Try to imagine–seeing all those years, weeks, days. Living. Outliving.
Hours before the reception I am tying off helium balloons. The playing cards attached to strings aren’t heavy enough to weigh the balloons down, so we drape them in groups of five around coat hangers and the necks of unopened wine bottles. The young cousin in charge of the helium can’t quite master the art of tying balloons, but he fills them with aplomb. He is territorial about the tanks and demanding when a balloon is ready. “Who’s going to take this pink? WHO’S GOING TO TAKE THIS PURPLE?”
A woman who works for the church tells us the security alarm goes on before midnight. “There’s a motion sensor,” she tells us. Our eyes involuntarily drift upward to the half dozen loose balloons, some stringless, swaying ever so gently in the circulating air. One of them hugs a light fixture.
We unload cases of beer and start emptying bags of ice into clear tubs. I want to break up the ice more, smash it like we used to in bathtubs before parties, but I’m worried about scuffing the floor. I accidentally send chunks flying when I try to use my keys as an icepick. I remember to set out a cup to save bottle caps for an aunt, though I know I’ll find at least two when I empty my pockets later.
I can’t remember the last time I was inside a church. Probably the service for my grandmother’s memorial. The sanctuary was dark and close and stifling hot. At one point I swayed, caught myself, wondered if I might actually pass out.
This one is lighter, bigger. The stained glass almost seems new. We hear the quartet practicing in the choir loft. Balloon boy prowls behind the altar, tests a microphone.
In the hymns and prayers I find myself mute. I’m rusty with the call and response, but more than that I feel strange going along with the motions. My lips don’t move until Hail Holy Queen. “How does everyone know these lyrics?” my brother-in-law whispers. He doesn’t remember this song from Sister Act.
The hassocks fascinate me.
After family photos–“That was perfect! Now just three more!”–we walk back to the assembly hall and find ourselves partly locked out. We sneak in through the church offices.
It is quickly apparent that there are more bodies than chairs. “We figured there’d be about 250 people,” one cousin tells me. “There are 200 chairs.” I resolve to stand for the duration.
On this side of the hallway, with all the tables and throngs of people behind glass, we are like a small zoo exhibit. Younger cousins drift in and out, eating and adding sugar to their lemonade. I try twice to hold a baby so that his mother can use both hands. Twice he decides against it.
I keep catching flashes of my wife from across the room. Relatives and old family friends recognize her. Sometimes she waves in my direction. At certain moments–once during the homily, once while I’m watching the endless slideshow of photographs–I am struck by how naturally, how easily this family welcomed me. How even Grandma tells me she’s glad to see me.
As the reception winds down we’re herded outside, handed balloons. The playing cards have special backs, informing the reader that Marietta Gesenhues turned 100, and that she would love a card or note sent to her address. Surely most of the balloons will return to the ground not far from here, but I like to imagine some of them setting off for parts unknown. Crossing state boundaries. Delivering themselves at the feet of children just beginning their own centuries.
We sing happy birthday and release our strings. The sun reflects off the playing cards as they rise, a glittering array winking out of view.
Try to imagine–seeing all those balloons. Seeing all those days. Living. Outliving.