Barry and I drove through Fort Lauderdale last week. Along the way, I cringed to see tents set up in gas stations, selling giant red made-in-China teddy bears in clear plastic bags. That really conveys the right message — “I love you so much, I picked up this stuffed thing for you along with gas and beer.”
Returning to Vero Beach, I saw a vendor selling plastic-encased bunches of flowers from a parking lot on US 1. Nothing says “I love you” like a wilted bunch of flowers bought in a vacant lot…next to the gas station where you got gas and beer.
You know those chalk-flavored heart-shaped candies with little messages on them? They used to say romantic things like “Be Mine.” I ate one yesterday that said “Text Me.”
Valentine’s Day is a very old holiday. It goes back over 1600 years to a guy named Valentine, but who he was and what he did are vague. He may or may not have been a priest, may or may not have performed illegal weddings, and may or may not have fallen in love with his jailer’s daughter, who may or may not have been blind. He wasn’t even born on February 14, yet that’s the day when we do many of the wrong things in his name.
What the world needs is a new Saint Valentine. For this, I nominate my friend Becky Johns, who was born on Valentine’s Day.
Becky died last year when her bicycle was struck by a car. She would have turned ten today.
She was a little girl who never met a stranger. For years, Barry and I only knew Becky and her sister, Cindy, through photos. Barry had worked with their dad, Andy, in the early 90’s at the US Patent Office, where Andy still worked. We’d met Andy’s wife, Sandy, a few times before the girls were born, but the years and distance got away from us, so the first time we met Becky, she was seven.
On that trip, Barry and I drove up to northern Virginia from the boatyard in North Carolina. We were road-weary, and there was a lot of catching up to do with Andy and Sandy. As we talked in the family room, Becky was quiet. She kept looking from Barry to me and back again with a curious look on her face. Finally, she couldn’t stand it any more. She fixed her eye on Barry, sidled over to him, and to my surprise, just sort of melted into his lap. She hugged him like he was her bestest friend. Like she’d known him for years. One melting hug from Becky would turn anybody into pure marshmallow. I say this from experience, because after she hugged Barry, she hugged me.
Last year, about two weeks before Becky’s 9th birthday, we stopped in at her house again, on the way back from Pennsylvania. For a few days, we were part of the family and the marathon cookie-baking sessions that preceded Valentine’s Day. I got lots of Becky’s hugs over those few days, and captured dozens of photos of her mischievous grin.
Becky’s death was devastating. In an effort to cope with it, her friends and family have been inspired to do amazing things in her name, things that are especially kind and giving. A number of people are giving blood to celebrate her birthday. People involved in Bookcrossing, including Becky’s father, have been sending free books out into the world in her name. Her elementary school community held a bicycle safety rodeo to help children learn about bicycle safety and regain the confidence to ride their bikes.
The most important thing we do in Becky’s memory is the simplest, though. We hug people.
At the candlelight vigil held in Becky’s honor, a few days after she died, her mother asked her schoolmates to share Becky’s love by hugging each other during the coming school year. Some friends who heard this had stickers made up with her photo that said, “Becky’s love lives in me! Live her love by sharing Becky’s hugs!”
The sticker campaign took on a life of its own, and it’s now known to friends all over the world as “Becky’s Hugs.” There’s a website and a Facebook community page. Becky’s parents have been distributing buttons and magnets with her picture and message as a living memorial. You can be part of Becky’s Hugs, too. When you hug someone, you are sharing her love.
Unlike the original Saint Valentine, Becky’s life is not shrouded in mystery. Her short, happy, love-filled life is documented in pictures and videos. Those of us who were lucky enough to know her know exactly what Becky stood for: Love.
From this day forward, I’d like you to help me turn Becky’s birthday into the new, hugging Valentine’s Day. Saint Becky Valentine’s Day.
Please, share Becky’s message with everyone you can. Now, go hug somebody.