Sunday, November 15, 2015

What I learned from the Balloon Guy

Flip-Flop, Lily's new penguin.
Not pictured: Jovie's balloon animal Purpley Purple the Purple Pony.
Yesterday Brad and I took the girls to the York Pet & Reptile Expo for a little family bonding. We were promised dogs, cats, bunnies, birds and reptiles (in two show arenas!), plus it was free for kids 5 and under. Kind of a no-brainer in my mind. 

So we pay our admission and go in. The first thing Jovie spots is a kid carrying a rainbow-colored parrot made out of balloons. 

"I want balloons!" she said.

We told her we'd try to find some balloons for her, but first we were going to see if we could find any animals. 

"But I want balloons," she repeated.

I attempted redirection. 

"I heard there are pigs walking around on leashes here! Let's go see if we can find one!"

"I just want to find the balloons," she whimpered.

"OK, but first, let's find pigs."

She followed us into the show. Though with minimal enthusiasm. We saw kittens, bunnies, a pomeranian with a fuchsia mohawk and two pigs on leashes. There was a friendly blind husky and a pack of cocker spaniels and a sweet, scruffy dog named Ozzie who I think needs to come live with us. For serious. That face.

Photo courtesy of The Last Dog Rescue
And there were all the cutest puppies ever. 

Even through this abundance of adorable, fuzzy, squishy amazingness, Jovie was still pretty adamant about that balloon. A balloon, I might add, that would never cuddle up in her lap or gently lick her nose. 

Her requests for a balloon continued as we wandered into the second arena, i.e., the snakepit. 

I'd never been to a Pet and Reptile Expo before, so I really had not idea what to expect. I definitely didn't expect such an abundance of snakes. Like, enough snakes to populate the Amazon probably. All stacked in small, clear boxes (the larger ones were curled up in what appeared to be the containers used for the deli trays you get at the grocery store. Maybe I'll pick up the Boa Constrictor platter for my family's annual gingerbread house-making party. I'll garnish it with a few frozen mice, which were also available for purchase at the expo).

So yeah, a lot of snakes. And various lizards, frogs and the smallest turtles I'd ever seen. And baby mice. That was Lily's favorite part. The vat of baby mice. Pinkies were 50 cents, fuzzies were 10 cents more. These weren't intended to be pets (the guy selling them also sold snakes), but I couldn't bring myself to tell Lily that (just like I haven't brought myself to tell her what's really going to happen to the turkeys she's been visiting at the farm almost weekly since they were babies. "They're going to a new home next week," I told her. "They bite too much.") 

We'd wander the floor to look at more snakes or meet Dargo the police dog or see the coolest chameleon ever, but Lily kept gravitating back to that box of baby mice. Her eyes wide in wonder and adoration. 

It was a little unsettling. 

(You can check out some awesome pictures from the expo – including Lily's beloved pile-o-mice – here.)

Jovie, meanwhile, was still asking about that balloon. 

So we found the balloon guy, or as he refers to himself, The Balunguy. We waited in line watching Balunguy inflate and twist balloons in every color into Macaws and dinosaurs and swords and hats and snakes (obviously). 

I chatted with him as he twisted a penguin for Lily and a purple pony for Jovie.

"So how does one end up becoming a balloon artist?" I asked him. Because really, how does someone end up becoming a balloon artist?!

Unexpectedly, he said.

Fifteen years ago his wife gave birth to their baby at just 26 weeks. Their daughter weighed only 1 pound, 13 ounces and spent 74 days in the NICU. During that time, Balunguy (OK, his real name is Tony) and his wife met another couple whose child was in the NICU. As it turned out, the dad knew how to twist balloons. Tony asked if he could get a lesson. Obviously, the hobby took. 

Business is great. He does all the types of events you'd imagine a balloon artist (excuse me, a Professional Latex Manipulation Technician) might show up at. And some that you wouldn't – in a bittersweet twist of fate, he did balloons at the funeral of the man who'd introduced him to balloon artistry all those years ago. (Note to self: add "balloon artist at funeral" to my last and final wishes.)

I asked how his daughter was doing now.

"If you didn't know, you wouldn't know," he said showing me a picture of a beautiful young lady on his phone.

I love asking people how they got to where they are. It's a reminder to me that life meanders. It's rarely straightforward and often detours you to long, winding roads you assume are dead ends. And sometimes they are. And sometimes you go into the NICU filled with fear and anxiety and the weight of the world and leave with the power to bring smiles to people's faces and make the world a sillier place. 

And boy do we need that these days.

If there's something that depression has allowed me to appreciate, it's lightness. Those moments when your soul expands and you grasp, for a second, what it means to be here and to be human. I get this feeling most often when I stop and listen and observe life in realtime with an open heart. 

I don't think we'll ever find the grand anecdote to the world's ugliness in policy or air strikes or social media. It happens on a much, much smaller scale. It starts in your home and in your neighborhood and in your city. It starts with a smile and a simple question and the willingness to listen to the answer. 

We all just want someone to hear us over the cacophony of all 7 billion of us. 

We all want to tell our story. But first, we need to listen. 

What we hear will probably be a greater gift than what we wanted to say. I'm certain of that. 

And if that doesn't quite do the trick, well, there's always puppies. And balloon animals.

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