96: The Pink Balloon

96: The Pink Balloon

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

The Pink Balloon

Unable are the loved to die. For love is immortality.

~Emily Dickinson

The morning calls became my daily alarm clock. My wake-up messages alternated between “When are you coming over?” and “Why can’t you come earlier?”

When my sister-in-law, Joy, had a stroke at age 60 and became almost totally paralyzed and compromised in her memory and cognitive abilities, my husband (her baby brother) and I suddenly and unexpectedly became her caregivers.

As recent empty nesters, we had just embarked upon an exciting new chapter in our own lives. With our kids grown and finally on their own, we had sold our house, downsized to a condo on the beach, and were looking forward to traveling and spending more leisure time together. Many of our plans included our two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Ella, who was the newest love of our lives. We had a calendar of activities ahead of us, including play dates, sleepovers, and day trips to the Big Apple Circus and Sesame Street Live.

But, suddenly, our lives—along with all of those plans—came to a halt as we were thrust into a role for which we were totally unprepared.

Joy’s husband, our brother-in-law, had died the year before, following a shocking diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor. Never having had children, there was nobody on board to supervise nursing care, coordinate medications, handle finances, and assume responsibility for every aspect of Joy’s care. That was, nobody except us.

Once we realized that we were the designated—and only—care-givers, we hit the ground running. We consulted with doctors, hired round-the-clock nurses, and ordered necessary equipment and supplies. We transferred all official papers into our names, put Joy’s house on the market, and moved her to an apartment less than five minutes from ours—trying our best to make the transition as seamless as possible.

But the most demanding part of our new role was my sister-in-law’s desperate need for company. Now confined to her bed for most of her day, she longed for companionship. And since my husband was still working and had less flexibility in his schedule, I was “it.”

Daily visits to Joy became the first priority on my to-do list. Several hours a day, I sat by her bedside, focused on keeping her brain stimulated and her spirits intact. My time with her included doing crossword puzzles together, reading articles to her from the newspaper, discussing current events, reminiscing about the past, and learning details about the life of my sister-in-law that I never knew.

But there was another complication: my granddaughter. My very pregnant daughter, who was in the process of moving to a new apartment, had been depending on me to help her with babysitting. Torn between Joy and Ella, I faced the additional challenge of trying to coordinate a schedule that would incorporate the needs of a bedridden woman and an energetic toddler.

The first morning that I decided to bring Ella with me to visit Joy, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As we stepped into Joy’s bedroom, Ella spotted a big pink balloon attached to a flower arrangement that had just been delivered from well-wishing friends. Immediately fascinated, Ella started playing with the balloon.

As an expert in multitasking, I managed to play balloon rolypoly with Ella while chatting with Joy, who was delighted by watching the excitement of her two-and-a-half-year-old great-niece.

On our next visit together, I juggled my time between balloon hide-and-seek and conversation about old Frank Sinatra movies. And so it went. With each subsequent week, the routine grew more comfortable, as a continuing supply of pink balloons kept Ella’s attention, and Joy was thrilled to have two of us for company.

But a few months after our visits became an integral part of our routine, Joy suddenly developed pneumonia. Shortly thereafter, she passed away. I worried about how to explain her death to Ella, who had begun to grow attached to her great-aunt and to the time the three of us spent together.

My daughter, who had heard all about Ella’s visits with me, came up with the perfect solution. The next afternoon, she bought a pink helium balloon, and we ceremoniously sent it up into the sky to find Joy in heaven.

After that, Ella always associated pink balloons with her great-aunt, believing that every time she sent one up into the sky, it would find its way to Joy.

When Ella’s sister, Hallie Jordyn, was born one month later, she was named in memory of her great-aunt. Shortly afterward, on a beautiful spring afternoon, while my husband and I were with Ella at a neighborhood playground, a pink balloon suddenly floated by us, hovering over the swings. There was no one else nearby, just one solitary, perfect pink balloon. As we all looked at one another in awe, I think we knew, somehow, that Joy was watching over us all... and smiling.

~Linda Saslow

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