Up, Up & Away; Hot Air Ballooning From Grief to Joy

By Eileen Schmitz

A few days ago on Facebook a friend stated there were spots available for a hot air balloon ride in my hometown of Sequim, WA. I knew I had to say YES, after all saying YES is the foundation of the new healing journey upon which I have found myself. Written in bold Sharpie ink on a post-it note in my kitchen is the following:

How to live a life I love:

  • Say YES to fun
  • Experience new opportunities / adventures
  • Have childlike awe

Unbeknownst to me, a few hours with a hot air balloon and its crew will accomplish all of the above.

Up, up, and away?

Up, up, and away?

For six months and twelve days I have been climbing out of a dark hole that opened when my husband died rather unexpectedly. He and I shared a great passionate love; we were one of those fortunate couples who figured out the whole ‘being in love’ in a delicious, devoted and happy way that endured even when raising teenagers, even when the economy fell, and even when he wound up in a deep coma and unable to recover from complications due to – of all things – an appendectomy.

The impossibility of my husband’s injury and of our love ending on this earth spun me into a grief that was nearly paralyzing and it took several weeks before I could walk across a room without resting my hand on a piece of furniture, a person, or a wall to retain my footing, my balance on this earth. But I am of a strong and resilient stock, or at least my friends keep telling me so, and instead of withdrawing from the world completely, I stepped into a journey of healing that includes dancing, hot yoga, writing and a whole bunch of yummy meals with loving friends and family between my unscheduled but predictable sob-fests.

I committed to leaving the house six days a week since grief and isolation are kissing cousins; this was a strong move. Several weeks ago I committed to saying YES for the next year whenever an opportunity presented itself that was fun or would allow personal growth and have found myself in more than a few situations where fun and growth were possible and where my previous self would have been either too busy at work to participate or quietly on the sidelines of the activity; this is my new world.

Never would I have imagined that joy and mending would happen among strangers and business acquaintances playing in our stocking feet at dawn inside a hot air balloon in the open pastures of Sequim Municipal Airport.

Sequim has our first ever hot air balloon festival coming up in September and I had attended one of the planning meetings (another YES to new opportunities) and based on what I heard of the balloons, the accompanying car show, wine bar and musical performance it sounded like a great celebration and I committed to volunteering. And because I continue to slide in and out of grief daily, well mostly hourly, I stayed at the planning meeting for the first forty-five minutes before emotions began rumbling below my surface. But even half a meeting about a well-planned event with hot air balloons, a reflecting pond, hot rods and sunshine, well, I was sold. When the rides-are-available post showed up on Facebook, it was an immediate knowingness that this was the next step on my YES journey.

Crack of dawn; I’d love to say I was filled with fairy dust and that my day had begun with sweetly humming forest animals laying out my wardrobe but instead my dogs had roused me 3:00am for an imaginary sound followed by a necessary walk on the lawn and I was now sleep deprived, a little cold, a little cranky and standing outside at 5:30am at the local community airport beside other bleary eyed folks. At least I had my mug of hot cocoa, the dietary necessity of grief.

As the moments ticked by waiting for the crew and balloon to arrive, the early grey morning mist frizzed my hair (I could feel it happening), and the uncertainty of whether the weather would allow lift-off hung in the air like a cartoon question mark above all our heads. I found my desire to be in a hot air balloon, or to be anywhere at 5:30 in the morning fading. Soon enough the crew arrived, I met the other passengers, then a couple of local volunteer crew members arrived who turned out to be Sherry and Debbie and Dean, people I know and like; I figured it was go time.

A larger than party-sized black balloon was sent up to test weather conditions: the cloud layer, the wind and visibility. The Captain of our balloon, a pretty slender woman named Crystal, said the black test balloon was called a pie or a pie ball, apparently this is required by the FAA before flight. We waited for the pie to float upward for five minutes answering the looming question, do we fly today. Tick-tock, the answer was no. We agreed to wait a little longer for another pie to float upward in maybe half an hour; time would tell. Once again, it was no.

With the flight canceled, we were given the option of going home or learning how to crew a hot air balloon. Captain Crystal and her partner Doc asked if we wanted to help out with her ‘antique’ balloon that needed to be inspected and inflated. My tired, disappointed innards wanted to go home but my let’s-say-YES intention for the year agreed to stick around. I explained to one of the local volunteers, about my year of YES and once it came out of my mouth it set the trend for the next two hours of my life.

Did I have gloves? Yes! Did I want to help out? Yes! Did I want to walk across the field? Yes! Could I pull the rope? Yes! And as each opportunity to go back to my car, to return home arose, another Yes came along to keep the adventure moving forward.

As balloon-official bundles and equipment were removed from the van, and the large basket that holds the Captain and passengers appeared, one of the gentleman started talking about bucket lists and hot air balloon rides, a natural conversation. Even in the most casual of settings it takes very little effort to rub against the tender, raw edges of my grief. The co-captain shared a story of a group of people who had flown in memory of their friend who had bucket-listed a hot air balloon ride but died before being able to do so. And without a word the stream of tears that are my companion these days started slivering down my cheeks; and though I turned away quietly to keep the messiness of sorrow under wraps, the co-captain walked over and held me in a hug which was both comforting and kind of perfect since I have another list at home that pertains to my healing and on it I wrote “Accept all hugs”.

A crew member shared her story of love and the romance of flight; she and her husband had been married inside a hot air balloon and now volunteered as crew members when the opportunity arose. I followed her gaze to the man standing seventy feet away holding a rope and looking official. Even now, I adore hearing love stories; my heart needs to know it’s still out there in the world.

Another person talked about riding in a hot air balloon where the Captain hovered above a lake so low and so perfectly that it was one of the most beautiful memories of their life. And as the stories unfolded, each one accompanied by a touch of wonder, a little magic, my soul lifted.
The balloon was pulled from its protective cover like one of those endless scarves a magician pulls from their tuxedo jacket sleeve; a never-ending silk stream of red and yellow and blue brightness. We pulled it across the field long and narrow. The Captain’s two dogs bounded nearby, German shepherds with bandanas around their necks, clean happy playful beasts never once stepping on the balloon, clearly well trained but also clearly well loved.

Next the flame and a fan were set up and the crew began inflating the balloon and while the rainbow sack was barely half full, still lying on the ground like a bright cloud, the Captain examined the fabric for tears, any weaknesses in her old balloon and she performed an interior inspection, then encouraged us to remove our shoes and step inside.

My old safe-on-the-sidelines self rose to the surface momentarily; I didn’t need to walk inside a balloon I thought. But my YES commitment resurfaced and after removal of shoes walked inside as the cloud of silk sunk onto my head and shoulders and I was momentarily alone inside a rainbow tent. I lifted my arms and the lightweight fabric billowed up as the fan restarted pushing fresh air and the balloon inflated above me, a bright blossom alive with color, and my heart began to laugh.

The rainbow silk was lighter than light, its colors above and all around separated the world of fantasy from the world of order and rules and construct. This was childhood and magic and freedom and I wanted to swirl in circles dancing into the feeling. I was not in Sequim, I was not at an airport, I was no longer sleep deprived, rather I was inside a floating surreal airy world that held no expectations, no memories and no promises that end when death do you part. I felt awe. It was Christmas morning and riding a bicycle with no hands on the bars all at once and I began laughing with lightness through my entire being.

Though I was on the ground inside the balloon rather than up in the air flying, I felt the freedom of flight. More people walked inside the balloon, strangers and acquaintances with a cloud of silk above, below and defining the boundaries of our temporary world. Color was everywhere; there was no outside or grey sky or cool morning. There was no earth, nor middle-aged, no sorrow at all – there was only warm air and red and yellow and blue silk billowing above us all. I felt my hands clapping together involuntarily and realized I was feeling joy. JOY! Absolute, utter, overwhelmingly tingly joy – a joy that had been a stranger for six months and twelve days was now flowing inside me as I smiled nearly jumping up and down within a balloon!

After several magnificent minutes in the colorful world, adulthood returned and I exited the balloon noticing one of my fellow passengers, a local business man standing several feet away. Did you go inside? I asked. When he said no, I felt joy gurgle up again “Oh, you must!” I exclaimed and as I effused he approached the balloon, removed his shoes entering the silken world. I hoped his soul would swirl in joy as mine had only moments before. I hoped that life would gift him freedom and flight and the feeling of Christmas morning. That’s the thing with joy and apparently with hot air balloons too; they are utterly contagious!

After a thorugh inspection of the antique balloon, the Captain and crew prepared to inflate it. We, the newest volunteers, were instructed very specifically “stay away from the fan” “don’t put your hand there” “apply your weight on the basket this way”. Each step of the process was exact, each rope and pulley and clasp properly tested and we willing volunteers followed along.

Once the basket was completely set up, the balloon filled, the Captain in position and the fire rising up inside the balloon we were invited to “Captain the ship”. One of the crew reported that people dream of being able to do this and yet here we were on this unexpected journey. Opportunity and Yes in harmony.

When it was my turn to Captain, I was instructed “put your foot here…your arm there…lift up…” and thanks to a grief-driven commitment to yoga, the lift and the shift and the movement was easier now than it would have been a few months ago and I acknowledged this new strength, this newfound balance. Everything today seemed to be a metaphor for my healing journey.

When managing the flame, you must level it straight up to prevent burning the silk balloon. You must be attentive to the sides of the balloon as sagging or settling occurs; that is when you hold the red lever and ignite the flame for four seconds. As my gloved hand lifted to ignite flame, I was enthralled. Looking up into the balloon with the hot flame ignited directly above I felt the deep arch of my back and great laughter erupt. It was magnificent! This moment of strength, willingness, and attention prompted me to think of every effort made back in girl-scouts and my time spent tackling tasks in my youth. Here we had fire, flight, color, cooperation, attention to detail, and precise safety regulations. I wanted my merit badge!

After others had their turn Captaining and playing with fire, it was time to deflate; to pack up our day and go home. The Captain asked who wanted to be ‘Captain’ in the basket for this final act, and I heard a voice throw my name out, “She’ll say Yes!” and so back into the basket I went. Foot here, arm there, look up, pull the line when told, and stop when instructed. So many instructions, and yet the balloon made sense, it clicked in my mind with its ropes and balance and weight.

“Go” and I pulled the rope, and felt the resistance heavier than expected and heard someone commend my upper body strength (pretty sure that was the first time in my life!) and the final step is to put my foot on the side of the basket, throw my weight backward, lie back and be prepared to fall over; a whole bunch of scary steps that an adult may not want to do and yet I threw my foot forward and weight back then fell with the basket absolutely correctly and I laughed and joy runneth over me.

Afterward, one of the crew members showed me a photograph on their phone of me laughing broadly while the balloon was deflating. In the photograph my head is tilted back, mouth wide open and the local business man I’d encouraged to go inside the balloon, he is standing next to the basket, his hand is reaching forward touching my arm; perhaps he was trying to capture some of the joy. Like most women, I can criticize any photograph taken of me, but all I could see was my joy – yes, my hair is mussed, my clothes wrinkled as are a few other parts of me, and yet all I see is a woman who is alive and smiling; the very same woman who wondered six months ago if a joyful life was possible ever again.

When something is a foreigner in your life, another culture such as equestrians, baseball fans, ballerinas or hot air balloonists, sometimes you can’t understand the language or the passion. Until now I knew nothing of the hot air balloon culture, suddenly I understood the attraction, the joy of it. And this was experienced without flight! My mind marveled at what an actual journey would be like to experience.

Several days ago, when telling my daughter of the plan to go up in a hot air balloon, I confessed that maybe ‘up’ was a little closer to the heavens where my great man is now spiritually residing. Somehow there was a certain rightness that morning in my remaining on the ground and finding magnificent joy rather than seeking one last slice of his essence in the ethers.

So come September in Sequim I will volunteer as crew when asked. I will ride when offered the opportunity. And the next time anyone asks if I want to run around in my stocking feet at dawn inside an old balloon, the answer will be Yes!

© Eileen Schmitz; 2012

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *