Growing up,Valentine’s Day was one of my favorites. It was what I liked to think of a sneaky holiday. My parents would always get me something small as a way to remind me that I am loved. Usually the gift was a book or something silly like a pair of festive socks. It was never about the gift. It was never a ‘big deal’ with lots of wrapping paper and preparation. It was more a small gesture and a reminder. It was always waiting at the table when I woke up.
In middle school / high school, my hopeless romantic came out full force and I began to look forward to Valentine’s Day because it was a chance to profess one’s love, or have one’s loved professed to you with with a color coded rose. Remember… white for a secret admirer, red for love, and pink for friendship?
As I got older, there were moments when my inner cynic surfaced, grumbling about being told when I should tell someone that I love them. Shouldn’t we be sharing love with those around us everyday?!? However, that cynic was more likely my stingy self talking; not wanting to buy a $4 card that was just going to get thrown away.
When the kids were born, memories of my childhood joy around Valentine’s Day resurfaced and I wanted to share that joy with them. However, my stingy self was nearby and I didn’t want to fall into the pattern of buying flowers and chocolates because that was on the shelves. I wanted it to be more about the sentiment.
Somewhere along the line, Ziggy and I decided to divide and conquer. Rylie was his Valentine and Tanner was mine.
I think Rylie enjoyed Valentine’s with the same childlike joy that I did. Ziggy often would get her a cute little stuffed animal and always a card. One year, he bought her a little necklace. She would snuggle that stuffed animal for the entire year and wore the necklace regularly - I guess the sentiment won over the marketing in that situation.
Tanner’s joy over the holiday is not as pronounced, but I still think it’s important to him - somewhere deep down. When he was little I’d get him a toy car or figurine. As he got older, it would be a book or some hockey cards. The gift always included some sort of written note or card.
Then somewhere else along the line, I decided to start a new Valentine’s tradition with the kids - one of those traditions where I’m not sure who likes it more, them or me. We continued to do small gifts for each kid, but on February 13th, I would sit down and cut out tons of hearts from colored paper. I’d break out my markers and write notes on each heart to each of the kids.
Each heart includes something I love about them as a person, a memory from the year, something I appreciate or admire about them, a dream I have for them, etc. There have been several years, where I grumbled when it was 11 o’clock at night and I realized I hadn’t done their hearts yet. But each year, that grumbling was silenced by the reactions to the process.
Each Valentine’s morning, I’d get up super early and roll tons of pieces of tape in order to stick the hearts on their bedroom doors. They would wake up and I remember seeing the joy on their faces at the transformation of their doors. I also remember having to read the statements aloud to them as Rylie was early in her school career and Tanner hadn’t yet learned to read.
There is something powerful about putting ideas like that into visible words - at least for a wordy like me. It gives me a moment to realize how often I think those words, but how rarely I say them out loud or really acknowledge the person they’re about.
It gives me a chance to reflect on the year and flesh out moments where I’ve seen my kids grow, mature, show resilience, and make me laugh.
It forces me to be intentional about articulating the little things that makes each of my children unique and shining a light of appreciation on those qualities.
The year after the first door decorating extravaganza, I realized that both kids still had many of their hearts hanging on their doors! The hearts were warped and curling. Some had fallen off, but they were still there and occasionally, I’d catch one of them reading them as they walked into their room. That’s when I knew I was in it for the long haul. I’ve done it every year since.
Last year, as expected, was tough. I didn’t want to cut out only one set of hearts. I wanted to cut two and write messages to BOTH of my kids. I wanted to see Rylie’s eyes sparkle with joy and maybe a little bit of disbelief as she read the messages. But, I also knew that I had to cut out one set. It was probably more important that year, than any other, to shower Tanner with love.
So I pulled on my big girl pants, grabbed a box of tissues, and sat down to cut out half as many hearts… I forced myself to focus on Tanner instead of the fact that there were missing hearts. I told myself that I would get through his hearts and then determine if I cut out more for Rylie even though she wouldn’t ever get to read them. The exercise was painful, but it was just as good, if not better, than years before. I needed the reminder just as much as Tanner did. It was a beautiful opportunity to pause and reflect on all of the amazing things that make Tanner, Tanner.
I cried while I wrote. I struggled at points, to figure out what to write - not because there weren’t things to say about him, but simply because sometimes it’s just hard to see the sunshine through the grayness of grief. I was also used to writing one heart for Rylie and then one for Tanner, so the rhythm felt off. But I made it through.
When I was done making Tanner’s hearts, I remember sitting there and feeling silly and guilty all at the same time. I wanted to cut out hearts for Rylie and hang them on her door, but that just felt too weird. It will always be her room and her door, but it’s transitioned. I knew she couldn’t read the hearts and it felt crazy to make everyone else that walked past her door read hearts meant for her eyes. At the same time, I felt guilty not acknowledging the girl that I love so much and that has taught me more than I thought imaginable.
So I tweaked the tradition… I cut out one large heart and wrote Rylie a letter. I poured out my heart; telling her how much I missed her and all of the things that I will always love about her. I shared the regret that I have in not knowing if she truly understands how proud of her and inspired by her I am. It was heart-wrenching and healing at the same time. It was hard to know her eyes will never read those words, but it felt good to honor her and not forget that tradition with her. Instead of hanging her heart letter on her door, I placed it next to the mold we have of her hand. It was different, but it was as right as it could be.
Yesterday, I stopped at the top of the stairs and noticed that Tanner had literally every heart still on his door from last year. Some had been repositioned after falling off, but they were all still there. I wonder if there will be a point when he’ll ask me to put them somewhere else so his friends don’t see mushy Mom love notes, but for now they seem to matter. So I sat down last night and cut out his hearts, wrote messages intended just for him, and hung them this morning.
I also cut out another giant heart and wrote another letter to Rylie. I snuggled in a quilt made from her old clothes and pieces of her comforter. I thought back over the year and shared how missing her has changed, but is still ever present. I stared at the fabric surrounding me and reminded her how she has made me a better mom and better person. I sobbed as I told her how proud of her I am and whispered that I hope we are making her proud as we aim to make this world a little brighter in her honor. I sat in that moment - it’s not one of my strengths to sit in emotion - for as long as I could. I folded her heart, got up and placed it next to the one from last year. The tears flowed openly as I bent over and touched the mold of the hand I miss so much.
Although she won’t get up each Valentine’s morning and read the words on her hearts, it does my heart good to know that I’ve been able to share with her spirit the love that I have for her.
It does my heart good to know that Tanner is able to read his messages when he needs them most.
It does my heart good to pause and honor the ones I love for who they are and what they mean to me. It’s a reminder that it’s not about fanfare and wrapping paper, it’s about sentiment. It’s about acknowledgment and being seen and heard. It’s a reminder that we should all do it more often and not just on a February 14th.
Meghann and Ziggy Guentensberger are Rylie's parents. During their time in the hospital with Rylie and after her death, they began writing about their experiences. What started as a way to keep people informed of Rylie's condition, turned into a way for them to process all that was happening. After she died on May 26, 2017 they both continued to write as a way to process and heal themselves and occasionally inspire others. These writings are housed on the Rylie's ARK Facebook page.