No balloon is long for this world. The one Jr. picked that morning was no different, but unlike others it was also bound for glory. Sky-blue and proud of itself, it held taut the longest tether that Jr. had yet attempted to handle, rising a full length above the other three at our table. When the end-of-year preschool party was over and the moms began breaking down the decorations, Jr. saw that his chance had come. He told me what I already knew – that he wanted a balloon, the blue one – so I asked the mom if she would pass it to him as she was cutting the ribbons. She did, and it was his. Jr. was given stewardship of this young balloon, and the young balloon, that morning, consented.
There have, of course, been others before the blue balloon, and this spring the crop of inflatables has been especially rich. There was the dark blue balloon from the year’s first outdoor birthday party, which roamed the playground with the others like a pack of forest animals, until it nestled in Jr.’s lap for the ride home. There was the orange one, extracted from a forgotten goody bag and notorious for having become deranged in the car on the first day of driving with the windows down. And then there was the Mylar Elmo, the birthday balloon that gave such joy at first, then wasted away in a lingering decline, sinking lower and lower over the course of weeks and drifting piteously about the house at knee level, eventually settling into a corner like an arthritic old dog, still shiny with red fur and big white eyes, but shivering on the kinds of household drafts to which only balloons are sensitive.
We weren’t out the door before Jr. called to me and pointed above his head, where the balloon was bobbing gently against the dining hall ceiling. I brought it down to him and told him that with this balloon he had taken some real responsibility. It was young and wild and had ideas of its own. It was spring and windy and we had errands to do. We weren’t going to lock this one into the car until we docked safely in the garage and could turn it loose in the house, as we usually did. There was no fooling around this time: if he didn’t hold on tight, the blue balloon was gone.
Having said that, I admit that it was not a good idea for me to open the car’s sunroof as soon as we hit the road. I had not sufficiently internalized our trial balloon safety program –implemented just days before -- the one that advised keeping all the windows rolled halfway up when a balloon was being transported, for the sake of the balloon, the driver, and the longevity of all passengers. For some reason this rule did not seem to apply to the sunroof of a car on a magnificent spring day. The blue balloon, prevented from escaping out any of the windows, saw the sunroof slide open and shot upward to take advantage of the oversight. The ribbon pulled tight and began humming like a sheet in a storm, the balloon flying up above the car a good four or five feet. “Yes!” I could hear it saying, “Faster! Faster!”
“Jr., pull it back!” I cried, helping with one hand to reel it in. I closed the sunroof.
Jr. then realized that he had to monitor all the dangerous forces that were out to get the blue balloon, including his father. He took great care, as we set out on our neighborhood errands, to wrap the last few feet of balloon ribbon around his hand and wrist before rolling up alongside me on his bicycle. Depending on our direction of travel, the balloon would trail behind us, or blow ahead of us, or swirl in crazy circles as we passed through invisible vortices. Jr. pulled the balloon down as we ducked into doorways, and reeled it in when we crossed a windy intersection or turned a blind corner. He inspected the ribbon each time he dismounted his bike. His only failure was to forget the balloon when we stopped to visit a dog on the porch of a neighbor.
“Jr., where’s your balloon?” I asked a few feet from the porch. Whatever expression had been on Jr.’s face the moment before fell to the ground together with his bicycle, and he ran in his preschooler way back to the porch to retrieve the balloon. It had waited for him, despite the breezes and all the temptations of spring. I wondered if Jr. had begun to win its loyalty.
The parking lot at Grandpa’s building is a treacherous place. A narrow space between two high-rises that face Lake Michigan, it is almost always windy, and on windy days, it is a permanent gale. I parked the car and began to assemble my bags and the armful of Jr.’s things that always went with him to Grandma and Grandpa’s. I unbuckled Jr. from his car seat and stepped back to let him scramble out as he saw fit. He had shown such maturity in his care of the blue balloon that I did not nag him, as I might have otherwise, to check his wrist wrappings.
They were undone. Jr. was doing something with the car seat buckles while the ribbon hung loose inside the car. Whatever loyalty the balloon had displayed on the porch was instantly overcome by the force of the wind and the attraction of the open blue sky.
“Jr. your balloon!”
“Daddy can you…”
It flew away faster than I could run, horizontally across the parking lot and then, as if sensing a new-found freedom and exulting in the height of the towers around it, up and up and up. I was amazed at how high it had gone so quickly.
Jr. began to cry. “Balloon!” I picked him up. Should I take him inside and avoid this spectacle? Would that make it any easier? I didn’t move. We watched it go higher and higher, up over the building next door, a sky-blue balloon almost invisible against the blue spring sky. After a minute, it disappeared, headed north, downtown, towards the glass and spires of the tallest buildings in North America.
Later that week, Jr. saw the pictures I had taken of his time with the blue balloon. Something shifted in his expression, and he ran to the sofa.
“I’m very proud of how you took care of that balloon,” I told him. And I truly was.
“Where do you think it went?”
“Up to the top of the Sears Tower,” I said. “Then maybe up to Wisconsin. Maybe it even got to Canada. Wouldn't that be something!”
It was, after all, quite a balloon.