Do you believe in love? Like it or not, Valentine's Day tends to bring a question like this to the forefront. Do you get excited about another Hallmark chance to express your amorous feelings to ones closest to you? Or does it feel like you are answering a knock at the door at 11:59pm? "This can't be anything good," you say to yourself peeking through a tiny peephole, "please go away."
I do believe in love. But I also think that any message of love as hope and possibility, love in the daytime, has to also acknowledge the dark side of love, love mixed with loss and pain, love in the dark parts of life.
Love in the dark does require different treatment, such as the possibility of a midnight marauder that could ransack your home. Embracing daytime love--love that's open and vulnerable--when in fact darkness has fallen upon love, can be the absolute fastest way to feel like you are about to die. It is dangerous. Many of you know what I am talking about. Your dance with love wasn't much of a dance. Some of you know what it feels like to have love kick your teeth out and walk all over you. Your feelings about Valentine's day wouldn't get past the blog censor. Hallmark hasn't figured a way to put this kind of love in a greeting card.
The Story of the Red Dress
When I was growing up we had one television. It was the vintage piece-of-furniture TV set that many people had where you turned a knob to tune into one of eight or ten main channels. Compared to the hundreds of crystal-clear channels on our vibrant plasma screen today, our TV was nothing like what we have now. Remember snow? We had a lot of it on that old set, which was really more a piece of furniture than anything resembling a television now. Thankfully, our kids don’t even know what “snow” is unless it’s the cold white stuff in winter!
In our house, and on that TV, we got three channels, in color and state-of-the-art, low-def clarity. One of them was PBS. It was WGBH, the Boston public television station, and if my Dad was watching TV, PBS was on all the time. Unlike the channels the rest of the family wanted to watch, our antennae received the PBS signal perfectly—there was not one blip of snow on the screen. The perfect torture for a kid! Shows like Victory Garden, Masterpiece Theatre, This Old House, Julia Childs, and the endless hum-drum of the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour were night-time regulars. Sure, we got our share of the TV for ourselves to watch M.A.S.H. and Magnum P.I. (after Dad started snoring) , but I can hear my inner eight-year-old still shriek if I see Norm Abrahams still running his band saw like it’s 1984.
Occasionally on PBS there was a guy named Leo Buscaglia. Compared to the “high drama” of Julia Childs watching her Boeuf Bourguignon simmer (or as we would say in Massachusetts, simma), Leo Buscaglia was complete comatose material to an eight-year-old. When I heard his voice, I’m sure I made a point of serendipitously discovering that G.I. Joe was in grave danger and needed my assistance in the basement.
Later, I would care much more about the kind of things Leo Buscaglia spoke about, the stories he told about love and suffering, the way he knew about daytime love and love in darkness.
There’s never a great year to get cancer. But if you are pulling numbers out of a hat and you were going to get cancer in that year, 1945 would not be a good number. In 1945 my father was fourteen years old. His mother had a habit of avoiding doctors, and when she was told that she had cancer, it was not the beginning of the end but the end of the end. She died less than two months later.
Sixty days goes by fast. It is precious little time to say goodbye to your mom. It's not enough time to bring a life to rest peacefully and prepare a family--if anyone can ever prepare--for the emptiness that will follow. Two months does not possibly let you know how your heart will ache for the rest of your life.
During those two months, my Dad tried to go to school but ended up in the boy’s bathroom, hysterical, until his older brother took him home. Like it has done to so many others, cancer tore out a piece of that little boy's heart and left a cold, empty void where once a mother had been. In a certain way for my Dad, Love went dark in 1945.
When my mom was six years old she woke up to loud voices and a scuffle in the kitchen between her parents. There was an argument. There was a gun. And there was violence. She must have been terrified standing there in her pajamas and pigtails, peeking. The secondary trauma, almost as damaging as the chronological events, was decades of silence and forgetting.
When an overdose of fear gets mixed into the concoction of our love attachments it creates a heavy emotional burden. My mom's dad died in 1981, also from an aggressive cancer that left little time to align thoughts and feelings peacefully. But the emotional life between her father and her, with all of its burdens and limitations, had perhaps long ago darkened her experience of love.
The chaos and trauma of the these events in my parent's childhood were far removed from mine, almost as distant and irrelevant to a kid as anything on PBS at 8 o’clock in the evening—until the night Leo Bascaglia told the story about the red dress. Although it had no discernible impact on me at the time, like some kind of invisible gamma rays from the sun, that broadcast seemed to resonate deeply in the core of my parent's strong attachment to each other.
Leo Buscaglia became known as “Dr. Love,” because love was all he ever talked about. And he always told stories. He was so good at telling stories that he had five books on the New York Times bestsellers list at the same time. PBS discovered his talent for storytelling and his ability to captivate and inspire people and regularly aired his talks during their otherwise vapid fundraising drives.
The story he told about the red dress is short and poignant.
A man’s wife told him for years that she wanted a red dress. The years went by and he never got it. The day that she died, her husband realized what he had lost, the opportunity he missed. He asked Dr. Buscaglia if he should buy a red dress now. He wanted to bury his wife in it. "Now," he thought, "I'll get her the red dress."
Leo Buscalia told this story to his audience in the PBS studio. His voice was full of emotion like a preacher pleading for the souls of his flock. He mopped at the sweat on his forehead as he told the sad story of love that was shattered and lost forever. Then, the noise that came out of him was somewhere between a cry and a scream that seemed to echo around the room in what seemed like the forever of two seconds.
“What are you waiting for!” he said, looking at us through the camera as though we should be getting out of our seats at that very moment. Those two seconds are a long time when Leo Buscalia is asking you a question that is really an exclamation. He went on, “If you have something to do, to say, to share, do it! You don’t have forever. The time is now! Now is the time to love!”
I could wonder if Leo Buscalia was crazy for preaching love in spite of all the obvious exceptions and caveats, the catastrophes and evil things that knock at our door in the middle of the night because of love. But I don't. I don't because my mom and dad somehow found a way to repackage what they were given, re-write their family's legacy, and hand me a version of love with no sharp objects hiding at the core. It's why I do what I do.
I understand why my Dad liked Leo's message so much and would repeat it to his sons at various points growing up. My parent's marriage, now for almost fifty years, almost seems to defy gravity itself. Given the broken shards of love that they were handed early in life they should have been a marital disaster. But Love, like our own solar system forged in wicked violence, somehow, miraculously, formed a center between them. I know it doesn't always work out like this and I hope you know that your voice is welcome here if your solar system seems barren and doesn't have life as we know it.
Back to my original question. Do you believe in love?
Let's ask the question a bit differently now. Will you answer the door when it's dark outside and you can't see love?
Even at 11:59pm?
Yes. It could be my parents.