When my oldest still was an only child, we took her to Disneyland.
It was a long day, but most of my rent money still was intact when one last vendor shoved a big-eared helium rat balloon in my daughter’s face.
Yes, I bought the balloon, but like many parents, I admonished her to hold it tight, promising it would not be replaced. As we juggled our purchases into the car, I turned when I heard her shrill voice yelling, “Nooooo!”
Yup, she lost it.
Balloons have a strong pull on children, and some keep the fascination long after childhood.
That was the case with a college freshman I met April 30, 1992, in the emergency room at Houston Northwest Medical Center.
I remember the date well, because that was the day the Goodyear blimp left Houston for its new home in Akron, Ohio. This girl was walking along the side of the freeway taking pictures of the blimp when a semitruck slammed into her.
She was brought to our emergency room, where I stood waiting for her mother in the ER lobby. With all the police in ER that day, I didn’t notice the female sheriff officer who hurried past me to ask the ER clerk if they had her daughter.
I turned to address her.
“Ma’am,” I began with a professional air. “I’m the chaplain. Please come with me.”
Just as I started toward our conference room, I felt her hands reverse my direction. With an eerie calmness demanded in her profession, she ordered me to tell her what had happened.
I was a new chaplain. My reasoning was a bit incoherent and slightly influenced by her uniform.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but she died on the scene,” I blurted.
Grabbing at my suit coat, she slid down my torso like a woman sliding off a cliff. “Noooooo!” she screamed, sounding much like my daughter when her balloon escaped her grasp.
Her daughter — not too unlike my daughter’s balloon — had been in her grasp only a few hours earlier when she kissed her good bye.
There is something about balloons that reinforce that cliché about the only love “meant to be” is the love that returns to you after you release it. Releasing a child is much more difficult, but, at some point, if you are to let your child fly her own path, you must let her go.
In releasing her, there is every possibility that you may be faced with inexplicable unfairness, but the alternative is to keep that balloon locked up until its buoyancy can no longer elevate it above the shallow draft in your house.
For a while, my daughter found a great way to keep her balloons. She denied their flights, deflated them, and tacked them to a wall resembling wanted posters in the Disney post office.
June is the month when many of you saw a child or loved one graduate. Soon, they will begin chasing their dreams. The balloon is a great analogy for this experience.
You also can deny the flight of a child, but at some point, the resistance ceases and the child no longer resembles the love that originally inflated it. Pin the child to the wall, and she becomes a trophy, a protected and safe trophy. The problem is, trophies can’t return your love.
By the way, I couldn’t make good my original threat. I did buy her another Mickey balloon, and we still had food money. Now my daughter works for an airline, and I rarely see her. But when I do catch a glimpse of her, she is almost always flying high.