I remember the first time the kids and I sat at the cemetery in front of Paul’s tombstone, singing “Happy Birthday” with a cake, candles, and balloons.
My husband, Paul, had succumbed to a brain tumor in May of that year, and on November 8, 2004, his 39th birthday, it seemed natural to the kids that we’d celebrate Daddy’s birthday at his gravesite. The children—ages eight, five, and two—wrote notes updating him on their lives and wishing him well. Each message was attached to a balloon, and we watched as they rose into the sky and out of sight. We fantasized about how happy Daddy would be to catch the balloons and read their notes.
Adam’s note that year—he was eight—read:
Your soul is asleep in your body but awake in ours. We love you and miss you. I hope you are happy and in peace. Sence October 2003, you have been in brain damage. That month on has been horrible, scary, terrible for about a year and a month. I hope your dad is taking care of you now. Not only you but we were all misrable. Don’t blame G-d, because he would pick bad and mean people to have cancer. Have you met Babe Ruth? You can’t imagine how much life is different without you! We still think about you. I still like the New York teams. I can still catch flies and we all love Phish Food. I want advice. Should I like the Patriots or not? Do you like my new soccer team? We love you and really, really, miss you and we hope you are very happy.
PS—you did a great job handling the tumor. This wasn’t your best birthday, but everyone hopes you enjoy it. Happy Birthday!!
In the first years after Paul’s death, our extended family was eager for information on how the kids and I were faring. In those early years, I would type up the kids’ notes and e-mail them to our friends and family to share a glimpse of what was in their hearts and on their minds.
One friend is Bonni, who lives in Bethesda. Bonni had grown up on the same street as Paul in New York; they had been friends since they were infants. Paul’s last six months were spent in a wheelchair, unable to communicate, yet Bonni visited him once a week to reminisce over old stories and photos.
Our tradition of visiting Paul’s grave on his birthday and writing him notes has continued, although at some point we dropped the cake. We never tire of watching the balloons drift upward, wondering where they might land. Now that Julia is seven, she’s able to send up her own notes. In 2008 she wrote: “I’m doing soccer and dance and sometimes I play tennis with Darren and mom at Lakewood. You are missing a lot of fun.” Over the years, the kids have brought up Paul’s love of New York sports teams: “The Yankees won the Series,” “Football season isn’t the same without you. Go Giants!”
With the wide-eyed curiosity of a ten-year-old, Adam queried: “What is it like in heaven? Is it more peaceful than here on earth? Is there anything humans don’t know? Secrets that were discovered in heaven? How is the afterlife going for you?”
Their letters provided me with wonderful insight as to where they were in their grieving process and how connected they still felt to Paul. It was also a view into their spelling aptitude, which thankfully has improved over the years.
This past November, the kids and I drove to the cemetery in Clarksburg on a sunny, clear day. It was the first time I’d noticed that the kids were less excited than usual about our launch. I detected a bit more of a struggle to put their thoughts on paper. When we got to the cemetery, Darren had a fight with his brother and, in a fit, put a big X through his note. I told him he couldn’t send it up to Daddy and that he had to write something else. His new note was brief:
“Dear Dad, Happy B-day! I love you! I’ll miss you always. You are always with me and will always be in my heart. I wish you were here and I will ALWAYS love you. Love Darren.”
There was a PS that he crossed out at the last minute—“I’m not writing much b/c I’m FURIOUS at Adam.”
We walked to Paul’s grave with the three balloons. After singing “Happy Birthday,” the kids set their balloons free. We watched them rise upward until they sailed beyond view.
On December 11, the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that celebrates miracles, our phone rang. It was Bonni. She sounded strange and teary, and said, “Darren’s balloon landed in our yard.” She read it to me. It was Darren’s latest note to Paul. It took a moment for me to process what she was saying. Darren’s balloon, set free a month earlier, had traveled 22 miles and landed in Bonni’s Bethesda back yard.
What happened is nearly impossible for me to comprehend. The odds of Darren’s balloon traveling from the cemetery to Bonni’s yard are, by my amateur calculation, 1 in 3,891,200.
My Jewish faith focuses on the living, the here and now, not as much on the afterlife. I’ve always hoped for some sign from Paul that he was out there. I’ve never been a particularly spiritual person, but now I view things in a different light. Is there an inexplicable force that tugged the balloon in Bonni’s direction? Is this proof that God exists? Or can I adopt a less intellectual, more childlike fantasy that Paul was floating in the clouds, caught Darren’s balloon, and guided it over to Bonni’s yard? I know it’s preposterous, yet it is so comforting.
I like to think Paul is telling us he’s out there watching over us, still with us. One thing I’m sure of: Our balloon tradition will hold new meaning in November.