I originally started this blog post about a year and a half ago. It's about time to finish it, don't ya think?
In early November 2008, I went to one of my favorite stores in my city. It's a party supply store that has the feel of an old-fashioned general store. Many items are stocked in big bins and sold in bulk. They have a large room entirely devoted to balloons that's like the United Nations of Balloons, all shapes and colors displayed together in utopian harmony. Even though it was a week past Halloween, still floating about the store were a few helium-filled mylar balloons with spooky themes. As I paid for my purchases, the store clerk gestured toward a round mylar balloon that was almost the size of one of my car's tires and featured the face of a smiling jack o'lantern. He asked if I would like to have it--for free. I hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and said, "Sure. I'll find some kid who'd like it."
It turned out I was the kid who liked the balloon. I remember watching it in the review mirror as I drove away from the store. It bobbed and weaved in the backseat, where I had finally been able to get it to "sit, stay." At stop lights, I had to turn around, grab the ribbon, and pull the balloon down behind the front seats so I could see out the rear window.
Despite the challenges of traveling with a large helium-filled balloon in the backseat, I soon found I enjoyed its company. It was something I could talk to--it had a face after all--something I could bounce my ideas off of--and the balloon thought all my ideas were great ones. That November was a lonely one. The Kid was in his senior year of college and living on campus. The Old Man was busy with a Christmas play and away from home most evenings. So I decided to make the balloon my companion for a season.
After a week of traveling together, I decided the balloon needed a name. As we drove here and there through the city, I thought of how isolated the balloon and I seemed to be, the car an island, the balloon and I castaways.... Castaway with Tom Hanks ... a volleyball named Wilson ... So, that's how we rolled: me and Wilson, Wilson and me, until ...
About three weeks into my relationship with Wilson, the Old Man borrowed my car and I woke to find Wilson had left the car island and was now bobbing and weaving in the living room. Wilson spent the remainder of his days there. I was still alone, still a castaway, but I was comforted to know that whenever I passed through the living room, Wilson would be there. "Hi, Wilson," I'd say as I walked past him to the kitchen. "See you when I get back from work," I'd say in passing him to go to my office. Some days, I would sit with Wilson in companionable silence as I read. Sometimes I read aloud to him so that we would have the comfort of an audible voice. There was at least one time, possibly more, that I remember sitting and having a good cry with Wilson as my only comfort.
Wilson died of natural causes. December 2008 brought snow of a depth that our city seldom sees. As the days grew colder and the snow fell, Wilson's energy sagged and his helium lost its lift. Every day he drooped a little more, his ribbon had a little more slack, and gravity pulled on him relentlessly. Then came the day that Wilson touched the floor and laid there. My grinning, gap-toothed friend was breathing his last.
I took Wilson and held him, looked at him for a long time, and then untied his ribbon, loosened his knot, and squeezed him gently to expel the remaining helium. With a quiet whoosh, Wilson breathed his last. I sat with him for a few minutes more, running my hands over his mylar that was already beginning to crinkle, trying to smooth it out. I considered taking him back to the party store and asking the sales clerk to revive him with another shot of helium. Maybe I should have. Instead, I gave his mylar body a final stroke, folded him neatly, and laid him in the trash.
I haven't forgotten Wilson, and people who knew him sometimes say, "Remember your balloon friend? What was his name? Oh, yeah, Wilson." This last November, with The Kid busy with his post-college life and The Old Man busy with another Christmas play, I again was the castaway but without my Wilson.