It wasn’t until my son Matthew, who is autistic, was going through a “balloon phase” that I became keenly aware of how many of the damned things were everywhere. The balloon phase started when he was about ten years old, and whenever I saw one (did I mention that they are everywhere?) I did my best to drive a different route when I was with Matthew.
Because I knew that he would not rest until any balloon in his path was freed. One time, Matthew impulsively cut a balloon loose near a freeway, and it dipped down close to speeding cars. I held my breath, shuddering to think of the disaster he could have caused.
People buy balloons and display them for a reason. They do not want them liberated.
“We’re on the right”, a host tells his guests, “There is a red balloon on the mailbox – you can’t miss it!”
Unless Matthew ripped of the balloon.
There is a festival every spring at the elementary school around the corner from our house with one of those balloon arches marking the entrance – quite impressive. You can see a balloon arch float upwards for a long time after it has been cut loose.
“What a waste!” I heard one parent say in disgust as I herded Matthew away from the scene.
“And terrible for the environment!” remarked another, glaring at me, the bad mother.
One sunny Saturday, I was about to make the rounds of the neighborhood to search for Matthew, who had disappeared, when the doorbell rang.
When I opened the door I saw my neighbor Sarah, hands on her hips, looking very angry. She was a pretty blonde with a handsome husband and two small sons. I had met her just briefly when we moved to our neighborhood a few months before, but hadn’t gotten know her- or anyone else, for that matter – since I was so busy chasing after Matthew.
“I think your son stole a balloon off our mailbox” Sarah growled.
“Yes, I’m sure he did.” I replied, “I am so sorry. I’ll go get another one right now,” and I grabbed my purse and headed for the garage.
Sarah looked surprised by my cooperation and frustrated that she couldn’t finish what she had planned on saying. I paused to let her finish.
“I’ve heard he steals a lot of balloons,” she started,
“I know,” I said, my voice cracking, “it’s a long story. I’ll be right back with the balloon.”
I pulled up to Sarah’s house eight minutes later with a red balloon and rang the doorbell. No answer. I heard the sounds of a birthday party in the back yard, and pushed through the gate. As I passed the garbage cans, garden tools and the blue plastic wading pool, there were about 15 good looking young couples with their children, and about sixty multi-colored balloons came into view. There were also streamers, Happy Birthday signs and a large piñata, but the sight of the balloons – my neighbor could have – replaced the stolen balloon with one of them – leveled me.
“Thank you,” said Sarah gently as I handed her balloon. I didn’t dare look her in the eye; I didn’t want to cry in front of all those people.
In the weeks that followed the birthday incident, I watched Matthew carefully and did my best not to drive by Sarah’s. I assumed that everyone in the neighborhood, many of whom were at the birthday party, talked about me and about how I couldn’t control my son. But then one day Jean, who lived next door to Sarah, called.
Was this an intervention, I thought?
No, she and Sarah were having a neighborhood coffee. Could I join the group? I said yes right away, thanked her, hung up the phone and burst into tears.
The morning of the gathering, I told my husband that I thought I’d skip it and go to the gym. As he left for work he hugged me and told me to have fun, and that I would be the best looking woman there. In the end, I decided I would go and show these people that I was a wonderful person, and that I was doing my best in a rough situation. But I was in the mood to blend in with the crowd, and not as the mother of the strange kid.
Luckily, I was absorbed into the group as if I belonged. There were women of all ages ambling around a granite island in the kitchen, eating muffins, drinking coffee, and laughing a lot. We talked about paint colors and kitchen remodels, babysitters and vacation spots. I tried to groove in with the scene, but had an overwhelming urge to make a public apology about Matthew’s disruptive behavior, but realized the mornings get together was not, as I imagined, all about me.
After about an hour the group started to break up, I thanked Sarah and Jean, and as I left, Sarah called out to me.
“How is Matthew doing?” she asked.
“A work in progress!” I joked. “I hope you’ll let me know if he bothers you, I’m always available…”
Oh, no. She’s coming toward me and being nice. I think I’m going to cry…
“It must be so hard,” Sarah said, shaking her head sympathetically, “Can I ask you a question?”
We sat on Jean’s front porch, and Sarah asked me…when did you learn he was autistic? How do his brothers handle it? I noticed he likes to mow lawns…maybe he can mow mine sometime. We talked for an hour. A few other women stopped by on their way out and joined in – they all made me feel like a hero.
Once home, I collapsed on the couch, relieved and wrung out. It had been a healing morning. I was grateful for the way it turned out, even more grateful that it was over. It occurred to me that my neighbors were hungry for information, and that my appearance this morning was a bridge builder. They had a clearer picture of me, and of Matthew. I was approachable now, and so were they.
There were some tough times ahead, with adolescence swooping in and taking Matthew’s quirky behavior to a new, disturbing and public level. But now there was understanding. When things got tough, my neighbors called me, and not the police. They came to Matthew’s aide when they saw him struggling. They educated irate parents at the school around the corner where Matthew liked to wander. They stuck up for him, and for our family.
They came around in a big way, and I am grateful.
This past spring break, Matthew was home for two weeks. When he left, every lawn in the neighborhood was mowed and edged, every hedge was trimmed, every weed was whacked, and every leaf was blown and stowed for recycling. He told the neighbors that he would do it for free, but they insisted on paying him. Matthew accepted their money reluctantly, and earned more than one hundred dollars.
The five, tens and twenties are all stacked neatly in a drawer in his room.