by Jim Bates
I’ll never forget my first helium balloon. I got two of them for my second birthday. Two red ones, my favorite color. My grandpa gave them to me. “Here you go, Lonny,” he said, smiling. “Enjoy.” I did.
My grandpa loved helium filled balloons. Not those mylar ones with sayings on them like Too Bad You’re 40. Now Your Life Is Over. No, he like those red, yellow, blue, green ones. Even black and while. Colors were his joy.
“They’re solid and simple,” he told me once when I was about five. My grandma had given him a bundle of fifty for his fiftieth birthday. “Plus, you know,” he added sheepishly, “they’re kind of pretty.”
Grandpa was a salt of the earth heavy equipment operator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. A macho job if there ever was one, but he had a gentle nature, at least around me. I became a lover of balloons because of him.
“I just like to watch them float,” I said, the day of his fiftieth birthday.
He smiled. “I hear you,” he said. “It’s like a watching little bit of magic.” He silent for a moment before adding, “Goodness knows we could all do with some of that in our lives.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but the statement stuck with me.
Me and my younger sister stayed with Grandpa and Grandma a lot growing up due to problems my mom and dad had with fighting and what not. Even after I got older and moved on with my life, I made it a point of always giving grandpa a bundle of balloons for his birthday, one for each year. The older he got, of course, the bigger the bundle. He loved them.
Grandpa’s one hundredth birthday was a special day in more ways than one, one I’ll always remember. Grandma was long gone, and he’d been living in Orchard Lake Senior Living west of Minneapolis for a number of years. I lived nearby so I could visit him easily, something I did most every day.
On that day, I met the deliver guy in the parking lot and helped with the balloons. We took them into grandpa’s room. “Surprise!” I said coming in, dragging in a clump of twenty-five. I was followed by the delivery guy and two of the staff who had a special fondness for my grandpa. Each of them had a clump of twenty-five, making it one hundred balloons all total, a colorful mix of red, yellow, blue, green, purple, orange, black and white. It was quite the sight. “Happy Birthday!” we all called out.
We’d scheduled the party for noon. The staff brought in a cake and for the next hour or so people came in wished Grandpa happy birthday. His huge grin never left his face.
Later, he and I sat with each other, chatting. Grandpa looked at me and said, “You know Lonny, this is the best birthday I’ve ever had.”
“I’m glad, Grandpa,” I said, reaching for another piece of cake. “It was fun.”
“You know what would make it even better?”
I paused, half way to the cake. I thought having the balloons was enough. “Did I miss something?” I asked.
He could see the perplexed look on my face and laughed, “Don’t worry my boy, you did good with the party.” He patted me on the arm. “And with the balloons. You did really good with all the balloons.” He waved his hand at all of them floating around his room.
“What then?” I asked, dishing up a piece of cake.
“It might be fun to let them go.”
“Yeah, take them outside and set them free.”
“Grandpa, their just balloons, not living things,” I chided him. “Not like doves or something.”
He grinned at me and said, “Well, you never know. They make us feel so good, don’t they? Who’s to say if they’ve got a heart and soul or not?”
Balloons having a heart and soul? I was afraid my grandfather was completely losing his mind, but when I looked at him, he was deadly serious. Besides, it was a harmless thing to do. I set my plate down, “You sure?”
“I’m positive. It’ll be fun.”
Well, all right, then.
I put him in his wheelchair and took him outside. It was a beautiful spring afternoon. Buds were bursting open on the trees and there was a fragrance of lilies-of-the-valley in the air. We went out to the back of the building where there was a small lawn and some open space. I had to have some of the staff help managing all those balloons, but they didn’t mind at all.
As we were getting organized more and more of the residents came out to join us. When we were ready, Grandpa spontaneously began handing out balloons to everyone. The smile on his face was priceless as he listened to the ‘Oh’s’ and ‘Ah’s’ from the crowd when they set the balloons free and they sailed away.
When he had personally let the last one go, he turned to the crowd and said, “Well, that was one-hundred balloons we set free. Next year we’ll do one-hundred and one.” People cheered.
I’ll never forget that day.
He died later that year. We had a short service at the community room where Grandpa lived. It was decorated with one hundred and one colored balloons. When it was over, we took the balloons out back like on Grandpa’s birthday and let the entire bunch go. Everyone that was there smiled. Some even applauded. The sight of those balloons being set free made us all feel good.
I know Grandpa would have loved it, and I consoled myself thinking that maybe he was out there somewhere watching as those balloons floated away. You know what, the more I think about it, maybe he was right about them having a heart and soul. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.