Last Friday, my friend Sarah and I stood wrestling a helium tank into the kitchen. We’d squeaked it past the cars in the garage and now there were the six stairs leading to the house to contend with. As I stood looking at Sarah, who is as big as a minute, and the tank, which was as big as a monster, the idea of actually getting it forward, never mind upward, was starting to feel impossible. But Sarah, with her ox-like work ethic, wasn’t about to give up and with superhuman strength hoisted the bottom up.
So we heaved, hoed, heaved, hoed the thing up the steps and finally settled it down on the kitchen floor, Sarah punctuating the victory by tripping and hitting her head on the door. We were both out of breath, a little giddy by what we’d accomplished, a little scared by what other injuries could have been sustained. But the tank, it was inside. And now the party could start.
Because Gabrielle Baker was about to turn 14. And she was going to have her some balloons.
The party planning started back in January when Gabrielle gingerly asked me if she could have a big bash this year. As she asked, I could see excitement zigzagging across her face.
“I’d invite everyone in the eighth grade,” she said. “No one left out.”
“Let’s do it,” I said immediately, memories of my own birthday parties cementing the decision.
My parents were always great about letting me host, with the basement packed with kids in cold weather and spilling through the yard in warm. I remember my 14th birthday in particular, my bangs in full-on growing out phase after a disastrous haircut. At one point, there were about 30 teenagers packed in our hot tub and, later, we played volleyball and sat around the bonfire. My parents just watched us from the porch, laughing with their friends, filling up the bowls of ripple chips and clearing away the cans of Coca Cola. Always, birthdays were a big deal in our house and I have tried to recreate that for Gabrielle.
So when we got to the part of the planning having to do with decorations, I knew, I knew the answer was in helium.
Hence the tank, which stood imposingly in my kitchen after Sarah had left, a pack of balloons sitting limply beside it. Gabrielle had expressed interest in blowing up the balloons when she got home from school, but she would have just a short hour before her guests arrived. We all know how that kind of hour goes, the minutes getting eaten up with priorities like what to wear and what eye shadow hue to apply. So with 100 purple balloons in front of me, I got to work.
I’m not going to brag, but I am pretty good at tying balloons. This stems from, ahem, my stint as grad committee president in grade 12. You know the one who decides on the theme and picks out the decorations from the high school prom catalogs and then uses the designation as a selling feature on her university application? Yeah, that was me, recovering, shockingly, from another bad haircut.
Anyway, the day of the celebration, I was the one at the Marlborough Hotel frantically blowing up balloons and taping up streamers. I’d been there tying knots for hours, my cuticles now peeled back so far they looked like they were suffering from severe gingivitis. Little did I know that that afternoon would prepare me for this one.
By the time Gabrielle came home from school, the basement had been transformed. Balloons kissed the ceiling everywhere, the ribbons hanging alluringly down in soft curls. Gabrielle squealed when she saw it and my heart soared. Then she and her best friend Emily blew up about 20 more and bounced downstairs with their bouquets bobbing. Minutes later, the party started.
And by the end of it, just one balloon was left floating. The rest had given themselves to the mouths of the kids, who had delighted in sucking the helium and talking to each other in cartoon voices. The night had been a hit, and William and I had sat in the kitchen listening to the kids laughing and screaming. I realize now why my parents had never hesitated to let us throw parties — it’s a thrill to hear your kid having such a good time.
So as I saw the lone balloon drifting across the ceiling the next morning, I gave it a playful shove and prepared myself for hoisting the helium tank again.