tender soul to dazzle. Real love resides in the nitty gritty, down and dirty everyday actions that make up our lives. It fills the wrinkles in our lives, the creases in our souls.

Now, a year later, both my MIL and my own mother (in their 90s, God bless them) are approaching that end point of this earthly life, and I am wallowing in paperwork associated with their various needs, financial, legal, spiritual. Is it love that drives me on? Is it love that sustains me during the long hours, the Internet searches, the endless pieces of their lives spelled out in forms and documents? Even as I write this, I’m thinking about those cards we used to write for classmates: Be true. Be Mine. Kiss me. I think I’ll compose a special valentine letter for each of them, a tribute to their longevity and the contribution each has made to my love of life.

Twang! The arrow lifts free from the string and wings toward a target. I follow the arc, leaping from the practical problems of my very real life to the crafted lives of my characters, I search for incidents and events that reveal genuine love, the kind that holds us afloat, lights our personal darkness, shines brightest when the lights go out. There, that’s a forever Valentine we can believe in.