“The Valentine’s Day ads are driving me crazy,” my mother tells me an hour into our phone conversation a week before 14 February. It’s the kind of impromptu, rollicking chat you can only have when neither of you are in a rush because neither of you have a partner waiting for you to go to bed.
My mother has more right than I do to be sensitive about the subject. We both became single in 2021. She lost her partner of 33 years to illness; my relationship ended after a little over a year.
What bound us together tighter last year was the grief we felt as we mourned no longer having that romantic love in our life.
For three years my mother cared 24 hours a day, seven days a week for my father, with increasing difficulty as vascular dementia took hold of his capabilities, his muscles losing their memory. I thought it was duty that bound her to do so.
It was only in the last week of my father’s life that I understood it was love. That last week was the clearest I ever saw the depth of the love between them.
As he entered a coma, the palliative care team told us that hearing was the last sense to go. With no acknowledgement of whether he could hear her, she spent the entire night before he died telling him every 10 minutes she loved him.
In the subsequent months, as we spent more time together, my mother and I returned endlessly to discussions of what constitutes true love in a romantic partnership, its different iterations and the choices people make.
In its absence in our own lives, we are left to marvel at how powerful a source it is not only of happiness but, ultimately, identity.
But at the same time the year that passed was also a testament to the necessity of having love outside the romantic sphere – diversifying your love portfolio.
Without my dad, my mum needed my love and that of my sister, my mum’s friends and our extended family, all the more. When my relationship ended, the same was true for me.
Another friend reflected to me, after they broke up with their long-term partner, that they realised how much of their own self-worth they’d hung upon that single hook of being in a relationship. And, bearing all that weight, the fall is all the more shattering.
Valentine’s Day as a commercial enterprise has homed in on a celebration of romantic love, to the exclusion of love’s other guises.
This commercialisation can trick you into thinking that just because you don’t have romantic love in your life, you don’t have love at all.
I like to think back to the day in lockdown when my mother and I rode our bikes to La Perouse in Sydney’s east. It was a Sunday, which I would have spent with my boyfriend had we not broken up the week before.
Lockdown seemed a time that couples were more ubiquitous than ever, with no opportunities for group outings and the rules favouring visits with “intimate partners”.
La Perouse was full of couples – elderly couples, couples with young kids, couples who could have been on a first date.
But I was lucky to be part of my own couple, sitting on the sand and enjoying watching the waves with my mum, whom I love very much.
The part I remember most in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando is when Orlando is among Gypsies:
One evening, when they were all sitting round the camp fire and the sunset was blazing over the Thessalian hills, Orlando exclaimed: ‘How good to eat!’ (The gipsies have no word for ‘beautiful’. This is the nearest.) All the young men and women burst out laughing uproariously.
The narrator explains:
It is a curious fact that though human beings have such imperfect means of communication, that they can only say ‘good to eat’ when they mean ‘beautiful’ and the other way about, they will yet endure ridicule and misunderstanding rather than keep any experience to themselves.
I like this passage because it resonates with my experience that being lonely isn’t an inevitability of finding yourself alone.
The times I have felt the loneliest have been a visit to an art gallery, where I might see a really beautiful painting; or when I read something I know someone I love would find particularly funny, and think to myself: “I wish they were here with me.”
I think back to those moments to remind myself to always be grateful for whatever love – whether it’s romantic or maternal or the love of an animal – that shows up in your life to share it with you.