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Coming Through with the Balloons by Kirsten Wasson

An unlikely combination that changed the author's life

Suffocated by small town life, weary of the frozen tundra of Ithaca, New York winters, I took trips down to Manhattan as often as I could. Sometimes I went with friends, sometimes with my son, Jonah. To celebrate his eighteenth birthday, four months before he was to graduate high school, the two of us drove to the recently renovated Meat Packing District, our favorite Manhattan neighborhood. From our Hilton Garden Inn room, we checked out the view of a narrow street below that was more of an alley. Jonah claimed the bed by the window. While he was in the bathroom, I strung balloons over his headboard— a tradition for which he was too old now. It occurred to me that he might be annoyed by the gesture but he looked at them, smiled, and threw himself down on the bed.

“You always come through with the balloons, don’tcha, Mom.”

“I do, don’t I?”

“Yup. Down the line. I’ll probably do it for my kiddos. It’s in the DNA.”

We’d been coming to New York City together since he was seven. It was a splurge but it was worth every penny. Right from the start, Jonah was in love with New York: The Metropolitan Museum, walking around Central Park, SoHo, Chinatown, trying different kinds of food. And hailing cabs. He’d learned how early on, watching men in suits who did it every day. Now he was turning eighteen. My child was becoming an adult, and I was proud. He’d had had his fair share of struggles. His dad and I had divorced when he was three. He’d picked up on the tension and hostility and experienced night terrors on and off for years.

Diagnosed with type one diabetes at ten, he had to check his blood sugar around ten times a day and give himself insulin shots. When my second marriage imploded, he started getting into trouble, once breaking into a house with a friend and doing some minor damage. They were drunk, very drunk. Both of them got arrested and were given community service, in addition to having to pay fines. I was alarmed but never saw it as a sign of something else. It was bad boy behavior, I figured; he’d grow out of it. He went into therapy, which he liked. He did well in school, held a part-time job. Affable, witty, warm and sensitive, he was well-liked. My boy. My only child.

Our first night in the city, we saw a show on Broadway about a struggling musician who must confront various demons...but triumphs. It seemed like a good choice: Jonah played electric guitar every day. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix were fixtures in house, as was Jonah’s own playing. Through most of the show Jonah watched the stage riveted, but his left leg kept shaking. I put my hand on his knee to still it. He pushed my hand off and I reminded myself he was eighteen now. How much longer would he even want to go to the city with me? Probably not long. He’d be in college next year. A whole new life. For both of us. At the end of the play, he couldn’t get out of our row fast enough. He was meeting his best friend, Richard, a student at NYU, for pizza. He hailed a cab and I told him to be back at the hotel by midnight.

The next day we went to the Museum of Modern Art and Jonah scrutinized the paintings by Miro, Jasper Johns and Pollack intently, even furiously. He loved to paint as much as he loved playing guitar. I grew bored with the gallery before he did. That night he was going to meet Richard for dinner again. I met a friend in the neighborhood and when I got home around eleven was surprised to find Jonah already back and in bed. The balloons strung over the headboard were slightly deflated. The room smelled sickly sweet and he lay motionless, the TV blaring.

My purse slid off my shoulder onto the floor; the little bag of leftover tapas fell from my fingers. Two cartons of ice cream were lying soggy on either side of Jonah’s t-shirted torso and melted French Vanilla and Monkey Fudge pooled on the sheets around his long-limbed body. In an instant I knew: he was fucked up on drugs. It was no ordinary eighteen-year-old-on-his-birthday fucked-up-ness, not the sleep of post-celebratory, I’m-my-own-man-now-partying. I shook his shoulders and he opened his eyes and smiled dreamily. When I poured water on his forehead, he shook his head back and forth, but didn’t mind the way someone should mind when that happens.

“Jonah. Jonah,” I kept saying his name. And he’d respond dreamily, “Mom. Mom.”

I knew now what I had known but not known before. There’d been plenty of signs. His fairly regular pot-smoking, which he’d tried to hide. Occasional lying about his whereabouts. A certain furtiveness at times. He was half awake now. Sloppily, he checked his blood sugar with his glucometer, squinting at the number. It was OK, considering the sugar intake. I let him lie in the creamy mess while I found his backpack and saw what I’d suspected but denied for almost two years: Oxycontin, Vicodin, pills in containers, some labeled some not. There were a few razor blades, along with straws cut into pieces—for snorting, I found out later.

Overheated and nauseated, I took my coat off and realized my blouse was stuck to my arms and chest with sweat. I stank. I wasn’t thinking but I was moving. Jonah needed to get into the other bed, out of the ice cream. I managed to get him to stand up, wobbling, and pushed his six foot two frame into my bed, then washed his face, hands and chest with a washcloth to get rid of the stickiness. It hit me then: He has to go to rehab. All he had wanted to do on his eighteenth birthday was get wasted and eat ice cream in bed alone with the TV on. Agonized as I was about his state, not to mention wracked with guilt, I also felt a surge of relief. At least now I could try to help. I cleaned myself up and got into my pajamas. Then I curled up in a chair for a long time, staring out the window, mostly down into the alley, shining with an icy rain that had just started to fall.

Next, I got down on the floor with a blanket over and under me, cocooned. I couldn’t have lain in a comfortable hotel bed that night. The hardness of the floor felt right. As I rolled from one side to another, I felt as if something was over and something had begun. That night marked a shift, though I had no idea then how greatly my life would change as a result of it. I think now that inside my cocoon on the floor, my cells were rearranging themselves for a long journey. My body was stiff but something inside was flowing under the skin from my ankles to wrists, waking me to an awareness that had been hidden, buried. I needed the hard floor to let this process take place in my bones, blood, muscles. Once in a while I got up to look at Jonah’s strong back and broad shoulders, checking his breathing. His thick brown hair lay in waves on the pillow; his profile with the strong nose and full lips held such grace and youth.

And yet, he was not well. I kept checking him, like when he was a little boy and was sick. I knew how to take care of a sick little boy. Then I thought: He is eighteen; he doesn’t have to do what I say. Around five in the morning, when the black sky started turning gray, I heard his voice: “Mom, you always come through with the balloons…” That’s what I heard. I don’t know if he said it. In my head, my own voice clicked mechanically: he will do what you say. He will go to rehab. He will get better.

Around eight that morning, Jonah woke up. I didn’t tell him what I’d decided, or that I was deeply alarmed, having found him asleep in a bed of ice cream. I knew he would deny the seriousness, the weirdness of it, and would be angry. His anger could be explosive; at times I’d been afraid of my son. I simply said that we should leave earlier than we’d planned and head out by nine. To my surprise, he agreed. As we put things in our suitcases and checked the bathroom and under the bed, I felt as if I were floating yet sinking, like a balloon losing air. So much less space in my world than twenty-four hours earlier. I wondered whether he knew I knew. That I’d realized he was…too hard to say the word, even to myself in my head because it was a dark, ugly thing I’d been afraid to see. But the word was there and it would be drilled into my consciousness at three rehabs over the next year and half—Addict.

I left the balloons hanging limply over his hotel bed; it wasn’t possible to imagine—in a clean-up gesture—popping them. In the not all that long ago little-boy-days, Jonah would have insisted on taking the string of balloons back to Ithaca. No longer. We picked up the car from a parking garage and headed for the George Washington Bridge. I thought about all the times we’d crossed that bridge together on weekend trips to the city. Around four times a year since he was about seven—that would be over forty times. When he was younger, we had specific songs to mark our ride over the Hudson, our arrival, moving onto the West Side Highway. At first it was kids’ music. A lyric from that time drifted up to me, “The Cat Came Back the Very Next Day.”

I had always felt a rush of joy and freedom arriving in New York. The bridge was like a brief moment of free flight. As Jonah got older, I introduced him to Samba music, the music of Carnival. That was our entrance score, Jonah dancing in his seat, moving his even then very square, mannish shoulders side to side, his arms in front of him. Later, he was the one who reintroduced me to Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Coltrane. Each time we chose a stand-out song to cross the bridge with, coming and going. This time his ear plugs were in but he looked at me and smiled as we pulled into our lane on the bridge. He’s probably still a little high, I thought.

How long had I suspected but tried not to know? He’d been a happy, if temperamental, kid. When Jonah had been diagnosed with Type One, he’d responded to the hard news with such resolution and fortitude that I hardly knew what to make of it. He began biking and swimming with a doggedness that impressed me...and kept me at a distance. By the age of thirteen he was doing triathlons, which led me to start doing them too. Although I felt as if I were drowning during the swimming, pedaling in concrete during the biking, and having a heart attack during the run, I wanted to share time with my son before he became a man. Then, at fourteen, he gradually quit swimming and biked much less. I found a pipe and some pot in his backpack. His dad and I had ‘The Talk’ with him; this was unhealthy and illegal. He seemed to take it in and told us he was “just experimenting”. I found another pipe and some more pot in a jacket pocket a few weeks later. Then another...and another. My friends were going through the same thing with their sons; I didn’t like it but I didn’t worry excessively. It was a phase, so everyone said.

While I navigated us from the New Jersey Turnpike with its multitudinous rest stops to Route 81 North, spiky with boulders amid thick forest, I started writing in my mind the history of figuring out that my son was in serious trouble. I had thought he was moving toward independence and emotional growth but I was wrong. His pot smoking increased despite his dad’s and my serious talks about it. Gradually, he started to hate school, seemed angry, depressed, and once vandalized the house. We moved him to a local private school. He started seeing a therapist. Small steps I’d thought would solve the problem.

As we got close to Ithaca, I was stiff from driving and anxiety. The world was so frozen where we lived. It had been a week or so since it had snowed but the temperature had stayed well below freezing so the old snow was hanging on, gray and misshapen. Ice glistened on the bare oaks and maples. We drove by farm after farm, usually three or four abandoned cars scattered around the properties, along with rusting machinery and appliances frozen to the ground. Jonah was restless, his long fingers and sneakered-feet tapping in time to the music blaring in his ears.

We were passing the town of Candor, New York when, with a dramatic wave of his hand, Jonah yanked the earbuds out. “IT’S CANDOR!” he bellowed. A few years before, I’d told him what the word meant and that I got a kick out of there being a town with that name.

“Time to tell the truth, Mom, time to ‘fess up, Mother of mine! Speak it, Mia Madre.”

He used his stagey voice and turned toward me, his brown eyes crinkled up, his cloud of brown hair almost clown-like, his wide post-orthodontic smile so beautiful. This was my Jonah: warm, loving, goofy. The Jonah I’d always known. How was this Jonah connected to the one who had, some fifteen hours earlier, been lying in a bed of melted ice cream, oblivious, uninterested in celebrating his eighteenth birthday other than by blotting himself out?

How strange that he was asking me to be candid with him, when he had not been so with me for years, or that in the next twenty-four hours we’d be having a conversation that would change so much in our lives. Could he possibly know that I had come to my senses at last seeing him in that hotel bed? Could he read my thoughts? He sometimes had when I was pretending to be fine, but was actually deeply distressed, he’d say, “Give it up, Mom. There’s no pretending between Mother and Son.” He’d actually say that, like he was our tribal leader or something. I gave him a smile and I think he read in my expression that I was thinking hard, but he didn’t ask me to give it up. He only gazed out the window.

“Goodbye, Candor, ” he said.

Who was my son? Another thirty minutes ticked by, past Lisle and Danby, sad little farm towns that hadn’t changed in thirty years, past the mini-golf course with the pink elephant on the roof, past the “Whippy Cream” stand, past rural landmarks we’d seen over and over on our trips to the city, escaping the claustrophobia of Ithaca. Down the last hill, toward Cayuga lake, frozen stiff. Then around the left of the lake, through the small, disheveled town to our driveway, ice-crunchy and slippery, home safe and sound...or not. We walked into the cold house, the heat turned down for our weekend away.

I had to call Jonah’s dad, tell him what I knew and convince him I knew it for certain. I had to see what there was in the fridge for dinner, to get the dog from the kennel and start researching rehabs. I had to leave a message on Jonah’s therapist’s machine, tell my son that I’d finally realized how deeply he was in trouble and that it was time to go get serious help. I had to admit to myself that I’d known yet not known for a long time, sensing the truth as I stood in his room while he was at school, looking at his bed on the floor, the poster of Miles Davis, the chaos that was his schoolwork on his desk, wondering if what was happening wasn’t merely a stage, but rather a condition, one that wouldn’t just go away.

Peering into the fridge, I could hear Jonah upstairs, opening and closing drawers, unpacking, maybe looking for drugs he’d hidden. I was terrified. But it turned out, I’m good when I’m terrified. I can make decisions and take action. Over the next ten years, I’d be terrified several times more. Thank God I didn’t know that then; I don’t know that I’d have had the strength to leave Ithaca, to rise to the occasions of discovering Jonah’s drug use, again and again, with the drugs getting scarier, the situations more life-threatening. I’d never again have the same expectations for his life that I once did. I’d learn that I was stronger than I’d ever known I was or had ever wished to be. I’d learn to be grateful for every day my son was still alive.

Over a decade later, I wish I’d kept those soggy balloons. I wish I’d brought them home in the trunk of the car, let them shrivel through slow yet painless loss of air and put them in an envelope the way Jonah and I did with some fur from our dog when he died. For what? To occasionally sniff, to stroke—as a ritual of remembering? A marker, I suppose: The night my son turned eighteen, the night time went backward more than forward, the night my very cells changed. There had been no witness to what had occurred other than those colored latex orbs. But they were something I could hold in my hand. I imagine opening the now-flimsy envelope, and touching the dusty artifacts of my son’s agonizing transition to adulthood. You always come through, Don’tcha Mom?
The author, Kirsten Wasson

Kirsten Wasson was a college professor until she decided, at 51, to leave her upstate New York life behind and start over in Los Angeles, earning minimum wage as a purveyor of cold-pressed organic vegetable juice. She has lived in Southern California for eight years and currently works as a college counselor at a private high school. Her book of poems, Almost Everything Takes Forever, was published by Antrim House Press, and her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in many literary journals. Kirsten’s blog, “Lost and Laughing in L.A.,” recounts her first two and a half years in The City of Second Chances. Kirsten has performed her work at over a dozen storytelling venues, and one of her stories was aired on KCRW, the local NPR station. An essay was awarded a “notable” in The Best American Essays of 2019. She is completing a memoir.

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