A bal­loon, a girl and the loss of a friend

Find­ing a les­son and some­thing to smile about on a sad, grey day

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - DAVE DAVIS

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 dr­dav­e­davis@gmail.com. He likes it when you write.

DREAM­STIME

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.’

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