A magical realist story about the death of a young man to chronic asthma. His fiancee holds onto a balloon he inflated for a family party, believing it symbolises his love for her.
Daniel David Gothard
LAWRENCE SEYMOUR, A CHRONIC ASTHMATIC, died on the floor of his parents’ bathroom on the day of the party celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
He was found by his partner, Amy. She screamed until her throat was too sore to go on, then fell to the floor next to him, sobbing into his still chest.
He was lying on his back, wide-eyed, as if he had been asked a perplexing question, his blue lips slightly parted, as if he had one last thing to say.
The bathroom door was nearly taken off its hinges as Lawrence’s older brother and father ran in to see the horror they had half-expected since he had come so close to death from pneumonia when he was four years-old.
Lawrence hasn’t had an asthma attack for six years, surely he isn’t really dead, his father thought.
The biggest tragedy of their lives had happened on a day when the family home had never looked more festive. Plastic banners of Happy Anniversary festooned the lounge and dining room, balloons of many different colours and shapes adorned every ceiling corner. Music filled the place. Love and life were supposed to be in the air, not the chilly claw of the Reaper.
‘Someone call a bloody ambulance… now,’ Lawrence’s father shouted.
He moved Amy to one side, his other son hugged her, he tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He had learned First Aid to try and add another skill to the family health arsenal. But he had always assumed he would never need the skill, never feel his child’s cold lips beneath his.
My poor boy, he wanted to say, I should have known. I should have been here. I am sorry it wasn’t me instead.
The paramedics arrived a few minutes later and took over the attempts at revival. Approximately fifteen minutes later, one of them looked at his watch, wrote the time of death on a pad and turned to Lawrence’s parents.
‘I’m so very sorry,’ he said.
Lawrence’s father fell into his wife’s arms and felt her tears soak his shoulder. He looked at his son’s face. He interpreted the wide eyes as desperation and was suddenly drenched in more guilt, assuming his son had died silently hoping his dad would save him. Wasn’t that a father’s duty?
He looked at the blue Salbutamol inhaler in Lawrence’s left hand. The lid was still on.
The paramedics insisted the family and friends leave them to take care of Lawrence’s body. The house emptied quickly, lots of tears and hugs were exchanged. Amy was taken, by her best friend, Louise, to the spare bedroom where she and Lawrence had been due to spend the night.
After an hour or so, when the body had been taken away – Lawrence’s parents followed the ambulance to the hospital – the house fell into complete silence.
Michael, Lawrence’s brother, and Sam, Lawrence’s best friend, drank a lot of brandy and stared into space. Michael could hear Louise and Amy upstairs talking and crying, and he wondered if he should offer them some of the alcohol too. But he couldn’t move. His arms and legs felt something other than numb – they felt disappeared. His body felt gone. Just his eyes left.
Sam wanted to do something, say something. He was a physics teacher, used to giving information and answering difficult questions. He wanted to believe he could offer a shred of detail that might be remembered as a defining point of hope in this hellish scene. But instead he sipped more and more brandy and kept thinking of Lawrence’s last words to him, just a couple of hours ago, ‘I need to talk to you in a minute or two. I really need your advice.’
What had been so important? Nothing was now. Whatever he needed to say was lost forever. His best friend, the boy with the frail lungs but the biggest heart, was dead.
He had never even told Lawrence how much he cared for him. Why didn’t men ever do that, he thought, I must tell my friends I love them, and soon, I must. He drank more brandy, leaned across the arm of his chair and patted Michael’s arm, gently smiling and nodding. Michael looked back at him and tried to return the smile.
Upstairs, in the spare bedroom, Amy and Louise lay next to each other holding hands.
‘We had just… we had just decided on a wedding date,’ Amy said.
‘I am so sorry, Amy, so sorry. He loved you so much. He was such a sweet man. You were lucky to have him. We all were,’ Louise whispered.
Later that day, when Lawrence’s parents had returned from the hospital – his mother had been prescribed with a sedative, which she shared with Amy – Michael, Sam and Louise began to take down the anniversary decorations, quickly filling bin bags with the remnants of the short-lived celebration.
Sam began cutting the necks of the balloons with kitchen scissors, gently allowing the air to leave rather than loudly popping them.
‘No, no, Sam, stop,’ Amy said. ‘Not that one. That was the last one Lawrence blew up. I want to keep it.’
Sam handed the silver balloon to Amy and hugged her, taking care not to crush the prized possession.
She took the balloon up to the spare bedroom, carefully wedged it between a chair leg and the wardrobe, put on Lawrence’s pyjama top and took a deep breath of what was left of his body smell. She closed her eyes tightly and rearranged her thoughts to the sight of him smiling above her, kissing her forehead and handing her a cup of tea in bed.
Shortly after, Louise looked in on her, said she would see her tomorrow, and left.
The following week was like a fever dream to Amy. Michael called her every day, as did Louise and Sam.
The nights were terrible. Looking at the bedroom wall-mounted sketches by Lawrence which they had framed, and the various holiday photographs, only served as painful reminders of the recent past and the no-longer future.
‘Do you feel able to write a eulogy?’ Michael asked Amy two days before the funeral. ‘It wouldn’t have to be much. I just thought it might be a chance for us all to talk about how much he meant to us.’
‘Of course. I want to tell him about… wherever he is. You know…’ she said.
Michael smiled and nodded.
Amy barely slept across the next forty-eight hours, trying to think about what to say. How could she put her grief into words?
Each day since Lawrence had died she found herself returning to the hat-box under their bed, where she had placed the silver balloon for safekeeping. It was beginning to look a little diminished, slight crinkles were slowly appearing around the tied neck, and she wanted to find a way to preserve it – not just for a little while longer, for as long as she lived. The balloon held what might have been one of Lawrence’s last breaths.
Amy spent hours looking up preservation techniques online: Formaldehyde? Dry ice? Some form of jelly?
She eventually dismissed each one as either unworkable or ridiculous and concentrated on the eulogy.
She began with a poem by EE Cummings: a favourite of Lawrence’s, and the one they had talked about using at their wedding, i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart).
She copied the poem and repeatedly glanced at a desk photograph of the two of them, smiling and hugging by a Christmas tree, taken by Louise two years before.
At two o’clock in the morning, on the day of Lawrence’s funeral, she was finished. She reread the words one last time before falling asleep, and was woken by the radio clock alarm, in what felt like, minutes later.
Michael and Louise both called to confirm the time their car would be collecting her. She hadn’t eaten that morning and was sipping her third cup of coffee. Amy took it in to her bedroom and sat on the bed. Feeling her heart racing, she pulled the hat-box on to the duvet and opened the lid. The balloon was sagging and now looked about half-empty.
She held her head in her hands and screamed. There was no way to preserve a balloon. And even if she did find a method, it was too late for this special gift. Amy knew what she had to do. She went to the kitchen and brought some scissors back to the bed.
She had watched Sam gently cutting the tops of the other balloons during the wedding anniversary clear-up. The air from each one had oozed out, some of it making Sam’s fringe rise up.
Amy lifted the silver balloon out of the hat-box slowly and pressed it against her cheek. She kissed the cold latex skin as if she wanted to consume it.
‘I will always love you, Lawrence. I carry you in my heart,’ she whispered, her mouth still against the balloon skin. It tasted wet and bitter now.
She picked up the scissors, pinched the tied neck and made a delicate cut. Air started to leak out. Amy held the balloon near her face, closed her eyes to allow Lawrence’s breath to wash over her.
She heard words in the breath. Lawrence’s voice, like a recording.
She squeezed the leak shut, swallowed hard and stared around the room.
Amy walked around the flat, checked her mobile phone and the computers. No sounds. She sat on the sofa and held the balloon up again. She was shaking as she let the last of the air dash across her face.
His last words. His last breath.
‘I’m in love with Louise.’