The Valentine’s Day That Forever Changed Me

Childhood Cancer ribbon
The yellow cancer ribbon brings awareness to and honors children who have fought cancer.

Valentine’s Day tends to evoke a variety of emotions and reactions depending on life circumstances, experiences, relationship status, etc, all of which primarily center around the idea of “love”. Some people love it, some hate it. Some say they hate it, but they really love it. (See this article on Valentine’s Day miscommunications) While I do have the blessing of an amazing husband whose relationship I love to celebrate on Valentine’s Day and every other day for that matter, there is a particular Valentine’s Day that has forever marked me and it had nothing to do with a romantic dinner or a box of my favorite chocolates.

I worked as a high school English teacher at a private, Christian school while we were stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. My school became my extended family. The administration, the teachers, the office staff, the students, and their parents all took up a space in my heart that remains theirs to this day, despite that my family has moved away. Even students who I did not have the privilege of teaching would pop their heads in my room to say “hello” on a regular basis because we were a small, connected community, and we loved each other well. One young man in particular always seemed to find his way over to my class to chat with me or the students sitting in my classroom. Brandon was kind, gentle, and encouraging to my class of freshmen who looked up to him. Of course they wanted to be seen by him because he was an upperclassman, but there was also an underlying admiration of him and his strength.

As he navigated through the halls of the high school building his junior year, he had already battled childhood cancer that began when he was in the eighth grade. And he had beaten it — twice. Now here he was, back at school, and longing to be treated as any other student. My fellow teachers and I loved having him around as he was incredibly funny, gentle, and kind; but beyond that, he also had a perspective on life that surpassed his years. His junior year was a joy to watch as he grew in his faith, learned from his teachers and his peers, played on the school basketball team, and enjoyed some of the more normal things in life.

Before the start of every school year, our school has a “Dedication Night”. It is a time of prayer and vision-casting for the upcoming school year, as well as an opportunity for students and parents to meet teachers and other staff members. As my classroom began to thin of my new students and their parents, I saw a familiar face in the doorway with his same, goofy smile. Unfortunately, this time he was in my classroom for a different reason. He wasn’t coming to say hello or to encourage the incoming freshmen.

He came to tell me his cancer had returned.

After six months of testing, trying new treatment options, and a long stay at one of the best cancer treatment hospitals in the country, Brandon came home to be with his family and friends. On February 13, 2020, I received a text message that Brandon requested a group of teachers come to his home to pray with him. A group of at least 15 of us gathered around his bedside, and we prayed. We worshipped the Lord in song. We held his hands, and we allowed ourselves to grieve with him. Although he could barely speak at this point, he managed to whisper that he was ready to dance with the angels.

Early in the morning on Valentine’s Day 2020, he was dancing.

For me, Valentine’s Day is no longer about a romanticized holiday held together by cupid and his arrows. It is a time of reflection and remembrance. Brandon’s life encouraged me to look beyond my circumstances and maintain a steadfast hope for the future. His death reminds me of what love really looks like as his community came together, rallied around one another in comfort and prayer, and rested in knowing that Christ’s love and sacrifice was, and is, enough.