02/12/2014 10:05 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

My Dad's Everlasting Valentine

Valentine's Day is upon us, and this week couples have been making plans for what many consider an obligatory evening of love. Grand gestures like flowers, chocolates, and an expensive dinner will fill up the day. But a recent conversation with my mother about her relationship made me realize that despite the efforts couples make to express holiday affection, what love really comes down to are the small things.

My parents were married for 50 years before my father died of cancer in 2001, and in that time he was a romantic guy on this holiday. When I was a kid, he brought all the girls in the house chocolates, but Mom always got the biggest box. As an empty nester he flexed his ever-present green thumb and planted rose bushes so he could bring my Mom fresh clippings as they bloomed. When his body weakened with age his mind stayed sharp with what young people did, so he made her mixtapes.

Dad struggled with cancer for about a year before he died, and became unable to leave the house during that time. When that last Valentine's Day came around he was unable to go shopping for my mom, and Dad didn't want anyone else to do the shopping for her. His solution? Letters. He wrote a long letter to her on that day, and every day those final months, to tell her what she meant to him in his life. Some thanked her. Several talked about what a great wife and mother she was. Others included things she'll never share with anyone.

My Dad was a war vet, a basketball star, and from a little girl's perspective an overall intimidating figure of a man. But it was the moment that tough guy expressed his feelings that impressed my mother the most. And still does, since she often pulls those envelopes out and re-reads his words.

Couples stress over so many things during their time together, including what home they should live in, what cars to drive, how many kids to have and what to provide for them. Personal moments that brought the couple together in the first place seem to lose their spark, and Valentine's Day can serve as a way to rekindle the flame. But for my mother, true romance came, on Valentine's Day and every other day that year, from a man in a housecoat attached to an oxygen tank.