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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Releasing Control: The Story of the Birthday Balloon

I really thought I had already written about this.  Maybe I have and I can't find the post.  Forgive me if it is a repeat.  I saw this picture recently, and it reminded me of the story.

It was 2002.  My son's 18th birthday.  If you've been reading along, you know my son has neurological issues and mental illness.  Raising him has been a trial.  In December of 2001, after a violent outburst, I told him to leave.  He did.  Never to live under my roof again.  He was 17.  It was like having both our hearts ripped out.

In May, of 2002, my son turned 18.  We had a celebratory lunch, and gift opening back at the house later, but things were tense and awkward.  I had also purchased him a bunch of helium Happy Birthday balloons.  I withheld one; kept it hidden in my room for later.

Later that afternoon, I took that balloon, and a lawn chair up to the mausoleum in the cemetery which faces a giant golden cross.  My intent was to have a private ceremony, releasing him back to God.  I had to find a way to make peace with our separation, with his abrupt emancipation, and to realize that the life I had guarded for 18 years was now out of my hands.  I had to somehow let go, knowing that his future was uncertain and rocky; dangerous, perilous and any number of things you can attribute to a mentally ill person who is now, on their own.  Due to the choices he was making about not participating in treatment or medication, I had to make the tough-love choice that the bank was closed.  He had to make it on his own from here.

So there I was, heading up to the cemetery, with this birthday balloon bobbing in the back seat, with no idea of what I would do once I got there.  I'm not the most symbolic or abstract person you'll ever meet.  I'm literal and linear.  But I knew I wanted to mark this day as a special turning point.  I survived sticking it out with him for 18 years.  I wasn't arrested for killing him or him me.  It was never easy, always traumatic, always like dodging bullets in a war zone, but we made it this far.  I need to pat myself a little on the back for that, and to truly let go of his future, and my control over it.  I was going to make an extreme effort to bend my brain and do something symbolic.  I would release the balloon, while sitting before the cross, to return my son to God's keeping.  That's the plan.

I got to the cemetery and parked.  I opened the back door to get the folded lawn chair out and set it in position before the cross.  I returned to the car for the balloon and it was gone.  I mean VANISHED.  It was not in a tree, it was nowhere to be seen in the sky, it was certainly no longer in the back seat.  And.....I......was......royally.....PISSED.

My emotions were already fragile that day.  Things had been so awkward with the birthday "celebration".  I had figured out a symbolic ritual, I had bought the damn balloons, withholding one, I had it all worked out.  I was creating outside my comfort zone, gosh darn it!  What the HELL was God THINKING!??  I raged.  I cried.  Good thing it was just me and some dead people in the cemetery.  "YOU COULDN'T LET ME HAVE JUST THIS O*N*E, God?  What the hell!??"  The rant went something like that.

Then out of seemingly nowhere, but clearly in my head, a thought interrupted my rage.  I heard the voice of God, or angels, or guides, or somebody, because it certainly wasn't me...I was still yelling.  The voice said:

"He was never yours to return to me.  He's always been mine."

Well, if that didn't stop a person short, you would have to be an idiot.  Then the realization came, and the tears came, and I plopped myself down in the lawn chair looking up at that cross.  And I released MY grip on my son...which was only an illusion in the first place.  In that moment, although I'm not gonna lie, I was still pissed about my plan being messed up, but in that moment, I was able to let go and release.

It doesn't mean I haven't worried in the years that have followed, but the worry is not the same as I thought it would be, and not the same as it was before this "event".  I have a sense that there is a larger plan that I am not aware of.  I don't mean this in the Christian/God sense, but in a spiritual sense devoid of religion.  I am aware that we come into this world with a path a plan and a journey that is all our own.  Sometimes we die early or violently, sometimes we live to 100, sometimes we live happily and sometimes we live miserably.  None of that is in my hands.  His life, his choices, his path are his.  I can't rescue him enough times to make a difference, nor would he learn if I did.  So I just continue to love him through it all, direct him when he asks, and try the best I can to remind myself of that message I got when he was 18.  He'll be 28 this May.  His life these past 10 years has been very hard.  A real struggle.  But he doesn't belong to me, and he never did.

If you've got 35 minutes to spare, please enjoy the award winning film from 1956, The Red Balloon.


  1. 28, really. I love this post. Not, of course, for the pain that you both have experienced, nor do I love how hard you have both had to work. But. I do love the vulnerability and authenticity here. Your love for your kid seeps through every part of this post, as does your need to understand your own journey in this.