Balloons are perhaps the most ephemeral of children’s treasures. For a brief time, they are shiny and plump, and if they are helium-filled they lift their heads high and pull a bit at their tethers, to try to fly even higher. All too soon they take advantage of a loosening grip and soar to freedom, leaving a sobbing child staring at the swiftly dwindling spot of color in the sky. (Sometimes they are thwarted in their bid for freedom by ceilings, but a balloon trapped by a gymnasium ceiling is as lost to the child as one on its way to the stratosphere.)
If they are latex rather than mylar, they face the additional danger of popping easily. Squeeze it too hard, let it hit a light fixture or ceiling fan, or just about any other semi-sharp projection, and suddenly there is a loud noise, some shreds of latex, and of course the sobbing child. (I don’t know if this recollection is of a real event or a bad dream, but for years as a young girl I had a vivid memory of a bit of navy blue balloon that clung to my thumb when it popped, and I was afraid of having a balloon because that might happen again.)
If the balloon doesn’t pop or fly away, it gradually shrinks, and like an aging human it develops wrinkles, loses skin tone, and droops lower and lower. Finally it is lies limply on the floor. Often it manages to hide its decrepitude behind a piece of furniture, and when it is finally retrieved along with the dust bunnies it has hidden among, it is barely recognizable as what was briefly a treasured possession.
Today my son was given two balloons. At the public library, he had talked with a girl he knows from school, and I invited her to his birthday party in two weeks. She explained her party had been last month. Soon two other friends came over and wondered if they could be invited also. As only one of the twenty children in his class had responded to the invitations they received, I was happy to have found some children who wanted to help celebrate his birthday. They live near the library, I learned, and when we left with our books, they were coming towards the library again.
They handed Al two mylar balloons, one a birthday balloon and the other a flower design. Both were a bit low on helium, but they still had enough upward pull to more than counteract the weight of the ribbons and the mylar itself. Al was thrilled with the generous gift, and if it occurred to him that they were mostly likely left over from a party last month, he gave no sign of it. He just knew the girl had freely given something she didn’t have to, something he loves and that he didn’t have to wait for his birthday to get.
He chatted with the balloons as we drove to the store, as he often does with his stuffed or plastic animals. I played my part, contributing the balloons’ half of the conversation. They waited patiently for us while we shopped. After all, as balloons go they weren’t young anymore, and meekly bobbed about in the back of the vehicle. Soon I forgot about them.
When I opened the back to retrieve my groceries, a two-liter bottle of pop and a can of coffee rolled out. I bent to pick them up, then got the rest of my groceries. It wasn’t until an hour later that Al, having read one of his library books, suddenly remembered the balloons and wondered where they were. But they were gone, having apparently taken advantage of my attention to the groceries escaping from the vehicle to make their own getaway. Even low on helium, they were able to fly far away.
Al started crying, and I considered my options. A part of me wanted to point out that toys break and balloons pop or fly away. That’s how life is, and sometimes you just have to deal with the loss. I don’t want him to grow up expecting to always get a new whatever it is. But balloons are different. I remember one day, at about age six or seven, playing with a blue balloon with my sister outside our great-uncle’s home. I don’t remember if it was a piece of gravel or some rough edge on the car, but the balloon hit something and popped.
I remember crying for what seemed like a long time. I was surprised at that, because ordinarily I wasn’t very attached to things, and rarely cried at anything, let alone the loss of something as fragile as a balloon. But I had been having great fun, which was perhaps also somewhat unusual, and that made the balloon very special. It seemed very unfeeling of the other family members not to so much as try to console me on my loss.
So Al and I went to the dollar store. I bought a few things I needed for the party, and he picked out a shiny new birthday balloon. It explained to him on the way home that he had to hold it tightly, because it was a very young balloon and might try to fly away, even though it knew it was supposed to stay with him. He held tight, and it is now securely tied to a bedpost in his room.
I remember that my mother loved to quote Eeyore: “Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.” I don’t think Al would be cheered with a limp balloon that a young pig had fallen on and popped, as Eeyore was. But a nice new balloon, filled not quite to bursting – I don’t know why it is but it is a very cheering thing.