The other day, when I was talking to Sooby on the phone, she was lamenting the short life of the balloon. Her little sister's birthday balloons from earlier this month had either popped or developed leaks. The Princess, Spiderman, and Elmo mylars I had taken the kids at the end of June lay deflated on their toy room floor. Indeed, Sooby assured me, she had every reason to be "so, so sad about them."
"Well," I told her, "some things just aren't meant to last very long." I reminded her of Wonder Bubbles and of Charlie Brown's kite, a victim of the infamous kite-eating tree. We talked about cupcakes. "Sometimes," I heard myself say, "the fact that things don't last very long is what makes them so special while we have them. If we had them all the time, they wouldn't be so much fun." I even taught her a new word to describe these things: "temporary."
Now, I could go on and use this as some kind of metaphor for life itself, but that would be too obvious and melodramatic. What I am really fascinated by here is the fact that something like a bag of air secured by a knot can be at the center of so many life lessons.
I love a story that my cousin tells of a trip she took with her parents to Disneyland when she was little. Her mom and dad bought her a balloon and handed it to her with the stern warning NOT to let it go, no matter what. "All I could think about," she said, "was 'What will happen if I let this go?'" Sure enough, curiosity got the best of her. She let it go, and, as far as her parents were concerned, she was one dead cat.
Balloon lessons seem to pop up in the curriculum of every new generation. I remember a set of pictures a friend took of my daughter, Sooby's mother, playing with her first balloon at less than one year of age (A bad idea, I know. I can still hear my mother screaming, "She'll pop that thing and suck it down her throat!"). Back then, the series of photos led me to write a poem, part of which I will quote here.
It begins, "I watch you enrapt/as air wrapped in red rubber/evades your chubby grubby grasp,/once more endures the test/of two new teeth." The second stanza contemplates possible outcomes of this scenario (except the one my mom warned of): the balloon could pop suddenly, scare the baby, and make her cry--or she could wake up in the morning to find all the air gone out of it. Either way, I mused, she would be disappointed. Like Sooby, who was feeling especially close to her balloons because she had just learned to blow them up by herself, she might be left "so, so sad."
The final stanza voices what I think must surely be every mother's hope for her child: "I wish I could spare you/now and always/sudden loss, shattered hopes,/dreams dissolved overnight." Of course, no mother can do that. We all have to learn to live with loss and to cope with the deflated shells of hopes and dreams that failed to pan out.
That is life, and--oh, shoot!--life is like a balloon. I said it after all.