It’s Valentine’s Day here in Jamaica. My husband, John, and I awoke to the sound of pounding waves and reggae. He had just gotten up to go the bathroom so I hopped out of bed and grabbed the ruby-red, wrapped gift I’d hidden in my luggage. I placed it on the covers, tucked the Hallmark card under the ribbon, and waited for his return, feeling rather proud of my stealth maneuver and eager to see his surprise.

He walked back into the room and was surprised. With a crestfallen face, he whispered, “Oh . . . Pammy.” It was the Uh-oh, I screwed up face. I knew right away that he didn’t get me a gift.


He took a cleansing breath. “Um, I got you a card, but I haven’t had a chance to sign it. I’m sorry.”

A card. No mention of a present.

He stood staring at the gift and then slowly opened his card. He read the words inside, managing a weak smile, and began to open his gift.

He tried on the shirt I’d bought him; said he really liked it. Still wearing it, he paced the hotel room for a bit as though he were trying to kill some time—or this awkward moment. I could tell he was thoughtfully considering his words, measuring what he might say. (The word minefield comes to mind.)

“Pammy, I’m so sorry. Over the past two weeks, I went to the store several times, but I just couldn’t think of anything to get you.”

I said nothing. I think I batted my eyes a few times, absorbing this confirmation of my suspicion. I silently recalled the first Valentine’s Day after we were married. Long story short, my husband stopped off at the Thrifty store on the way home from work and picked up a box of Whitman’s. The cheap chocolate. The cheap, waxy chocolate. The not-even- See’s chocolate. And, I’m pretty sure (if I remember correctly), without a Hallmark card.

It should be noted that there was some discussion on that mid-1980s day about John’s last-minute purchase. It’s a topic we’ve revisited over the years.

In this moment, I had a decision to make, and I had to make it fast— before Amygdala* got involved.

Option 1: I could pout. Be a little brat. Turn this into a thing. Just as I did thirty-four years ago.

Option 2: I could put this into context. I could consider that I’m on an all-expenses-paid trip on a breathtaking Caribbean island, lapping up the luxury because John has worked so hard and so smart for so long— in part, because he loves me so much. He’s earned many reward trips like this one from his company, and I get to go along for the ride.

Option 1 has a bullet point: I could consider the fact that, last Valentine’s Day, I was the one who came up a little short. I gave him a card, sans an accompanying gift. He probably doesn’t recall it because he doesn’t have an elephant’s memory about such things. I, on the other hand, even remember what I said to him in my defense. I brandished an authoritative yet unsubstantiated claim to offset my guilt using these words: “I’m pretty sure the makers of Valentine’s Day intended for the holiday to be more about the man giving the woman a gift, whereas the woman is to reciprocate with a nice card. This is confirmed by the fact that the word wife has the same number of letters as, and looks very much like, the word gift. Husband has way more letters and looks NOTHING like gift. Everyone knows this.”

About a month ago, I searched out my childhood scrapbook. It had been in the attic for years, and although it reemerged a little worse for the wear, it was a treasure trove of memorabilia. Carefully turning the oversized, cluttered pages, I found an old love note from my fifth-grade boyfriend, Danny H. I remembered the scenario quite clearly. I had been feeling insecure about Danny’s feelings for me, and at recess I asked his best friend, Steven N., to ask Danny: Are we okay? Do you still like me?

Seated back at our wooden desks, Danny passed a note to the classmate behind him, and he or she in turn passed it on down the row of desks until it finally reached me. (It takes a village.) Written in his messy boy-handwriting, it read, “I love you and I always well [sic]. Even if I don’t act like it.”

I breathed a sigh. Ah, it was a twofold message: our relationship was indeed strong, and not only that, there was a promise of undying love.

Looking at that note a few weeks ago, his words became so much more meaningful because of his grade-school insight: “. . . even if I don’t act like it.” Sure, it’s optimal that if you love someone, you act like it. But the truth is, sometimes we fall short. We’re imperfect people, so of course we don’t love perfectly. Why, then, would we expect perfection?

My literary hero, Anne Lamott, has said, “Expectations are resentments just waiting to happen.” Anne, you rock.

John and I are heading over to Negril later today, a place bursting in Rasta colors and reggae sound. We’ve been there once before, eleven years ago, during another President’s Club trip. We’ll go to Rick’s Café again, where we’ll dine for our Valentine’s Day meal while watching the cliff divers.

The marriage commitment is a little like that. We jump off the cliff into the water. It’s scary. It’s precarious. If we don’t do it perfectly (which we won’t!), we’ll get hurt. We may even drown. Then again, the water landing can be pretty exhilarating.

The dictionary says a hallmark is a typical characteristic or feature of a person or thing. When Bob Marley sings of “One Love,” I think he’s referring to the One Love Who Does It Perfectly. The hallmark of God is His perfect love. That’s what we can expect.

Marley sings of giving thanks and praise to the Lord; if we do that, there’s promise that we will be all right. In that order. So today, I’ve decided to not be a brat. I’ve decided to give thanks and praise to the Lord. So we can be all right.

Happy Valentine’s Day, love.

PS: I had John’s blessing to share this story.




*Amygdala hijack” is a term coined by Daniel Goldman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Bantam, 1995).
He says that the amygdala (the part of your brain that’s responsible for emotional reactions) gets hijacked, shutting off the neocortex (the part of your brain that’s responsible for logic, conscious thought, and sensory perception) when we have an instant, consuming emotional response disproportionate to the actual stimulus. Whatever the event, it triggers some sort of emotional threat, and we are hijacked. Which means we’re not really thinking all that clearly, and we react. Which sometimes makes a person (me specifically) bratty.