In our house, they are. They are either lying on their side, forlorn and forgotten, if they were parent-inflated. If it was helium, they are now flying under the radar, hovering just a few inches off the carpet. Those mylar ones can exist in this state for months. Like the undead, they are neither alive nor fully terminal.
Every dying balloon and bit of streamer or crepe paper still stuck to a wall or ceiling has a story behind it. It was from this birthday or that, from a past holiday or a homecoming. The balloons retain a simulacrum of cheer, even in their reduced state. Like a former heavyweight aging at the bar and telling anyone who’ll listen about his glory days, the balloons hang around, desperate to be recognized and revered once again.
Their prime time seems to be the pre-dawn and early morning hours, which also happens to be, unfortunately, my time. This is when the death-knell dirigibles move out of the perimeter and into the hallways, the center of the living room, the middle of the kitchen floor. During the day, the normal flow of traffic pushes them into the corners, much like old wiper blades and chunks of truck tire end up on the shoulder of the 405. But when the kids go down for the night, out they come, and they’re there in the morning to greet me. Their silent suffering and creepy presence is enough to unnerve me even when I tell myself, hey, it’s only a balloon.
Time was, I accepted the balloons in their reduced state the way societies tolerate tribal elders. But lately, I’ve begun practicing euthanasia on them. When no kids are around to complain or mourn, I take a pair of scissors and do a quick, surgical cut right at the base, where it’s tied. I then lay the balloon gently in the trash and watch it slowly deflate.
Because many of them have been inflated for so long, the material is stretched to where they won’t entirely deflate on their own. So I have to give them a little help, tenderly pushing the remaining air out, helping it on its way to a better place. Like they do in Sweden.
The dawn balloons are not alone in our home. Like any house with kids, ours is often a jumble of set-aside toys, blankets, pillows, school papers, clothing, shoes and the like. At about 5:45 a.m., it looks like a busy life scene that was suddenly interrupted—by a neutron bomb, the rapture, whatever. The balloons float above the fray—even if it’s only by a few inches—and emanate a sort of superiority: the manor house butler looking askance at the stablehand.
A main ingredient of all this domestic rubble is Kleenex. Andy, the 2-year-old, has a symbiotic relationship with this product that’s something between love and hate. It is rarely possible for one to pluck a Kleenex from a box in our home in the manner the manufacturer had in mind. The careful layers of tissue, designed to deliver one into your hand while offering up the next one for future use, are systematically destroyed by Andy. Kleenex are fascinating to him, I suppose, and he’s not content to let them sit in their box undisturbed. They must be pulled out, then distributed around the room. When we later gather them up and put them back in the box, we haven’t a prayer of replicating the factory packing. We jam them back in as best we can, then pull it out later to disentangle one for use.
Andy’s love of Kleenex isn’t limited to just distributing them. They also function as a sort of temporary, disposable blankie. He’s rarely without one, and often falls asleep with one clutched in his fist. If I wipe his nose with one and thoughtlessly toss it in the trash, he howls until I fish it back out. No Kleenex, in his mind, should be so summarily dismissed. It must be loved, even if it’s besmirched.
Sure, it adds to the overall mess, but I’ve discovered one plus to Andy’s whole-house Kleenex distribution scheme: When he has an urgent need, as he so often does, it’s generally not necessary to get up and hunt for the box. There’s one lying on the floor nearby, waiting patiently to be employed. Alas for the balloons, there seems to be no redeeming quality once they’ve lost their loft.
As I write on this Sunday morning, there’s a mylar balloon floating three inches off the ground in the hallway, not five feet from me. It’s blue and yellow and has “It’s A Boy!” written on it. I don’t know how it got here or whose baby it commemorates, but when I finish this paragraph, I’m going to grab the scissors and euthanize it. It’s not that I hate balloons or want to deprive anyone of its charms, but the thing is finished, a horse with a broken leg that must be put down. I know it is a far, far better thing, the compassionate thing. I know, too, that another balloon—fresh and plump, bursting with buoyancy—will take its place soon. And the circle of balloon life will begin anew. With Kleenex.
Originally published in L.A. Family magazine, 2004.