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All for the Sweet Love of a Child

April 10, 2002|JEANNE MARIE LASKAS | WASHINGTON POST

A father, a daughter, a balloon. They are just now heading toward the car, hand in hand, toddling down the driveway. It is the same way every week. They're going to the grocery store. They'll get a free sample of cheese, they'll get a free cookie, she'll ride in the cart awhile, then get down and push. He'll say, "Whose little girl are you?" She'll say, "Daddy's!"

It is the same way every single week. Except there isn't always a balloon. He's an older dad, well into his 50s.

She's a younger child, barely 3. The balloon is 2 days old, practically ancient in the life of a standard-issue balloon. It is red. It's tied to the end of a purple ribbon. It has fewer thoughts than a household pet, and yet, to a 3-year-old, it is in every way a pet. You have to take care of it, and it won't last forever. But for the time being, it is yours.

"Would you like me to tie the balloon around your wrist?" he is saying, already knowing the answer.

"I would like to hold it," she says. "I would like to hold my balloon in my hand."

"OK, sweetie," he says. "Well, hold on tight."

The balloon has lost a good bit of its helium, and there is no wind, and so the balloon appears to be walking one step behind her, at just her height.

The balloon gets loose. The balloon is floating in the air, just above the father's head. "Oh, no!" she is saying. He reaches into the air, tries to pluck it from the sky, but the balloon at that moment catches an updraft and lifts higher, just beyond his grasp.

He tries again; this time he leaps. But the balloon goes a foot higher, hangs there stupidly.

"My balloon," she cries, craning her neck so as to make a more direct appeal. "Please, balloon! Please, Daddy! Oh, my balloon ..."

Another father might say, "I told you, honey, I told you to hold on tight!" Another might think, we have to hurry, we have a long list of groceries. Another might think, we can just buy another balloon at the store. This is one way a father, old or young, finds out who he is, with no time to decide which one he should be, which one he wants to be, which one might, perhaps, look better. When a balloon is loose, there is no time. You either charge after it, or you don't.

And so he finds that he is the kind of man who charges after a loose balloon, charges after it with courage and fight. He isn't aware of his heroism, or his foolishness, he is too busy chasing a balloon. He hops, runs, reaches, trots over the grass and trips into the boxwoods. That balloon is either dancing or flirting or maybe a little of both. It doesn't have enough loft to go into the clouds, no, it hovers, dragging its purple ribbon just beyond his pleading fingertips.

"Get it, Daddy!" she is saying, cheering him on. It is all he needs to hear. It is fuel. He leaps a few more times until he gets an idea. He's going to outsmart that balloon. He calculates its direction, like a receiver estimating the trajectory of a touchdown pass, and he runs past it, up a little hill, to the top of a wall, off of which he can hurl himself, and go for the grab.

One, two, three--the timing here is critical--and he leaps! And don't you know that balloon darts left. Left? The balloon is now over the wall, high in the air. To another father, that balloon would be a goner for sure. But not him. Not yet. He wonders how he might break the news to her. He thinks, "Life isn't fair."

Just then the first real breeze of the day kicks in, and the balloon makes a U-turn, an absolute about-face. It drifts toward him, closer now, and closer. He hops at just the right moment. He feels the ribbon like a tickle between his fingers and so he grabs, he grabs happiness out of the sky.

"Aaaah!" she says, her mouth dropping open. "You did it! Daddy did it!" She can't quite believe it's true. Her father has performed a miracle. Her balloon is back. And life, to her--but also to him--has plenty more fairness left.

*

Jeanne Marie Laskas is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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