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Valentine’s Day seems the ideal time to contemplate the meaning of love. Not to be off-putting, but I think most people get it wrong. Love is not what you see on TV — passionate kisses, travel, excitement, diamonds the size of grapes. Or at least that’s only a tiny bit of it. Love, real love, is a whole lot grittier…and a whole lot more mundane. Here are just a few of the ways my husband says, “I love you”:

Love is giving me the last bites of his cake/cookie/pie, despite the fact that he would like to eat it himself, because he knows how much I love sweets.

Love is helping me slow my breath when I’m having an asthma attack.

Love is private jokes, a secret language, references only we know…but love is also taking the time to learn my family’s secret language and odd references, and using them like a pro.

Love is indulging my whim to try every taco place in town in search of the superior taco.

Love is always saying, “Thank you” after I’ve prepared a meal…no matter how inferior.

Love is massaging my shoulders as he passes through the kitchen, squeezing my hand in church, touching my cheek as I watch TV.

Love is accepting that our lives are not glamorous and being happy with simpler pleasures.

Love is going to Mass with me every week for years and years, despite being (at the time) an agnostic, and then surprising me with the happiest possible shock — becoming Catholic himself.

My husband’s love — much like God’s love — is always right there before me…if I take the time to look. Wherever you are this Valentine’s Day, whether in a romantic relationship or not, take time to search for signs of love. They may be simple, but they abound.

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As a child, I imagined a world of eventualities for myself. I would be a famous writer (of course). I would probably live in New York, because that’s where writers lived (or so I believed). When I was terribly young, I accepted the fact that I might marry and have kids, because that’s what people do. By the time I was teenager, however, I’d changed my mind: I would never marry and never have kids. I was a product of the late ‘60s and ‘70s — a proto-feminist, cultural daughter of Ms. magazine and Free to Be, You and Me. I was woman!

The one thing I never expected became the thing I got — a love story of the grandest and rarest sort. I met my (now) husband shortly after my 20th birthday, and married him at 23. We have, in many ways, grown up together. After 31 years together, we are still ecstatically in love. My husband is my best friend, my “happily ever after.” He is one of God’s greatest gifts to me.

Until we were well into our 30s, strangers would ask if we were newlyweds; we still walk hand-in-hand everywhere we go. When I finish a slice of pizza, he cuts me another of the exact size and proportion that I am craving — sometimes comprising just the crust — and when I cut him a quizzical look, he says, “Well, duh!” or “Like I’m a separate person from you!” We engage in mental telepathy on a regular basis, crack each other up with inside jokes that bewilder outsiders. We don’t socialize. We don’t go to parties. We prefer each other’s company over any other in all the world.

I know this is a terrifyingly rare and fragile gift. The idea of losing him, ever, leaves me breathless. I’ve sworn him, on many occasions, to a pact in which I get to die first. Ideally, however, we would die within moments of each other, when we are quite elderly, having lived out one of the world’s greatest romances. You know, the kind of thing they used to write up in newspapers, the sort of phenomenon that still makes a splash on social media.

I can also honestly say that my husband has brought me into closer relationship with God. His decision to convert to Catholicism (having spent most of his life as an agnostic) reengaged me with my own faith, made me fall in love with the Church all over again. My husband encourages me to follow my heart — to give money to strangers, even if they turn out to be disingenuous, to serve a community of women religious despite their geographical distance from us, to pray for other people because he believes my prayers are strong ones. I once heard a priest remark that the primary function of a marriage is to make sure one’s spouse makes it into heaven. If I ever achieve such lofty heights, it is due at least in part to my husband. (Though my mother deserves a big shout-out here, too. Thanks, Mom.)

A former co-worker once dismissed my marriage as “boring,” as compared to her “rollercoaster” of a union (which ended shortly thereafter). I tried to explain it to her: How I married Owen because he is a good person, and, as Socrates once explained, true love can only be love of the good. Good is enduring. Good is of God. Can a marriage really be both sacred and sanctifying? Yes. Yes, it can.

Happy birthday, honey.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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