Years ago, one of my many eccentricities was a love of randomly buying helium balloons, going to odd places, and releasing them. On some occasions, I would attach a message. (I have some interesting stories about some of these adventures, saved for a later misty October morning.) Mostly, though, I would simply watch in fascination as the laws of physics carried these orbs into the sky at varying speeds, against the seemingly infinite backdrop of ‘the great above.’ As childlike as finding delight in this might be, it is something that I still hold almost sacred all these decades later. Some of the allure undoubtedly is the unknown and mystery of how high and how far the balloons might reach, even as I become a pinpoint below it.
Today, Dawn and I went to buy one item at a discount store and instead walked out with $50 of miscellaneous treasures. The store had a vertical corral of whimsical balloons. I bought a minion-themed one. Even though Dawn kept guessing as to its purpose, I just kept offering ridiculous answers. Dawn is accustomed to my method, so she didn’t judo chop me across the neck as most people might have done.
We drove past the turnoff to our house and descended down the shaded and deep incline just outside the city limits of Springdale, where things get stranger looking as one traverses Friendship Road. Dawn wanted to know where we were going. Instead of answering her, I looped around and drove into the huge expanse named “Friendship Cemetery.” Dawn then speculated that my intent was to place the minion balloon as a surprise to some random grave. Granted, that is something I was certainly capable of, all the while imagining the reaction of whomever might drive up and see it.
We had the entire cemetery to ourselves, or so I thought, even though it was after 11:30 on a hot July Sunday morning. There was a slight Northerly breeze blowing and billowing underneath a spotty cover of clouds. Standing at the epicenter of this long cemetery, I imagined that it was as serene and peaceful setting that could be devised for such a day.
Dawn took my picture with the balloon as I bit off the streamer to add to its buoyancy. As I released the balloon, it rose against the backdrop of the bright summer sky. The silvery sheen of the balloon helped us to mark its trajectory as it made its solitary journey up and outward. Much to my surprise, even Dawn seemed to be enjoying the vision of the balloon, pirouetting and incrementally escaping our ability to discern its presence. To our mutual delight, we took turns laughing and noting how bad our eyesight seemed to be. After a few minutes, even the brilliance of the exterior of the balloon was defeated by the sheer distance it had conquered since I released it. I told Dawn a couple of my balloon stories from when I was younger and continuously prone toward antics of every variety.
It was a notable moment for me, having realized an accidental balloon provided such a delight to us.
As we drove around the back and turned to head back toward the entrance, something caught my eye and I said, “Look at that. There’s a bicycle in the middle of the road.” A mountain bike was parked facing us, plastic grocery sacks tied to the handlebars and blowing serenely with the wind. No one was in sight. The pastoral serenity of the huge vastness of the cemetery only strengthened the aura of unworldly effect. The bike was parked no more than 15 yards from we had initially stood out and released the balloon. I promise that it had not been there when we entered the cemetery or when I looked around as we watched the balloon rise. Dawn took a few pictures but unfortunately, none quite went wide enough to have captured the parked bike when we were enjoying ourselves.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I wondered where the rider was and how long he had been present. We looked around carefully as I inched up the path in the car. At that point, I was already even with the mountain bike, ghostly in its solitary stance. I spotted him first. A young gentleman was stretched out, curled up against a lower-profile headstone, feet facing North. I couldn’t see his face. Oddly, though, I could feel the manifest intimacy of his embrace with the tombstone. Only someone experiencing the unfathomable pain of loss would lie in the summer grass in such a place in such a way.
Dawn and I had inadvertently wandered into a very precious moment of pain in the mountain bike rider’s life. We hoped our display of fun and enthusiasm had not interfered with his very private expression of loss. It seemed as if the gentleman on the grass had been there forever, independent of our presence. I’m certain that his thoughts were swimming in the hereafter, so great was his memory of the person in the grave under his embrace.
I reluctantly drove away, fatally curious as to his story and to that of his loved one buried in a quiet grave in Friendship Cemetery. It must have been a worthy life and a formidable love. The researcher in me relishes the opportunity to discover the hidden story; the human in me dreads the plot of loss that I know underscores whatever I discover.
While I don’t know his story, I know that fate handed me a minion balloon for no other purpose than to cause me to wonder for many days as to whether all of us are creating moments in life that beg and beseech that someone will grieve our loss in such a way.
Meanwhile, the balloon which united us continues to soar away, oblivious to our thoughts, plans, and desires. It looks down on us all, shimmering. Please take a moment and look downward with it, imagining that your life will one bright summer morning be held in the same glorious way that the young man who journeyed on a bike to be with his loved one embraced his.
(From far enough away or high enough above, all that seems important to you will fade to fond remembrances and laughter. If you are lucky.)