Latex balloons often make me think about the challenges of parenting a child with special needs, because they were one of the first indicators - very early on in my parenting journey - that there are an extraordinary number of fine points and details that parents of children with disabilities have to consider and plan carefully, that most other parents have the luxury of taking for granted.
Several years ago, when I learned that I was carrying a child with spina bifida I tried to learn as much as I could about what my child's life would be like. I learned many things that, while difficult, were not surprising. But the first real surprise I got came in the form of balloons. Many people with spina bifida have extreme latex allergies, and for that reason it is recommended that parents of children with spina bifida keep latex away from their children from the start. (Our twins were delivered in a latex-free OR, and Bud and I stayed in a latex-free hospital room, despite the fact that, by then, it was no longer necessary.) Latex is in a lot of products new parents use every day - baby bottle nipples and pacifiers, diapers, rubber toys; it is also in balloons. Balloons - the colorful carefree symbol of childhood - could have been deadly to my children. Perhaps because the big picture was too overwhelming I found myself obsessing on this detail in both of my spina bifida pregnancies.
But my obsession was short-lived, and those sweet babies are not with us. Shortly after we lost each of them my husband and I wrote messages on balloons and let them go, watching them drift high into the sky, in the hopes that our babies, no longer concerned about allergy or disability, would catch them.
Perhaps in a bit of cosmic homage to his siblings, Bud is a balloon enthusiast. Latex, mylar, helium-filled or blown from the lungs - he loves them all. On any given day you can probably find a balloon somewhere in our house - a withered balloon tumble-weeding it's away around the living room, a wayward mylar balloon clinging to the rafters for weeks on end, a soggy-with-spit blob of deflated latex that Bud has been practicing with. So this morning when we went to the grocery store to buy the fixings for Daddy's special birthday dinner and Bud saw that the store was giving away balloons with their logo, he marched bravely to customer service and asked for one. When the woman at the counter discovered it was Daddy's birthday, she gave him a second one to take home to Dad.
Bud held tightly to his balloons through the check-out and across the parking lot, then let them roam free in the car. One made it's way to the front and brushed my cheek while I drove, and I began thinking about our lost babies and our long and complicated history with balloons. When we got home, Bud raced in to show the balloons to Daddy, and we quickly tied each one to a lightweight plastic balloon anchor - heavy enough to keep them from flying away, light enough to let them bounce along, barely skimming the ground.
All day long, the balloons caught my attention. Bud brought them outside with us, and they hovered as we ate our lunch at the picnic table. When we moved to the other side of the house to rake leaves and stack branches, they bobbed around the corner to find us. They joined us as we played catch with the big orange ball, and as Bud sounded out, then copied in writing, the words I wrote in chalk on the driveway: hat, can, big, sun, zip.
Over and over, the balloons made me smile. They weren't connected to each other but they stayed together, propelled by the same invisible breezes. They looked like they were putting their heads together, comparing notes and sharing secrets. They made me think of my babies, and I was happy to have them along.
When we finally moved indoors, Bud went upstairs with Dad to play on the computer and I headed to the kitchen to prepare the birthday feast. As I cooked, the balloons floated through together, paused for a while, then continued on their way. I wondered briefly if they'd come to the party, then quickly got back to the business at hand.
After a great dinner it was time for cake and presents. As I got the cake ready, Bud ran into the kitchen and opened the drawer where we keep the aluminum foil.
"I need some help," he said.
In his hand, he held a plastic purple star that he painted several years ago in preschool and that has been hanging in his room ever since. He wanted to wrap it to give it to his dad for his birthday. I tore a sheet of foil, and Bud wrapped the present tightly and asked for a bow. He stuck one on, then shook with glee as he presented the gift and watched Daddy gush over it.
Then it was time for cake. We sang the conga-line version of the song (HAP-py-birth-day-dad-DY!"), as has become the family tradition, and Bud "helped" Daddy blow out his many candles. I turned to get Dad's other presents, and when I looked back I saw that Bud had taken his two balloons and was balancing the balloon-anchors on the top of his dad's head. The anchors slipped down, and Dad wrapped one balloon string under each arm. He finished opening his presents with one balloon bouncing against each ear, and Bud dancing with giddiness at the sight. My heart has never felt more full.
We spent the rest of the festivities watching Bud put treasured possessions into the bed of a big inflatable shoe, then present them to his Dad as additional birthday presents to "open": among other things, Bud's favorite toothpaste, his rubber duck, a Blues Clues video, and - the piece de resistance - a Teletubbies CD. I'm not sure if Daddy was more pleased to get them or Bud was more pleased to give them. Bud rounded out the evening by eating two bites of birthday cake - the actual cake, not just the frosting. It may not sound like much, but it is the first cake I have seen my six-year-old eat since the piece he had on his first birthday.
Bathtime and bedtime went smoothly, all of us happily exhausted by a day full of sunshine, fresh air, presents and parties. The balloons, too, are starting to deflate. They are still hovering by the table, but are closer to the ground now, their helium spirit making a quiet exit after a busy day.
That's the thing about helium balloons. They're not around very long, and they often leave before you're ready to see them go. But these helium balloons - these particular balloons on this particular day? I have a feeling they'll be with me for a long, long time.