Red Balloon: Total Recall

Memories without the feelings are like facts in a history book. But a crazy thing happened, and I got the feelings back. (Text is abridged. Audio version is a more detailed story - 15 mins)


Red Balloon: Total Recall

The summer after I turned four, my dad left home with my alcholic mother raging at him as he slammed the door and never came back. That same summer I got attacked by a swarm of bees and was molested on my living room couch by one of my mom's parade of new boyfriends. 

Still, up until recently I had viewed my past through a kind of veil that allowed me to maintain an image of a happy childhood. I knew all these things had happened to me, but the memories felt more like historical facts. Even after years of therapy, I always maintained that my childhood was primarily happy. 
Then I had a child.When my daughter was about two years old I sought help for "emotional flashbacks"  - surges of anxiety, or anger, or sadness I was having for no apparent reason, There was no memory of an actual event, no details, no images, only feelings apparently tied to old trauma. 

In a support forum online, I found a discussion about 'unwatchable movies' that people avoided because they could trigger emotional flashback. I remebered that for years I had avoided every opportunity to watch the classic French film, The Red Balloon.
I had this memory of seeing it around the same time I started school - the same year my dad left, and the bees attacked, and the child molesters started invading my living room. Mostly I remembered that at the very end, all these balloons started flying out of children's hands all over town. One by one, they all flew to the little boy, who gathered them up.

"It's not fair the boy gets all the balloons!" I remember crying. 

My mom said, "Well, the other children were probably bad children and the balloons wanted to be with a good little boy." I was incensed at this suggestion and it only made me cry harder. 

Over the years this memory drifted in and out of my life. I was always curious about seeing The Red Balloon again to see if I could fill in any blanks about that memory, but despite many opportunities I never managed to actually see it. 

Now, over ten years later, as I sit at the computer reading those online discussions about emotional flashbacks and unwatchable movies, I wonder: Was I unconsciously avoiding it?  

One morning a few weeks later, like a sign, a local theater ran the Red Balloon. I told my husband, "I have to go." 
The movie starts. I have butterflies in my stomach as if I'm about to meet a long lost friend from my past. And that's sort of how it feels, scene after scene, all eerily familiar. Surreal.
To my surprise I discover that the Red Balloon is not just a balloon, it's a main character in the film. It’s the boy’s friend - probably his only friend in the world. I watch entranced as the perfectly round brilliant red balloon waits for the boy to get out of school; as it defends him against the mean schoolmaster; it even plays hide and seek. The Red Balloon is a living thing!
I feel transported. I am four years old again, incredibly delighted, and convinced of the reality of this balloon friend.
A gang of bullies attacks the little boy and throws rocks at the balloon. It's incredibly surreal because I vividly remember the scene as it unfolds. I remember the sound of the gang of boys shouting. I remember the brick walls of the yard where the encounter takes place. I remember the boys throwing rocks at the balloon. I remember! I say yes, yes, I remember all of this!
But I wasn't prepared for what happened next. I honestly didn't see it coming. We see a close up of the red balloon, as little wrinkles slowly begin to form on its surface. The Balloon is dying!
I'm suddenly hit by a flood of memory. It's as if, all those years ago, the wrinkles on the dying balloon, had been indelibly printed deep in my brain, and now they had matched up with the image on the screen, like a key in a lock, and released a tidal wave of feelings.
And I was only four year old. And I was devastated. And I didn't understand how to deal with that kind of loss, Just like my father, the beautiful red balloon was gone. Just like that.
And then, just as the reality sinks in, we cut to the scene of all the balloons, all over town rushing to the aid of this boy. They slip out of other children's hands in the blink of an eye and fly off. As a grown up, I know these balloons are rushing to the aid of this boy. They are rescuing him. They come from all over town and the boy gathers them up and is carried up into the sky. The End. 
But I am four now. I can’t resolve the injustice --that these other children must now lose their balloon friends for the sake of this one boy. 

Meanwhile, as I watch him rise up into the sky, away from the cruelty of this world, I'm also jealous to be stuck here on the ground. On the ground, where fathers can walk out the door and never come back. On the ground where bullies can trick you into getting attacked by bees. On the ground where even my own home wasn't safe. 

Who was there to protect me? And now who is there to comfort me as I grieve this confusing and painful reality?
'It's not fair!' I had shouted through the tears. I remember saying it over and over again. But all she could come up with was the other children were bad. And when I didn't buy it, and cried harder, she just left me there on the floor sobbing, as if my pain were ridiculous, my tears nothing more than an inconvenience.
Years ago, my memory had captured, like a fly in amber, the deprivation of a child in pain, whose mother had no empathy. Now, sitting in this little theater, the memory was unlocked, the veil hiding the pain of my childhood had been ripped away.  
'It's not fair!'
That was five years ago. My daughter is seven now. She has a loving home and is thriving and happy. We have our moments--don’t get me wrong--but she knows she is loved, she knows she is safe, and most of all, she knows that her feelings matter. I may not always agree, I may not always understand, but I try, and I'm always there if she needs comfort.
I don't know how much longer I'll be able to protect her from the world outside. But I know that as she ventures out into the world, she will do so with the love and support of her mom, her dad, her friends and family. The day will inevitably come when she will experience grief and heartache. But when she does, she won't be alone.