The first February after losing my husband suddenly and tragically, I wasn’t relishing my first Valentine’s Day alone. Single for the first time in 16 years, I decided escape was my best option: After looking around online for vacation packages, I booked a week at Club Med in the Dominican Republic. Not only did this resort have child care services to look after my two kids, but I figured that Valentine’s Day in a foreign country would be a non-event — and a non-event is what would protect me from the painful memories I was sure to encounter if I lingered at home in New Jersey. I had visions of lounging by the pool while my six-year-old daughter Olivia swung high above the beach strapped into a trapeze as Carter, my two-year-old son, paddled about with other toddlers under the supervision of a fun boy counselor named Marco. Warmth and sunshine seemed like the perfect antidote to Valentine’s Day.

My first few days in my muggy hotel room, however, were hardly the relaxing respite I was hoping for. On the first night, I was up administering Tylenol to my feverish daughter. The next morning, I left Carter in the “Baby Club” while I took Olivia to see the doctor at the infirmary, where he promptly declared it was Strep and began administering Amoxicillin. Then, picking up Carter from the Baby Club, I found him sobbing inconsolably, neglected by the gossiping teenagers who were supposed to keep him company. From that moment on, he wouldn’t let me out of his sight. For lunch, I negotiated the buffet-style cafeteria with Carter clamped to my hip, making multiple trips. A bowl of pasta, a hot dog, a glass of milk. By the time I sat down to eat, my food was cold.
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In the chaos, I had forgotten Valentine’s Day until the morning I showed up at the cafeteria for breakfast and saw the first of the red construction paper hearts taped to the door. I squeezed my eyes shut tight, willing Valentine’s Day into oblivion. But inside the restaurant, I was undone again by the single red roses on each table. They reminded me how my husband Arron always gave me a single red rose for Valentine’s Day.

After breakfast, we made a break for the pool. No hearts. No roses. Blue. Sun. Coconut. I was able to ignore the empty chaise lounge beside me by immersing myself in the kiddie pool. At naptime, in our turquoise room, bordered with sea shells and star fish, I watched TV while the children slept. But unfortunately, it was American TV. Valentine’s Day TV. Lovers on Oprah. Successful dating stories; couples in love on every channel. I couldn’t escape. I turned off the TV with tears falling off my chin. I imagined him here, spending Valentine’s Day with his family at Club Med. He probably would have abandoned me for a game of tennis. But still, I would get my rose. He would hold my hand. He would kiss my ear. We would be together and that would be all that mattered.

That evening, there was to be a special Valentine’s Dinner at the cafeteria. On the first day of the trip, I had been lucky enough to meet a group of three families from New York state who were traveling together. After hearing my story, they had taken me and my kids under their wing. The dads swung Carter into the pool. Olivia was invited to another room for a sleepover. That day, they had insisted we meet them for Valentine’s Day dinner together. While I appreciated their kind offer, I was tempted to decline: Why would I want to be surrounded by a bunch of loving couples? Still, lacking any better plan and afraid of appearing rude, I dressed up and met them in front of the restaurant, where there were now two staff members dressed in red handing out single red roses. I gritted my teeth as I was handed mine. I did my usual tray-balancing act and managed to get my veal scallopini to the table without it hitting the floor first. As I sat down, I figured I’d just put in my time then politely disappear.

But as I started eating, I found myself having a better time than I thought. I even stayed for chocolate cake. As I chatted with my new friends, I marveled at how kindly they were taking care of me. We were virtual strangers, and yet they were caring for me as though I were an old friend. During that dinner, my expectations of what I thought Valentine’s Day should be shifted. I would never again experience the love that Arron and I shared together. But as I looked at my children and at my new friends, I realized that I was feeling less sad. I began to see that if you looked hard enough, love was right in front of you.

Later, after dinner, there was a Club Med sing-a-long. Reluctantly, I waved my hands in the air and sang along to the Club Med theme song: “Hands up baby, hands up. Gimme your heart, gimme, gimme your heart…” And then it dawned on me. Valentine’s Day was not just about receiving love, it was about giving it, too. Afterwards, I clamped Carter back onto my hip and held Olivia’s hand as we walked back to our room singing “Hands up baby, hands up, gimme your heart…”

Abigail Carter’s work has been published in Self magazine and appears in the anthology, Over the Hill, Between the Sheets: Sex, Love and Lust in Middle Age.