The night before, I had come back from the fair with a bright blue ballon. The helium inside, I was told, was lighter than air and that made the balloon always want to elevate itself. I wondered how far it would go, if I wasn’t holding it down. I was thinking of finding out the next day, to let it go to heaven and see if it would find a resting place, or if it would keep going forever until it reached the stars.
Early in the morning, the routine noises of the house started as planned. First, my aunt Juanita got up to prepare breakfast. I heard all the familiar noises that come from her room and the kitchen, as it happens every morning. Normally, I woke up first, but I’d stay in bed looking at the ceiling and the sun beams that made dust particles dance to the noises outside. Usually, when my aunt got up to prepare breakfast, my little brother, Carlitos, would wake up and follow her into the kitchen. She would sit him on the counter from where, groggily sucking his thumb and twirling his hair with his other hand, he would watch her prepare the food in our old gas oven. That day, however, he stayed in bed for some reason. Later, he would tell me that someone told him to stay in bed sleeping longer. He thought it had been me, or perhaps some woman; the identity of the voice wasn’t clear, but he followed the advice and stayed in bed with my other brothers, my mom, and me.
I was looking at my ballon, now a little deflated. It was no longer resting on the ceiling. It was hanging low, now. What had happened to the gas inside? Why didn’t it make the balloon go up to the sky anymore? What made it happy to just float in the middle of the room? No, it didn’t seem happy. It seemed to just had given up; a blue balloon unable to go up to meet the greater blue sphere of the sky. It was not happy, it was resigned. Maybe I should have done it yesterday, let it go when I got the idea. But I liked feeling the pull from it. It was the first helium balloon I had ever seen in person. Before this, I had only seen them in cartoons. Now, I had one in my hand, in real life. It was really blue and it really floated. I had now a piece of fantasy in my hands, a fantasy I had assumed was only possible in television. This small sphere of blue in my hands had a gentle and steady pull to the sky. It wanted to fly up, just like I wanted to glide up to the heart of the sky. To be precise, it was not the flying that my balloon and I wanted. It was the being home, where the heart of me and the heart of sky are one and the same. Secretly, I wanted to see this little piece of heaven make it there. But I also wanted to feel that magical, gentle pull on my hand a while longer. It made me feel like I was floating a little. Its aspiration met mine, and if a television fantasy was now in my hands, perhaps the secret fantasy of my heart could also become real with this ballon.
This morning, however, it was just a blue ballon floating midway between the floor and the ceiling, and my thoughts contemplating the nature of hellium and gases. My mom woke up, asking me if I smelled gas. I couldn’t smell it, but I told her that perhaps it was the gas that had escaped from the balloon. I was seeing in my mind’s eye the subtle currents of gas fostering through tiny, tiny pores in the ballon. If the gas was lighter than air, then it was perhaps thinner and could pass through microscopic holes the air could not fit through.
Before I could speak this thought to my mother, a loud explosion shook the brick walls of the house. My mother ran out, I followed her. I saw Carlitos sitting up as I ran past him after my mom. Outside the master bedroom, a living room and a family room ended in a door to the right. This door led to the kitchen, which was a small enclosed room to the left, the bathroom in front of the door, and the patio and servant’s room to the right. This door to the back of the house was open now. Pedrito, an older second cousin staying with us was coming out to investigate the explosion. My mother was running towards the back door, screaming “Juanita! Juanita!” And from the frame of the door that led to the back of the house where the kitchen was was emerging a huge ball of fire, with the figure of a woman inside, shrieking and holding her arms out in a torturous plead for help and the end of unimaginable suffering.
My mother was aiming to embrace her, to smother the fire with her own body. Pedrito was moving to intercept my mother, to keep her from getting enflamed too. In a frozen moment of time, all three were heading towards each other. My aunt tripped, saving the other two from her fate when the flames started to subside after she fell and rolled.
Someone had left the kitchen’s gas tank open, and the brick walls of the tiny kitchen room had been holding the gas inside, waiting for a match to strike. I didn’t know then that these were different gases, I only thought that the gas was taking my balloon to the sky and my aunt to a fiery death.
She didn’t die, however. My aunt was a single mom with two daughters. Ever since she was a little girl, her face had some kind of damage that made her mouth be on one side, and not centered like for most people. As a young woman, she saw in this a deformity that would forever impede her finding a partner. She told me once, long after this fire, that she went once to see a brujo, to ask for magic to release her of this deformity. Doctors couldn’t do anything at the time, and the brujo from Usulutan said he had the power to do that, but if he did, my aunt would never be happy. He said that it was better to stay with her face as it was. My aunt reluctantly agreed.
This day, however, and many more to follow were far from any happiness she hoped for her life. The recovery was more painful than anything I could imagine. She had burnt 85% of her skin. When I visited her, she would tell me of the treatment. They had to hang her body on straps, and several times a day a nurse would come in to scrub her body from the burnt and dead skin, until it was all raw flesh. Then, an antiseptic cream would be applied that brought the burning sensation all over, only slower and steadier this time. She would scream each time, of course, because there was nothing else she could do.
The images of that morning are unforgettable, of course. And the lessons of gasses that take blue spheres to heaven or small sparks to fiery explosions are still being assimilated. But the most decisive and everlasting impression was the whisper in my brother’s ear of an intelligence that guides our destiny, and the ferreous tenacity of spirit of my aunt, who showed the mettle of one who endures all and everything. To aspire to the heart of heaven is a good thing, but to make of that aspiration one that survives everything and continues to seek to the heights is indispensable. It is the proper act of a spirit that will never deflate to lie resigned in mediocrity, but will continue to seek––with arms extended through the fiery storm––the proper place of the soul in the silent center of the heart.
My tia Juanita endured. Survived everything. She is now in her 80’s, beautiful and alert, full of curiosity, laughter and kindness. Unknown to most people that know her, she is part of a group of healers in her church dedicated to this service, and her gift of healing is powerful, as is the light that radiates from her beautiful and happy face.