My Hot Air Balloon Ride

For a time in my life, everywhere I looked, I saw hot air balloons. If I thumbed through a magazine, there was a hot air balloon in the sky. If I watched an old movie, there was a weathered balloon with a basket underneath and this lady and man would land and have a picnic. They’d toast with champagne. Everywhere I looked, there was a sign for me to do this.

One day I was driving and there was a real sign. Hot Air Balloon Rides – 496-2347. So, I called, Keith, at Free Flying AdVentures and signed up me and my husband. I didn’t tell Dan where we were going – only that he’d like it.

Did you ever want to take off and soar? Have all these people look up and wave, “There she goes.”

I’d lean out and smile, then drift to this place where everything glistened.

For our trip, I got a room at a bed and breakfast. The brochure had a picture of a great big country breakfast. There was sausage and ham, biscuits and gravy. Dan tried to guess where we were going. With real fear in his eyes he said, “We’re not going to this improve your marriage seminar where they work you over?” I knew I had him good when he said that.

The day before, we drove to this beautiful valley. The sky was blue with a few puffy clouds. That night we went to Mexico Joe’s. They had hot salsa and chips and I ate two burritos and drank three Margaritas. Dan kept trying to pry it out of me where we were going, but I wouldn’t tell him.

The next morning there was that great big country breakfast. I didn’t feel good, but it was included. We’d paid our money. So I ate a couple of biscuits with sausage, then scrambled eggs with some cheese. They had all these pastries for dessert. Then we headed far out in the country, but had all day to get there.

We were on the evening flight. Hot air balloons fly dawn or dusk to get the calmer wind. That’s what I wanted, this peaceful drift through the sky. This golden toast as we settled down at sunset. “Cheers,” we’d clink our glasses.

Along the way, we found a roadside stand that sold green apples and hot boiled peanuts. We sat at the picnic table and threw our shells on the ground. Dan said, “Canoeing on a river?”

I shook my head.

“Riding on a train?”

“Nope.” The mound of shells got higher and higher.

Then we drove down country roads with John Denver singing on the radio. We rounded this enormous rock and all of a sudden, without warning . . . I got diarrhea. I had no inkling or time, just shouted at Dan to pull over and ran behind the rock.

I was back there a long time. The wind blew gently across the grasses. A hawk glided above. It was extremely vivid. Then there was this long, deflated time when I reviewed my situation.

I was actually going to leave the ground on this balloon trip. I’d never liked being up high. Horrified to stand on the edge and look over. Why did I think I’d soar off into the sky and not get nervous?

Nerves, excitement! But I could do this. Lift off, fly – Rocky Mountain High – all that stuff. So I went down, and we kept on going.

We passed a tiny store that was so far out, it seemed like it was there for my purpose. You wouldn’t think such a far out place would sell Imodium A-D, but it did. I took that for a sign, and took twice the recommended dose. We drove on in that glorious day until right there on the fence it said – Free Flying AdVentures – with a picture of a hot air balloon. Dan hopped in his seat, he was so excited.

We turned down the lane and found Keith, who studied me under his ball cap. “Ready to go?” he said as the balloon lay sprawled all over the ground. My stomach squeezed, so, I went back to the car and took another swig of the medicine.

There comes a time in your life when you go – or you don’t go. I was going.

That balloon blew up gigantic, this great golden globe in the sky. It made this flapping sound and this roaring sound. The basket hopped off the ground, raring to go, so I took a deep breath and climbed in.

We cast off the lines that were tying us down and – floated – this incredible orb in the sky.

The clouds were pink and golden. The wind blew sweet in my face. In every direction there were mountains and fields with cattle grazing. There were houses with barns and gardens, all in a beautiful haze.

Keith pointed to the old grey van on the road. “That’s Pete and Mike in the chase car.” He explained the chase car followed along behind us, “Because you can’t always chart your destination.”

I leaned way over and waved and wasn’t nervous or scared. There was the feeling of being right on course, being borne to a beautiful place. I felt this way for forty minutes, and then it happened.

My stomach tightened. “Land the balloon!” I hollered to Keith who remained calm and produced a barf bag. “Land!” I shouted again and Dan whispered something to Keith and he truly looked frightened.

We hit down, bumped down, hopped a few times. And I was over the side running for a tree in the distance with Pete and Mike chasing behind.

And I’ve gone on other Free Flying AdVentures. They’ve mostly been fun, except for the crash downs to earth.

Last Day

I met Colonel Greydon on the last day of his life. We didn’t know it was his last day, but we knew he was dying. And he wanted to die at home, in peace, without prolonging it. He’d taken great care to have male nurses around the clock, because he was a private sort of man and didn’t want a woman tending his basic needs.

Gary told me all this on the phone but I lived close and could come right away. So, on the morning of the last day, I stood at the foot of the colonel’s bed as the night man hurried home to his kids. The colonel glared at me. “Where’s Gary?” he said.

“Gary was in an accident, sir. Last night going home, a fender bender and he thought he was ok, but this morning a pain shot through his back. So he’s gone to the emergency room to have it checked.”

“But you’re a wo . . .”

“Yes, sir, I know, and Gary told me you preferred a man and if I was sick, I’d want a woman tending to me, but it’s only for a while, sir. I won’t do anything you don’t want me to and Gary should be back any time.”

His eyes drilled into me, “What else has Gary told you?”

“That you’ve got your own mind, sir, even at your age, and you won’t take the full pain meds or zone out.” I babbled on until I stopped, ran out of words, and just stood there. It was familiar now, this fog of blankness.

“What do I call you?”

He said it forceful, using every bit of his strength until finally I roused, “It’s Alice, sir.”

“Well, Alice, are you in wonderland?” He looked around his sickroom which was a sunroom on the back of his house. It was all windows and they looked out on old trees. It was like we were in the middle of the forest with the sun shining down.

And I was named for Alice in Wonderland. My parents thought it was cute. So my husband used to say that – “Are you in wonderland?” – whenever we’d wake up on a camping trip and it was forty degrees outside with sleet coming into the tent. But I’d been with a lot of dying patients and to see the colonel in his own home, in this garden room with no tubes, no machines, because he’d refused all that, and have his right mind up to the very last.

“Yes, sir, I think you are. And Gary told me to fix you a boiled egg and maybe some cream of wheat and whatever you eat will be fine.” But I shouldn’t have said it, or spoke to him like a child, but I was unnerved, off kilter. His eyes shot fire and he waved for me to get out. He wouldn’t yell at a woman. At least I hoped it was that, otherwise, I was too stupid to waste his breath.

~~~

“Are you married?” the colonel asked as I tapped the razor in the metal pan and swished it around in the water. He’d relented to have me shave him out of total helplessness and a long standing career of being ready for anything, even his death.

I smeared shaving cream across his face and said, “I was.” And it was the first time I said “was” without thinking about it.

“So, did you tend him?” His eyes looked out of the white cream, and they were that blue like in an iceberg, it was almost ridiculous, except that I stood there. My brain froze. “Was he sick and you took care of him and that’s why you work with hospice now, or did you divorce?”

I shook my head. It was neither, but maybe, yes, why I worked with hospice now. I hadn’t connected it before. “He died in an accident, sir. We were camping in the mountains and met some fellows going repelling and climbing the rocks, and he fell. He slipped, it was this freak thing he’d done a hundred times but this time he fell. And I was sitting at the campsite reading a book and this rescue team raced by because the other’s had called and they airlifted him out.”

“I’m sorry,” he said and he looked, not kind or gentle, but aching and sad, and the soap crinkled on his face and I held the razor in midair. “Was it instant?”

“I don’t know, sir. My husband was on life support, on a ventilator. They never got brain waves or anything to indicate he was still alive and after a week they wanted to pull the plug. They gave me this paper to sign and I didn’t know what to do, so I sat there. Sat beside him for an hour and the ventilator was taped down his throat and his chest went up and down and I thought he’d tell me. Say something into my mind, but he didn’t. I felt numb, felt nothing, and I signed the paper and he died. He didn’t come back.”

And I didn’t say about how if he was hurt bad forever, my husband would want me to pull the plug, because what did I know? I didn’t know for sure and the colonel closed his eyes and I finished shaving his face and wiped it clean with the cloth. Then the colonel opened his eyes and studied me, hard, but maybe less hard, this tiny glimmer, and I thought he’s made these huge decisions in his life. Life and death decisions and now he’s going to tell me this earth shattering secret and absolve me. Put me at rest, but he nodded, a slight tip, almost a bow and said, “Alice, you’re a wonder inside yourself.”

Then Gary walked in. They did some sort of nerve block and the colonel waved his bony hand before I left. “It wasn’t awful,” he said and I bent and kissed his cheek and said I’d come by and pester him, which I would have, because I wanted to ask him what he meant. But that night his heart stopped, but I sort of know, or hope I know, especially since I’m this wonder inside myself.