Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Blue Balloon

Recently a dear friend, Valerie Gladstone, passed away due to cancer. My husband Adrian and I bonded with Valerie over many things: yoga and meditation, Buddhism, spirituality, writing, music and movies, and gossip-filled brunches. Valerie's physical form was compact, but her presence was large and radiant and loving and gentle -- but, if provoked, could also be sharp. I recall such a moment transpiring one afternoon when Valerie took us to see the amazing Spanish singer Buika at Central Park Summer Stage. Valerie was a respected writer and well-connected in the music, dance and arts communities, so she got us VIP seats in the press section. A young man nearby, probably inebriated or high, was shouting over the music and stomping his feet and clapping his hands in a sad and misguided pantomime of flamenco dance. Valerie, a professional critic and a personal acquaintance of Buika, was not willing to suffer this fool gladly, and she promptly marched up to him and informed him that he was distracting everyone around him from the performance and asked him to stop—which he did. Only Valerie had the courage to do what everyone else in the vicinity secretly wanted to do.

Adrian and I felt fortunate not only to share friendship and laughter with Valerie when she was in good health, but to also be there with her at numerous points during the last weeks of her life. As her cancer progressed rapidly, we visited her several times in the hospital and then the hospice. I went to see Valerie about 24 hours before she passed, and at that point I shared with her some guidance drawn from the Buddhist tradition on how to have a peaceful transition. Later, when we learned that she had passed the next day, the news came that her transition had, indeed, been remarkably peaceful.

Today Adrian and I went to assist in moving to their new home Valerie's two beautiful Abyssinian cats, who had been her cherished companions. Before we departed Valerie's old apartment with the cats, Adrian was very struck by a small metal statue of Nataraja, the dancing form of Shiva. The woman who was looking after the apartment encouraged him to take it as a memento, something to keep in our home to remind us of Valerie.

With cats safely transported and curiously exploring their new, happy home, we headed downtown to meet our friend Stuart for brunch. Afterwards, we strolled back to Stuart's apartment to pass a bit of time before going to see a movie. As we approached the corner of 28th Street and 3rd Avenue, I spotted a single, blue balloon that was drifting slowly up 3rd Avenue, about five or six stories above the street. I stopped Adrian and Stuart and drew their attention to it.

The last time that Adrian and I saw Valerie before she went into the hospital, we met for brunch on the Upper East Side, and then afterwards we strolled down 3rd Avenue. There was a street festival happening on 3rd Avenue that day, and the street was decked with colorful arrays of balloons stretching across the intersections. Adrian and I are both into contemplative photography, and we kept stopping to take photos of the balloons and the interesting way they were framed against the sky and the tall city buildings. We also stopped to take a sidewalk photo with Valerie—which would prove to be our last.

Cut back to today, on the corner of 28th Street. As we watched the blue balloon make its way up 3rd Avenue overhead, it stopped above the intersection where we were standing and began to descend. It came down to street level and went right into the rush of traffic going up 3rd Avenue. We kept expecting one of the numerous buses or automobiles speeding by to catch hold of the balloon and pop it, but we watched in amusement as it danced between, around, in front of, beside, and behind each of them as they passed. When the traffic light switched and it was our turn to cross the intersection, we watched the balloon ascend again and cross over 3rd Avenue to the sidewalk ahead of us. As we arrived on the other side of 3rd Avenue, the balloon again descended toward the ground, reversed direction to head south, and rolled gently to a stop on the sidewalk directly in front of my feet.