A balloon, a girl and the loss of a friend
Finding a lesson and something to smile about on a sad, grey day
She held on to it firmly, as though it were the most precious thing in the world, the string wrapped around her three-year-old hand so tightly that it pinched the skin, still pudgy from a loved (if overfed) infancy. Suddenly, the string seemed to unwind itself, almost by magic, the balloon wanting to be free. Her round face registered anguish for a second or two, a moment filled with loss; a balloon, after all, is a major possession for a threeyear-old.
The child was about to cry when her father whispered in her ear, in a language I did not understand. The words he offered must have calmed her, though — his gestures, too. They seemed to say, “Watch! Look how the balloon flies. Watch the people point at it, like I am. Watch them smile. You’ve given them a gift; you’ve made them happy!” Those may not be the exact words, but I’m sure that was his message. He nurtured kindness in her as you’d cultivate a garden, raising not flowers but altruism, the glue of humanity.
It worked. He tapped into her small reserves of kind-heartedness and, soon enough, the almost-anguished face smiled, then laughed, watching the balloon.
It struggled at first, caught by cold insults of wind and rain, knocking it up and down, left and right. It seemed underinflated. Not the taut, glistening white of a fully-filled helium balloon but rather the dull near-grey of a somewhat diminished object — tired, perhaps, absent some its life force.
At one point, it sagged so low we were afraid it would be lost to cobblestones that had held Roman and later Franco-Prussian soldiers’ boots, the hooves of horses, the shoes of countless other fathers and their daughters, the food stalls of early German merchants, the ghost feet of ancient professors and their students.
We were in Heidelberg, Germany, on holiday, but we could have been anywhere.
A tongue of wind suddenly lifted the balloon, aided by the cheers of the little crowd that had gathered to watch its stuttering ascent. At last it managed, buoyed by both the wind and the cheers, to leave the cobblestones behind, to reach the tops of stores, then, finally, getting the hang of flying, to ascend past the buildings and soar over the spire of an ancient church. It was an overcast day, the white-grey clouds dense, the colour of aging sheets, over-laundered and underbleached. They were the same colour as the balloon itself which was, soon enough, swallowed by the void above us, its fate uncertain. It was gone.
The day and its too-close sky matched our mood. Earlier, we had learned that a dear friend had died in Canada, a friend of six decades or more. A friend whose store of altruism and kindness was unmatchable, and who would have nurtured kindness in that child as she nurtured it in her children and grandchildren. As she role-modelled it for others.
It was hard not to think of her as the balloon struggled to ascend skyward, reaching it, disappearing.
“Serendipity,” her sister said when she heard of the little event, implying luck and timing, perhaps more. “Synchronicity,” I would have answered if my uncaffeinated brain had been working fully: the giant gears of the universe meshing momentarily, their unseen arcs visible if only for a few seconds, allowing us to peer behind the curtains as though we were in Oz. “A blessing, a mitzvah, a miracle,” my more religious friends would say. Followers of Viktor Frankl, searchers for meaning, would imply that we humans, as stuck to the ground as those cobblestones, grant significance to the event. All of them are correct; none of them are quite right.
When I began to write this as a tribute to our friend, I meant simply to capture the balloon as an image of life’s fragility and its passage, its ascendance, maybe. That perspective obscures the real message, though. Mostly, it’s just too sad. I’ve come to see the real story as the lesson whispered into the little girl’s ear. Our friend’s soul might have disappeared into that now-visible universe, but she lives on. She might as well have been whispering in our ear. Perhaps she was.
More than that of the tired balloon, more than that of the grey, cold day, her legacy — her gift — to us lives in the image of the father, planting kindness and generosity like a garden. Like our friend did. Like we all should.
Dave Davis lives in Dundas and Fort Myers Beach, Fla. He’s a husband, father, grandfather and a retired physician, writer and speaker. You can follow him, if you have nothing better to do, @drauthor24 or write him at email@example.com. He likes it when you write.
Balloons on the rise. Dave Davis writes of a dear lost friend: ’Our friend’s soul might have disappeared into that now-visible universe, but she lives on.’