The wails were coming from near the concession stand on the other end of the parking lot where I had noticed a church group was selling hot dogs and offering to wash cars. We all turned in the general direction and wondered what had caused the commotion.
None of us saw anything until my son pointed into the sky and said, “Look!”
We did, but there seemed to be nothing but blue sky and sunshine. But then I squinted and saw it. High above us, dancing with a hawk.
My daughter took the opportunity to offer her usual take of part philosophy and part practicality: “You gotta hang on to stuff,” she said. “If you don’t, it’ll just float away.”
My family finished shopping, winding into one store and out another, until we had each crossed our necessities off our respective lists. The end brought us to the concession stand. Hot dogs and a car wash were offered, but only the hot dogs were accepted. “I wash my own cars,” I told the nice lady. She didn’t understand. Guy thing.
“You two want a balloon?” I asked the kids. Which was a stupid question, really. What kid doesn’t want a balloon? I’m forty-one years old, and I wanted one.
They inched their way over to the huge tank of helium and gawked at what the church people offered. There were red balloons and blue balloons. White, black, pink, purple, yellow, orange. Big ones and little ones and all sizes between. I assumed they were trying to figure out which color and size to get. I was wrong. They were trying to decide if they really wanted one or not.
They chose not.
“Seriously?” I asked them. “You really don’t want a balloon.”
“No,” my daughter said.
My son’s mouth was full of hot dog, so he just shook his head.
“They have pink,” I said to my daughter, “And blue,” to my son.
“What’s the matter with you two?” I asked.
Their answer came not by their words, but from their looks. Up.
“You won’t lose your balloons,” I said. “We’re getting ready to leave. All you have to do is hang onto them long enough to get to the truck.”
No. From both.
“We have hot dogs,” my son said after he swallowed. “I don’t want to have to hold a balloon and a hot dog. I won’t be able to hold on tight. I’d let one of them go.”
“Me too,” my daughter said.
“I can help. I’ll hold the balloons for you.”
“But what if you let go?”
I told them I wouldn’t, but that didn’t seem to pacify them. They knew from experience that Daddy, while good in most things, sometimes dropped stuff. Normally this would not be a bad thing, since what’s dropped can just be picked up. But as we had all learned from the wailing earlier, balloons don’t fall when they’re dropped.
“So neither of you want a balloon?”
“Because you’re afraid it’ll fly away?”
“You gotta hang onto stuff,” my daughter said again. “If you don’t, it’ll just fly away.”
That was true, I thought, and not just with balloons. Lots of things would fly away if you let go of them. Good things. Things like dreams and friendships and love. You have to hang on to those. Keep your grip on them loose, and they’ll go away and leave you wailing.
But even worse than that is to never take hold of those things in the first place. To let the fear of What If overtake the pleasure of What Could Be.
I knew that from experience. There were plenty times in my life when I never tried because I was afraid I would fail. I didn’t want to see my balloon fly away. I would have rather been safe than hurt.
I knew better now. And I hoped my kids would someday know better, too.
Because the only thing worse than watching your balloon fly away is never having a balloon in the first place.