“Today, we’re going to go see Daddy,” I told my son, Nolan, when I picked him up after his swimming class on Sunday morning.
He hadn’t seen him in months—six, to be exact—and at five years old, I believed he was old enough to understand what had happened to his father. From the way he grinned at the thought of seeing his father again, you’d swear I’d told him Santa Claus was coming to town in the middle of August. I wished that was the case.
“Mommy, can you play that song?” Nolan asked as he sat shotgun.
“Which song is that?”
“The one that goes… ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a bound dog…’”
“It’s ‘hound dog,’ sweetie. You love Elvis, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes, Mommy, but my friends don’t know him.”
“That’s probably because they’re about sixty years too late.”
Nolan didn’t understand what I meant, nor what sixty years represented, but he nodded as he sang his heart out, stumbling on every line. I couldn’t help staring at him dancing carelessly in his seat to the groove of the tune. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been as un-self-conscious as Nolan, and for a moment I wondered if I’d ever been at all. By the time the song ended, we’d arrived at our destination, and Nolan was silent.
“Daddy’s here now,” I said as I opened his door.
I saw a few cars in the parking lot, and it was dead quiet. With no one in sight, crickets chirping and birds flying through the naked trees were the only signs of life. The grey sky was obscured by sequoia trees, and the wet grass from the morning rain soaked my sandals.
Nolan scanned the view, perplexed by what he was seeing. It seemed like he was wondering why his daddy would have chosen to live here instead of the house we called home. I saw melancholy in his eyes, and his legs wouldn’t stop trembling. He was anxious and excited, though he didn’t have the vocabulary or knowledge yet to express his confusion.
“Follow me,” I said.
As Nolan and I followed the path made of stones, he played a game with himself, jumping on every two stones along the way. We came across an old couple walking in the opposite direction, holding on to each other like they were trying to keep their balance.
“This is where Daddy is now,” I said, pointing to the dark charcoal headstone where my husband’s name, date of birth, and date of death were engraved over a line from his favorite writer, Raymond Carver, that read:
“That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones.”
A bouquet of red roses lay on the ground; they must have come from his sister. She’d visited his grave once a week since his death and either brought flowers or left him notes in an envelope. The flowers were never watered, and the envelopes must have contained words she’d never had the time to tell him, since it didn’t stop her from writing them.
“But you said he was gone.” Nolan’s eyes turned sad as he studied the headstone.
“Yes. He is,” I answered. “He’s up there in heaven, looking down on us.”
I looked up to the sky. Nolan looked up too.
“I got an idea. We could get a hot air balloon and go find him,” he pointed out, smiling at me like he’d found the answer by himself.
His wild imagination made my eyes tear up, so I grabbed my sunglasses from my purse. I didn’t want him to witness my sadness; he’d already seen enough for a half-orphan kid. Bouquets of roses received from friends and family were all over the house, and photographs of his daddy adorned the walls. I’d taken a six-month leave from work to recover emotionally, but it didn’t help at all; it only reminded me of how lonely I really was. I couldn’t stop weeping whenever Nolan asked if his daddy was ever coming back. Whenever I kissed him goodnight, he would blow a kiss to his father, glancing up at the sky and reminding me what his daddy always said when we played ball together. He missed his daddy very much. We both did. My worst fear was to have him grow accustomed to seeing his mother with tired eyes and an absent look.
The house had become lifeless since my husband’s death. Goddamn cancer! It took everyone by surprise the day he told us he was living on borrowed time. We’d planned a trip to Europe the moment he shared the news. The passports had been renewed and the tickets purchased, but he died a month before our departure. I’d taken a few videos and pictures of him with Nolan to have something to remember him by, which I planned to share with Nolan once he was old enough to understand the warrior his father was. His father had been fighting the biggest fight of his life, and although he lost early on, he’d gained a few more weeks than what the doctors had predicted.
Our house once held the most beloved memories; after all, it was where Nolan was conceived and brought into this world. And we got married in the back yard, surrounded by close to fifty of our dearest friends. In our six years living there, our home had amassed a lot of history. Nowadays, it felt haunted by his ghost and a story with a tragic ending.
I could sense his presence from time to time at the strangest moments. I could be vacuuming the basement and feel his breath on my neck or fall asleep and hear his voice calmly soothing me, reading pages of poetry like he used to do before Nolan came along. Some days, I could really feel him standing there by my side. I even caught myself talking to him, expecting his voice to talk back.
“Mommy, why the stone if he’s up there?” Nolan pointed to the sky, trying to make sense of what I’d told him.
“He’s buried here, sweetie.”
Nolan kept looking up and down, bewildered. I’d just told him his father was looking down over him; yet, his body was buried six feet underground. How could I explain this to a child? How could I even believe it as an adult? My parents had told me the same thing when I was around his age, after my aunt passed away. I can’t remember my reaction, but now that Nolan was acting this way, it made me wonder about my own behavior. How did I act the first time I learned everything ended eventually? Death isn’t something you get used to.
Nolan’s leg kept trembling, like he was waiting for something to happen, and I realized our conversation was beyond anything he expected. I don’t think he was ready to learn the sad truths of life. There’s an ending for all of us, and the worst part is, no one quite knows when the closing credits scroll up.
“Mommy, is he dead? Someone said at Mary’s he was dead.” Nolan looked at me, expecting me to comfort him and tell him otherwise.
Mary was the educator at the daycare, and Nolan enjoyed learning from her. She may have hinted at the idea of death, or he may have heard it from other children who’d lost a loved one. It wasn’t clear how a five-year-old may have been introduced to that word.
I thought about my response for a moment. By the seriousness of his stare, I could feel he wanted answers, and I couldn’t lie to my own son. Not today. Not ever.
“It’s true. He’s up there—”
“Mommy, am I going to die too?”
He turned to me, which made me realize he yearned for an honest answer. What could I tell a five-year-old without enticing more questions? As much as no parent should ever bury their child, no child should ever have to grow up with a deceased parent.
“We all do one day.”
“Even me,” I said as the water in my eyes took the shape of drops and fell on my vest.
Nolan moved close to me and grabbed my hand. “I don’t want you to die.”
I held him tight in my arms and whispered, “I’ll make sure I won’t.”
“Sweetie, you know, sometimes I come here and talk to him. Deep down, I know he’s listening. Do you want to try?”
Nolan started chewing on his shirt. It was a habit he’d started in the crib that would come back from time to time when he was shy with strangers or too afraid to admit he didn’t understand something. In this case, I believed it was his incomprehension.
“Stop chewing your shirt, sweetie. We can start together if you want. Why don’t you tell him about your week?”
“Daddy, I made a new friend at Mary’s…”
A black hearse slowly drove to the next row of headstones, following the small path large enough for a car but nothing else. A small crowd of elderly women followed it closely behind.
“What is that?” Nolan asked.
“No, hearse. Those cars carry the deceased.”
“Yes, deceased means dead.”
He frowned his eyes the same way he did whenever a new word appeared in a discussion.
“And then they bring them up to the sky?”
“Sort of… well, not quite… I’ll explain when you’re older.”
I could see a lot was going through my son’s mind. He jerked his hands up and down, gazing around the cemetery like he carried questions he wanted answers to but didn’t know how to ask. Nolan made death sound more poetic than it really was.
The hearse stopped, and two men clutched on to the coffin as the group of older women started sobbing. A woman with a cigarette voice burst into tears when the men buried the coffin in the ground. The cries and howls overtook the silence. No words were spoken, just a river of tears shed. Everyone in that group was dressed in black. After a few minutes of crying, the minister started reading the eulogy.
Nolan’s attention shifted to the group of mourners as he squeezed his eyelids closer together.
“Mommy, what are they doing?”
“They’re saying goodbye to a loved one.”
“Why are they crying?”
“They’re sad to have to say goodbye.”
I tried not to get into too much detail. I remembered reading a book about parenting. It mentioned a child’s imagination is a playground but can easily become a nightmare if dark thoughts take over. It was one of those things that greatly influenced my parenting. As a mother, I always made sure to keep Nolan away from disturbing images and the evening news.
“But they don’t know their loved one is looking down on them? Should I go tell them?”
Aw. My heart stung. Part of me wanted to tell him to go ahead, but the other part of me knew better.
“Sweetie. This is really nice of you, but I think we should let them grieve alone.”
A few years from now, I know his questions will no longer be about where his daddy is, but how he died, which will bring on a whole new set of questions and range of emotions.
I looked at my watch; it read ten to noon.
“Want to go for an ice cream?” I asked.
“Before I go, I want to talk to Daddy.”
“Go ahead, sweetie.”
“No. I mean, just him and me.”
Nolan smiled as he moved closer to the headstone and moved two fingers to let me know he needed some space.
I left him alone for a few minutes. Strangely enough, my son seemed to have a lot to say. I almost wanted to hear what he was talking about, but I knew some things were better kept between father and son.
“Done!” he declared in a raised voice, displaying a mischievous grin.
Nolan and I stood side by side, hand in hand, smiling one last time before walking back to the parking lot. We felt a cold breeze blow on our faces, which was odd since it wasn’t windy at all. It reminded me of those late-night kisses after my husband had brushed his teeth, and I realized how much I missed those.
“I think Daddy is here.”
My name is Mathieu Gorman. I grew up in Ottawa, Paris and Washington, D.C.
I live in the suburbs of Ottawa, ON. I work in Communications.
I am a big fan of European TV series, ’90s French rap, and exotic food. I’m an avid reader of Noir fiction and poetry.
My first novel is coming out in spring 2020. It will be called The Feral Spectacle.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Hot Air Balloon”:
While we receive stories on many different themes and subjects, a fair number involve relationships and death (many of those involving cancer). After all, relationships and death are two key aspects of our lives. But we generally decline such pieces unless they are special—and we keep the bar raised rather high when it comes to accepting such pieces for publication.
“Hot Air Balloon” by author Mathieu Gorman is one of those special pieces. Not only is it beautifully written, but we especially appreciated that, even though it’s told from the mother’s point of view, she’s letting us experience a good portion of it through her young son’s eyes, with so much attention to his behavior.
Another interesting aspect is the opening. In a way it misleads the reader into thinking is just another of those pieces about divorced parents and the child torn between them. We love how the author only slowly reveals that this isn’t the case and pops the unexpected surprise on us and reveals the reason for the title as well. It’s a brilliantly done story all around.