In medieval and Renaissance iconography, Saint Valentine of Terni, a third-century physician, is often represented with an epileptic child seizing or recovering at his feet, in memory of his love for afflicted children and his visits to those suffering from epilepsy, and in reference to legends of miraculous healings. For centuries, people suffering seizures would turn to Valentinus, the patron saint of epileptics, lovers, and beekeepers, as a figure of hope.
Today, we are only beginning to understand possible causes of epilepsy. Though 3 million Americans have epilepsy, it remains one of our least understood ailments, and medical research on it is poorly funded. (You can learn more about the effort – and help – here.)
A few years ago, we lost a much-loved family member to seizures; if you see me at a convention and for just a moment I look a bit abstracted and sad, I may be remembering Dee; she used to encourage me, and I used to keep with me, in her memory, a signing pen that she gave me to sign books, though I have since lost the pen (I believe a reader accidentally walked off with it).
My daughter Inara has survived every seizure biology could throw at her, but sometimes the memory of weeks of nights at her bedside at the hospital comes at me, too, out of nowhere, and the memory of hours of convulsions, one set after another without any way to help her, and the memory of the times she turned ashen-gray. And the memory of holding her afterward while she was exhausted, and the memory of times when she would look up at me and giggle and I’d hold her even closer.
And if on Valentine’s Day we think of love and romance, many years of my romance with Jessica, my lovely and compassionate and wise wife, have been written in battle, with the two of us fighting together for Inara’s life and care.
Medically, we have come a long way, over the past half-century, in treating epilepsy; gone are the days of locking away epileptics in dark rooms, of electric shock therapy and primitive lobotomy. Gone are the days, too, of assuming that epileptics are possessed by supernatural forces. And today, Inara is triumphant. So, as Inara’s father, I am grateful to live in this century and not a previous one.
Yet even in past centuries, when not locked away, burned, or lobotomized, people with epilepsy achieved great things. Many were fierce and creative and relentless and dragon-hearted like Inara: Vincent van Gogh, Joan of Arc, Gaius Julius Caesar, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, the Apostle Paul, and many others.
February 14 is the day when we remember the patron saint of lovers, beekeepers, and epileptics, one of whose historical sources was a third-century physician who cared for epileptic children. So despite its commercialization in our culture, February 14 has a few added layers of meaning for my wife and me.
(P.S. You can read Inara’s story here.)