February 14, 2006. I was seventeen when the smartly dressed, country music-loving, Ivy League-hopeful, tanned Southern boy with eyes like the sea walked in my front door that Valentine's Day. We struck up a conversation, discovered we had most things in common, and though I was in denial for months I fell hard. When we weren't talking in person (at church, youth group, birthday parties and gatherings), on MySpace or instant messaging (these were the pre-Facebook days), we spent countless hours on the phone (he helped me study for my driver's license, played devil's advocate for my debate and senior thesis prep, quizzed me in Spanish, probed my political views and stretched my intellect every which way). I spent long spring afternoons and hot summer nights walking laps around my neighborhood, swatting mosquitoes, laying on the driveway and sitting in the bed of my dad's pickup truck while we discussed every topic we could think of to avoid getting off the phone. The day he told me I was his "best friend in Maryland," I did a happy dance in the middle of the street. Neither of us breathed a word of romantic interest until he'd officially told my dad he "liked" me at a Starbucks late on the sticky June night that I graduated high school. I had no idea how he felt about me that spring, but I was a goner - hook, line and sinker.
Valentine's Day, aside from its usual romantic connotations, was always such a special day for us - commemorating that February night in 2006 at youth group listening to our leader talk about what God-centered romance looks like, me sitting on the floor with my best friend and trying not to think about the handsome newcomer on the couch right behind me. Through our dating and married years Nathan always found a way to make each Valentine's better than the last. Some years we celebrated with our best Texas friends, Eric and Katrina, with much feasting, decorations and serenades from the guys. Other years Nate got all the small group guys involved and they whipped up a romantic feast for us girls. Two years ago I bought 14 small presents and left one out for him to find every day of the "14 Days of Love" leading up to Valentine's Day. Then, when the rain ruined my planned picnic, I lit hundreds of tea lights and we picnicked on the living room floor.
On our last Valentine's Day together Nate surprised me with a stay at the JW Marriott in downtown Houston and a romantic dinner cruise. After a fancy dinner watching the sunset drift by, he tipped the live guitarist to play "Then" by Brad Paisley. He led me to the dance floor and we danced, all alone in a sea of dining couples, to the lyrics he'd had inscribed on the scrapbook he gave me when he proposed: "We'll look back someday/ On this moment that we're in/ And I'll look at you and say/ And I thought I loved you then." It was one of the sweetest moments of my life and I cried.
If anyone had told 17-year-old me on the night I met Nathan that he could be mine for eight years, and that on our ninth Valentine's Day I would be the one bringing him flowers, laying them on a snowy patch of ground under a makeshift cross and his name on a funeral home picket, I wouldn't have changed a thing. That amorous arrow stabs at my heart this year, and will every February 14 for the rest of my life, but underlying the pain is a lifetime's worth of memories and the sweetest love I'll ever know. I love you, Nate. You are my everything.