Why was I crying in the field of hot air balloons? Was it because my mother, in a basket high above the ground, was rendered inaccessible, nearly invisible? Was it because I feared that she would float off forever, that she would continue to rise, or that she would come crashing down to the ground and die? Was I afraid that a basket would detach from one of these floating giants and kill me? Was it the roar of the gas, the sight of the flame, the noisy violence required for lift-off? Was it because I did not know the man in charge of her safety?
I had watched the helium balloons of my youth float unintentionally upwards, shrinking into multi-colored sperm trying to penetrate the unattainable sky. I had been told by my grade school teachers that these balloons would pop, fall to the ocean, to be consumed by whales, who would mistake them for jellyfish and likely die because of it.
These small things killed whales; they popped in my face as a young child at my birthday parties, causing untimely panic, inconvenient tears, staring faces. I would learn to fear them: their feel, their sound, their explosive qualities, their hatred towards marine life.
But their larger cousins, these hot air balloons, big enough to carry humans across the world, inspired in me no similar sentiment. On car rides, my sister and I in the back seat of the family van in the summertime, would gaze out of our respective windows (me behind my father, she behind my mother, a tradition that lives on any time the four of us are together in a car), searching for the levitating polyps.
Sometimes there would be one, sometimes several. We would describe them to each other, to our parents, pointing, touching the glass window, to our mother’s chagrin, who would mutter about fingerprints or smudging, something that we did not yet understand to be an inconvenience. I think I can recall my father cataloguing aloud anytime we saw a balloon that had a unique pattern or design. I would feel validated whenever he weighed in on such a discovery.
It was a rare thing that I was roused early on the weekends. Maybe this laid the groundwork for my meltdown later that morning. I can’t remember if I had known that on this Saturday or Sunday morning my mother was to go on a balloon ride. I have a vague notion of it being my father’s birthday gift for her, but this could be very far off.
When was it that I rushed towards her, clinging to her legs? Was it before she left, me, a frantic weight coiled around her legs, imploring her not to ascend to certain death? Was it afterwards, me needing to confirm that she was still a physical entity, still alive, still my mother?
I imagine my little body convulsing, quaking as she comforted me, telling me that everything would be fine, or that she was back on the ground and that I had worried myself for nothing. I imagine my loud protestations as she left to approach the flaccid balloon (or had it begun to come to life, that disembodied blow torch allowing the fabric to take on its assumed, less natural shape?). How did she enter that basket? Was there a ladder? Did she hoist herself up into it somehow? This was before her knees went to hell, and she could still run faster than me from the elevator to the office door of my allergist, me always a little disappointed both that I was slower and also that she did not let me win.
And then the sandbags dropping off the side, the ropes coming unpegged, that moment in which that wooden basket first divorced itself from the grass. There were other baskets, other balloons in that field – perhaps that was why I was so scared, the possibility of a mid-air crash.
What was she feeling as she left the ground? Was she elated, was she in wonder? Did she wish that her husband, whom I assume she still loved at that point (these were the years before I had proof to the contrary) was with her and not tending to the children? Did she want us all in that basket as a family? Did she find the man operating the balloon attractive? Did her heart betray her? Did she secretly wish that I would shut up, to let her be, to let her have this wish of hers uninterrupted by her son?
Did my crying, my screams, my pleas for her return ruin the experience for her? Was she thinking, For chrissakes, Jeff, I’m only going to be gone for a little bit. Play with your goddamned father? Or did my reaction to this weekend treat startle her?
My neck craning upwards, grabbing at the air between us as she ascended. Her balloon, her body getting smaller, smaller. Her balloon becoming harder to distinguish from the others as they rose. Me, my father (holding my younger sister?) pointing, Is it that one? Is that her? I think so, I can’t see. My mother floating, seated in this jellyfish in the sky, privileged, looking down upon the bottom feeders.
What I imagine can’t be how it actually happened, I don’t think: an armada of these balloons slowly getting bigger, closer, all touching down in a not quite synchronized fashion. Me, rushing around the field, darting from basket to basket in search of my mother. My father somehow keeping track of my movements (it could not have been that difficult, I could not have been running all that fast, my short legs carrying me only so quickly).
Then the confusion of what I narrated above, my memory unable to disentangle what happened before and after she left earth.
Did she come back changed? Did I trust that she was still who she said she was?
We drove home, the four of us. I think we were all quiet. Or rather, I can’t remember if my mother and father spoke about the experience. Maybe I tuned them out, staring at the window, traumatized or drained.
The memory itself of this event floats, evading my inquiries as to when it happened, and why I was so upset. I am young, but uncertain of my age. I know it was early morning, but recall nothing of the rest of the day.
All that is clear is a small version of myself, in that field, crying, existing only in superlatives. The most scared I had ever been for the safety of my mother (more than when she had her cancer, her car crashes, the beginning of her memory loss). The most acute moment of separation anxiety. The neediest moment a son could have. The biggest letdown of a need not being met. The most I had ever cried in public. The strongest I had believed that I had been abandoned.
The last time I would be excited about the balloons.