I have always thought that Valentine’s Day was a sham of a holiday. It’s a day that screams out romantic love and empty wallets. Roses become ridiculously expensive, nice restaurants have a special overpriced menu, not to mention overbooked with reservations, and you don’t even get the day off! Don’t get me wrong, I usually succumb to the pressures during this time when I’m with someone and will treat her to a pricy outing. But I have always done it knowing that she would be happy, and in turn I was sure she would make me HAPPY for my efforts. Although I have done this, I would always think, “Why can’t I do this on a day that’s cheaper and less chaotic?” After all, this is a day that instructs people how to love and to do so you have to follow a mainstream protocol. I feel like this fabricates the meaning that comes with Valentine’s Day and thus, I have never been emotionally connected to it. However, it wasn’t until the event that took place in my life on February 14, 2011 that would change the meaning of this day forever.
Last Valentine’s Day my cousin, Vishal, passed away after a 13 year battle with cancer. When he was just 18 years old he was diagnosed with “Synovial Sarcoma”, a very rare and aggressive type of cancer. He went through years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, as well as had to undergo a number of surgeries because the tumors kept coming back. And then finally in December 2011, the doctors said that there was nothing more they could do and he just had to wait it out. I remember hanging up my phone after I had heard the news, and I thought, “Wait for what?” I couldn’t comprehend the idea of him not being around anymore. I had to keep reminding myself that this was actually happening and it was REAL. I would daydream and imagine how it was going to be after he would pass, and it made me feel so empty. I had been to other funerals and knew what it was like to lose somebody, just not somebody this close. After all, he was more than my cousin to me, he was my big brother.
Growing up I had always looked at Vishal as my role model. He was one of the eldest in my family from all the cousins in our generation, but would rave about being the most immature. I looked up to him so much because despite how much he had been through, he never let it bring him down. He had so much passion to just live everyday and enjoy every moment he had because he knew he was going to live a shorter life than most. He was the type of person that you always wanted to be around because he was always a good time. There truly was never a dull moment when you were in his presence. After my injury, though we faced different situations, he was the only one in my family that could relate to my feelings. I remember when I was still in the hospital he said, “Lil bro, you’re going to get through this. And I’m here to help you.” It was so comforting to know that somebody who had been through as much as he had was going to help me through my struggle. But at the time, I didn’t realize how much of a role he was going to play in my life moving forward.
From the very beginning of my new life as a paraplegic, he played the role of my motivator. He constantly encouraged me to keep living, and to not let my situation hold me back from doing so. Because of everything he had to deal with in his life, he appreciated every moment so much, and he always tried to convey that message to me. At first, I was resistant to his approach because I didn’t want to live my life in a wheelchair. However, as time went on his efforts were persistent and I started to come around. Additionally, by witnessing my progression I was able to appreciate how far I had come, and I started to realize that I could continue to evolve in my situation. At the same time, I witnessed him periodically have to go back to the hospital for surgery and treatment as his cancer kept coming back. This was such a crucial perspective for me because as I was learning how to move forward so that I could live my life independently, he kept getting held back in his life because of his illness. But no matter what he never let it bring him down. He dealt with whatever he had to, and he continued to live his life to the fullest, until the end.
When the doctors said that there was nothing more they could do, there was a wave of fear that resonated throughout my whole family that the end was near. I would think, “How was life going to be without Vishal?” I knew there was going to be a huge void when he left, but I didn’t know how it was going to feel. The anticipation of the whole situation made me so distracted. It was as if nothing in my life mattered anymore because it didn’t compare to the gravity of the loss I was about to experience. My mind would always wander as I tried to make sense of all of this. I tried to separate myself from reality and thought about the greater purpose that his life served. And I thought, “Vishal’s life is a lesson to teach us how precious life really is.” I knew how much of a role he had played in my life to get me to appreciate my life again. He is the reason why I am where I am today. And in that moment I decided that I was not going to be sad about this. He celebrated his life everyday and every moment, and it made sense to me to attempt to have the same feeling about his life when he no longer was here. Then 22 days before he was supposed to turn 31 years old, his time on Earth expired.
The anticipation was now over and it was now time to face the fact that Vishal as we knew him, no longer existed. I heard the news, packed up, and head down to Laredo, TX, where he was residing, to attend his funeral. When I got to Laredo I was handed a Pittsburgh Steelers (his favorite team) jersey to wear as part of my uniform for the event. This only made me smile because since he knew he was going to die, he decided to plan his funeral, and make it a celebration. And why wouldn’t he include his favorite team as part of the festivities. Additionally, he created his own playlist full of The Beatles classics with the theme of the funeral centering on the song, “All you need is love.” To top it all off, we were instructed to take a tequila shot once the ceremony commenced, and had to make sure he wasn’t left out in the process. I couldn’t stop looking at him lying in his coffin because the whole experience felt very surreal. I just kept staring at his face waiting for his eyes to open, but they never did. In that moment, I accepted that his body was lifeless and knew that I was going to go forward in my life celebrating every moment I had.
Valentine’s Day for anybody who knew Vishal will be a day that encompasses a completely different meaning than the traditional meaning of February 14th. However, it still has everything to do with love. Vishal loved and appreciated everything and everybody he came across. His life was a celebration, as I feel everybody’s should be. Unfortunately, he had to go through his struggle for everybody around him to realize how precious life really is. But in knowing that, I choose to learn from the purpose that was his life. His life has taught me to always love and appreciate everything I have and all the people that are around me. Additionally, I will celebrate every waking moment that I have, until I have no more. February 14th is a day that will forever remind me how I’m always supposed to be. It is a day to remember the energy that Vishal brought all the time. This day may not be Valentine’s Day for me anymore, but it will forever be V-day.