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This Valentine’s Day, look for the love you don’t realize you have

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To my teenaged eyes, Somers Inn — the finest fine dining in all of Somers, Connecticut — was the kind of place you’d take that someone-special on Valentine’s Day: I imagined tall ivory candles over thick white tablecloths, high-backed mahogany chairs, elegant bronzed chandeliers, great big plush curtains falling from the ceiling to the floor, a live fireplace and waiters decked out in black suits and matching ties. But I can’t say for sure what it looked like, because I never went inside. My parents even invited me, and I still said no.

To say that my parents never went out would be an egregious understatement: They had no interest in fine dining, they didn’t see the point in eating someone else’s food and they considered anything other than saving for the future or spending on education to be an obscene waste of precious cash. About as far as we’d ever come to a family evening at a restaurant was the McDonald’s drive-through, and even then we were Shariatically limited by the laws of God and His Prophet to the Filet-o-Fish combo meal.

All my mom wanted was to take me out for a nice dinner, to say she was proud of me in the best way she knew how.

What drove them to make such an uncharacteristic invitation was that it was the night of my high school graduation, and they wanted to celebrate me. But it was also the night of our senior class midnight cruise. I was in the middle of an anti-Islamic Revolution, an uprising against my Muslim upbringing, and I had no interest in an awkward evening with my parents.

I had to tell my mother no, but I didn’t just decline or propose a raincheck. Like many an adolescent upstart, I was a total jerk. I knew, even as I spoke, that I was wounding her. But I didn’t care: I wanted to go out with my friends.

All my mom wanted was to take me out for a nice dinner, to say she was proud of me in the best way she knew how. I spurned her and her offer, even as I saw the shock and sorrow spreading on her face. I left her sitting there to be with my friends — most of whom I never bothered to see again and many of whom would never bother to see me again. When I returned at six a.m., I was mildly buzzed. My mother and I never talked about any of it ever again.

But what do you do with a painful thing that is, in the end, only painful?

I told myself that I’d go out to dinner with her and my father when I graduated college; there were far fancier restaurants in New York City anyway (that being where I was going to spend the following four years). But we never went out for that compensatory meal — not because I didn’t graduate, but because, in the interim, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She struggled; she fought; she kept reading, teaching and, while she could, working.

And then, on Valentine’s Day, she died.

I’ve made many mistakes in my life but, with most of them, I can find some shred of evidence to reassure myself that, even if what I was doing was callous, there was some greater purpose served. Leaving a job that people depended on me for; I had to take the next step professionally anyhow. Cutting off ties with a friend with whom I could no longer turn to; we were no longer good for each other anyway. We all must do hurtful things to move forward in our lives.

But what do you do with a painful thing that is, in the end, only painful?

Though she was educated, creative, thoughtful and kind, her life somehow managed to slip outside of her control.

We celebrate love on Valentine’s Day, but I’m not sure we pay attention to the different ways in which people show their love. For my mother, it was that dinner — which, on reflection, would’ve been really weird, in the special way that only our interactions with our families are. They didn’t drink, and I pretended not to; they couldn’t eat the meat, and I didn’t want to admit to my mom or dad that I no longer kept Muslim kosher. And I don’t know what we would have talked about.

If she was still here — if I could — I’d take her out to dinner at someplace like Somers Inn. (It’s since gone out of business.) It’d be a celebration — not of me, but of her, and of what I didn’t see about her.

I’ve come to think that Valentine’s Day isn’t expansive enough.

It would be a celebration of the courage it took for her to come all the way across the world, to an alien place and a foreign land. She had six sisters, none of whom were there when she died. She had a remarkable father and a devoted mother, whom she hardly ever saw. She grew up speaking Urdu, wearing shalwar qamis and eating spicy food, and ended her life in a place where that marked her as different and embarrassed her child. She was one of a very tiny number of women doctors in a young Pakistan, a pioneer in the field, and I still don’t even know if she wanted to move to Somers, never mind America. Though she was educated, creative, thoughtful and kind, her life somehow managed to slip outside of her control.

Maybe most of our lives do. Maybe that makes it worse: I didn’t see how much she gave up for me, and I never got to thank her for it.

It took me a long time to realize that Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be a painful occasion

Don’t make the mistakes I made. Maybe you have plans tonight, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re all about the holiday, or maybe you think commercializing our tenderest feelings is reprehensible. But I’ve come to think that Valentine’s Day isn’t expansive enough. It should be about looking out for the loves we don’t realize we have, for the people who care for us in ways we might not fully recognize.

We might envy what others have, but then we forget that others might envy what we have.

For a long time, I dismissed Valentine’s Day as a gimmick; after my mom passed away on that day, any interest I had in the holiday dimmed considerably. What others celebrated, I mourned. It took me a long time to realize that Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be a painful occasion, and that celebrating and mourning aren’t opposites. Sometimes, in mourning, what we’re actually doing is celebrating.

The wound, as Rumi put it, is where the light enters.

Haroon Moghul is a commentator and author of three books. His most recent is a memoir, “How to be a Muslim: An American Story.”

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