I watch my mother tie the end of the balloon shut in a practiced movement of her small, strong fingers. She wants to teach me how but I am too scared to try. The other kids in the school holiday program that she runs in the pink community centre perched on the side of the hill, they all pick it up quickly. But what if it pops in my hands? I couldn’t stand the noise, the failure. I slide away. I’ll find another way to help set up for the party.
We take the babies to meet my Aunty Lyn and she showers them with gifts. A pop-up tent. Bubbles. Marshmallows. A packet of balloons. While I thank her and really am grateful, I privately scratch my head. Balloons are kind of a weird present, aren’t they?
Sometimes I just have no idea. Lyn adored children. She knew what would make them happy.
Time passes and our babies are about to have their first birthday. The kids don’t understand what’s happening but I’m excited about the party. Keeping two whole infants not just alive but thriving for an entire year is by far the greatest achievement of my life. We absolutely must celebrate.
The day before the party, I reach for Lyn’s packet of balloons.
It’s really a moment. I am stepping into proper grown-up territory now. The carefree years of my early adulthood were not a balloon-filled time. It’s been a long time since I’ve even touched one. The babies haven’t encountered one before. How exciting. Kids love balloons, right? They’ll be delighted. I call them over and they watch as I blow it up, interest quickly becoming fear as the strange new object just keeps growing.
Okay, time to tie it up. It looked pretty easy when mum did it, so long ago. You just stretch it out and…no, do you make the loop first? Don’t worry kids, everything is fine…okay, now my finger is stuck…I just need to…
The balloon flies off over the dining table and the children are absolutely terrified. They cling to their father like he’s their only hope of survival. They are not yet coordinated enough to flee and so settle for screaming.
Being a grown-up always turns out to be harder than you expected.
I eagerly squeeze through the chicken coop door and stand still for a moment, savouring it. It’s an odd thing to savour, I suppose, the stink of chicken shit and the irate clucking of hens who wish I’d get on with their breakfast, but it’s my favourite part of the day in the current phase of our mad rush around Spain, volunteering on a tiny organic farm in Basque country. Barnaby is certainly bewildered by it. Hard to explain, but it ties into one of my earliest memories. I remember being very small. I remember a big room, warm and dark, and the gentle rustlings and clucking of chickens. I felt safe there. But this memory makes no sense in the context of my suburban New Zealand childhood.
We skype my mum and I ask her about it. She’s as confused as the rest of us, and then suddenly her face clears. “Ah! Lyn worked on a chicken farm”.
I was only 18 months old when my brother was born, so I was still practically a baby myself when a dairy allergy sent him, a tiny infant, into hospital. With dad working full-time, my parents did the only thing they could do – they packed me up and sent me away. I can’t imagine how hard it was for them.
I was fine, of course. They sent me to Aunty Lyn.
Now, I am a grown-up, and I am determined. They’re balloons. I’m supposed to be a mother. I have to give my children the joy of balloons.
With a lot of soothing and coaxing we persuade them to watch as I attempt it again, albeit from a distance this time. They peek at me from their father’s safe arms. I blow up the balloon, go to tie it, look up at the kid’s worried little faces with their big round eyes, and I do something terrible. I just can’t help it. I know I shouldn’t have done it. It was just too funny. Even now, I’m not ashamed like I should be.
I let the balloon go….deliberately.
It flies around in the air, the kids scream, I bend over double laughing, and Barnaby, well, he’s not impressed.
The children are spirited away by their better parent and I’m left to blow the balloons up by myself. At least with the pressure off I finally work out how to tie them.
The damage is done, at any rate. The babies have realised the truth. The balloons cannot be trusted. When my friend comes for dinner that evening they lead her to where I have tied bunches of the offending objects to the curtain rails and they point, over and over again. They have almost no language so we’re not sure whether they are telling her to watch out for the flying menaces or asking her to save them from the balloons as their parents apparently won’t, but they successfully convey that they are unhappy with the continued balloon presence.
I leave them up anyway and they eventually get used to them. And a few months later I try again, blow a few up just to see what’ll happen.
The kids seem to have forgotten the earlier debacle because they are thrilled, laughing and racing around the room like children from an advert for life insurance. I take a video for Aunty Lyn. She deserves to see the joy she’s brought.
I spend a long time meaning to send that video to her and then a few months ago, suddenly, there was no-one to send it to.
Being a grown-up sometimes means learning lessons the hard way.
I’m in the supermarket when mum calls. Mum’s a texter, so I know something’s wrong before I even answer.
After she tells me that Lyn’s gone I’m shaky but not crying, vague and distracted. I lug the shopping around the aisles, staring at the shelves but choosing nothing, for quite some time before it occurs to me that I had best call Barns. He is waiting in the car with the toddlers and will be wondering what’s taking me so long.
We were going to facetime her but never worked out how.
I’m still in a daze when my little family run up to where I’m waiting. Nora and June positively fling themselves upon me. They embrace me with all the strength their tiny arms possess.
We said we were going to visit last year but we got busy moving house and we didn’t.
“There you go, Mumma!” Juney smiles up at me. “Now you’re not sad anymore!”
I never sent her the video.
It’s a big packet of balloons. We tied some to the letterbox for Nora and June’s second birthday party, as is the tradition of our people.
We had their third birthday party in a park. We thought it would be helpful to tie some balloons to a tree to show our families where to find us. They popped in the wind and the kids were so sad that well-meaning relatives blew up some more.
Those popped, too.
The relatives were determined to fix things. Were they not grandparents / uncles? Fixing things is their job. They had a brainwave. They would tie the balloons to the toddlers! That would keep them off of the prickly ground. Children never lower their arms.
So, when a balloon next popped, it was attached to a child. She screamed in abject terror. Her sister realised something. The balloon tied around her very own wrist might also pop at any second. She tried to run but the balloon followed her. She started screaming. We all gave chase. The balloon popped before we could undo the knot.
That was the last straw for both of them. They haven’t touched a balloon since. If I suggest they might like one, June will turn to me with enormous eyes. “But what if it pops?” she asks, and I have no answer for that. Accepting the truth that all things end is also the work of grown-ups.
I miss balloons though, and hope they will be over this current phase soon. I liked always having a few bumping around on the floor. I can’t seem to pass one by without picking it up and batting it around a bit. I like to see how long I can keep it in the air before it escapes me and drifts back down to the floor. It’s a game I’ve been playing for as long as I remember.
Who was it who said we don’t grow up, we just get old?
Aunty Lyn understood that better than anyone. She loved things with openness, innocence. She collected salt and pepper shakers. In the last years of her life, she was learning to play the ukulele. She was obsessed with elephants, and getting to touch one in Australia was the greatest thrill of her life. And she adored children, all of them, even through all the years of raising her own and helping with the nieces and nephews and grandkids, the stress and the toil of it. She made you feel special.
I hope I grow up to be someone like her.
To be completely honest, this piece has sat unfinished for months. I’m still learning to write, and while the above, the original end of the piece, is true, it’s not all the way true. I write, in large part, to explain things to myself. Perhaps here I’m reaching for the heart of something that doesn’t exist. There’s no pat summation or smooth conclusion when you lose someone. This stuff, the people you care about, what you think and feel about them, grief, family, love, it’s messy. So I’m just going to let this post be a bit messy.
Here’s what I do know. I don’t believe in life after death. That’s why it’s important that we send those emails and make those phone calls while we still can. We can’t do anything for the dead but remember them, and they can’t do anything for us at all.
But if that’s really true, why do chicken coops still feel like home? Why was I so determined to take the kids to see their first elephant this summer? There’s still a few balloons in the packet in the cupboard. If I hide it away, keep it safe, there’ll be just enough left for one more birthday party.