The Orange Balloon: A Story About Grief and Living

Once upon a time I took my daughter to the grocery store.  She was in the midst of cancer treatment, but it was that brief time of the month in between her chemo sessions that she was able to walk and breathe freely amongst others in the world.  We got pretty efficient at packing 30 days of living into six or seven.  And a grocery store doesn’t seem like much, but, hey, it was Trader Joe’s and she was a young toddler, so trust me when I say a trip to the grocery store was cause for celebration.

We had finished our errand and my little bald headed Donna was gifted a balloon by the cashier after we checked out.  It was a bright orange balloon, on a white ribbon.  I remember it like it was yesterday, despite the calendar telling me it was almost eight years ago.  Stupid calendar.

As we drove home I remember feeling anxious that Donna was holding and playing with a latex balloon.  Can you even imagine a child with cancer dying after ingesting a balloon?  In those days, my worries ran high and I kept peeking glances in the rear view mirror, reminding my girl not to put the balloon anywhere near her mouth.  She laughed and giggled and wiggled her fingers along the orange balloon, making funny squeaking noises that brought us so much joy.

We got home and pulled into our parking space.  It was a bright, chilly afternoon, but one that held the promise of warmth and spring not too far away.  I ran the groceries up first, then came back down to carry in my girl.  As I opened the door, in the flash of a moment that will stay with me forever, Donna’s bright orange balloon flew past me, weaving through my arms, ascending higher and higher.  It was gone with the wind.  Literally.

Tears ensued.  Wails.  My beautiful girl was so, so sad.  I was so, so mad at myself.  Why hadn’t I thought to open the door more carefully?  Why hadn’t my arms and fingers reached higher or more deftly?  Why hadn’t the girl been holding on to her precious balloon more carefully?

None of those questions mattered.  The balloon was gone.  Long gone.

I tried to make lemonade out of the lemons of that lost balloon, telling Donna, as we watched it fly higher and higher into the sky, moving further and further away, that perhaps it might reach her Baba, my mother, Donna’s namesake who died before she was born.  We never talked about heaven much or what it meant to be dead or where you went, but in that moment, grasping as I was, the idea comforted both of us.

Today's orange balloon, which looks so much like that other orange balloon.  The bright blue skies are the same, too.  It is for Donna, and her brother, a small connection.
Today’s orange balloon, which looks so much like that other orange balloon. The bright blue skies are the same, too. It is for Donna, and her brother, a small connection.

Hours and days and weeks and even months later, Donna would remember her orange balloon and tell me how sad she remained about it.  It became part of our lore, our little family of three.  We all knew the significance of that orange balloon and the sadness it brought to our girl.  But just as she remembered her sadness, she, too, felt comforted with the idea of her grandmother, a fine lady she had never even met, keeping it for her, holding it safe, being cheered by the orange balloon herself, up high in the sky.

Not an orange balloon crosses my path that I don’t think of my girl and that beautiful day and her profound sadness at losing something she treasured, if only for a short while.

Today I was at a different store, paying a different cashier, when I spied a bouquet of balloons at the next register, clearly waiting for a young child to claim them, one by one.  They were pink and yellow and orange, of course.  I was child free this morning, but when I grabbed my change I asked the cashier if I might take one for my little guy at home.  “Of course,” she smiled, “that is what they are there for.”

I lied to that cashier.  I told her it was for my little guy, but that was a fib.  That orange balloon was for Donna.  Every orange balloon is for Donna, today and every day.  Of course, when my boy wakes from his nap, there will be an orange balloon waiting for him to play with, but you know, and I know, that his afternoon joy comes courtesy of the sister he never met.

That orange balloon will always and forever be for Donna, the little girl I treasured, if only for a short while.

**********

On Saturday, March 19, 2016, the 5th annual Donna’s Good Things shave for St. Baldrick’s will be held in Chicago.  Please consider joining us as a shavee or donating to our event.  CLICK HERE.  Just like that orange balloon, raising money for pediatric cancer research is part of Donna’s legacy.

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