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Not so small moments

October 18, 2009
Drawn after overhearing a conversation, this is Graysen's interpretation of what happened to the "Balloon Boy," Falcon Heene.

Drawn after overhearing a conversation, this is Graysen’s interpretation of what happened to the “Balloon Boy,” Falcon Heene.

The story that unfolded on live TV was the stuff of nightmares. A silver saucer-shaped helium balloon was floating over Colorado, ostensibly with a 6 year-old boy inside.
In what was probably just a tiny, regular moment on that Thursday afternoon, things appeared to go terribly wrong for the boy and his family. A moment of parental inattention, a window of opportunity for a curious child, a tether not connected correctly, if at all…added up to a frightening spectacle that riveted people all over the world. As the balloon drifted away, and the realization that their son might be inside sank in, the fear and helplessness that overwhelmed the parents must have been staggering.

I know how black that those feelings are.

On a hot summer day several years ago I was working at home, talking on the phone in my office. The kids, who were 9, 7, and 3, were running around playing both inside and out. I didn’t worry about them so much–we lived in a rural area at the end of a cul-de-sac and knew all our neighbors. The kids played in the front yard or on the swingset in the backyard, and through my high office windows I could see the swing chains moving and hear their laughter.
But midway through the phone call, my mother radar kicked in and told me something wasn’t right. The activity on the swingset had stopped, and I could hear the kids’ happy voices in the front yard.
At first my discomfort was so slight I shrugged it off, continued my phone call with my focus on just how much work I had to do that day.
My discomfort increased, however, so I ended the phone call and went outside to check on the kids.
I found the older kids happily playing but neither of them knew where 3 year-old Chiara was.
“She was here a minute ago…I think….” they both said.
I went around the house toward the playset, calling her name. Chiara was independent but it was unlike her to take off on her own. She usually stuck to her siblings like glue.
She wasn’t in the backyard.
I felt my heart start to race as I cast my eyes all about the property. The sun was beating down. We looked through the house and I grilled the kids. They’d all been playing together, they said, but neither of the older two noticed when she wandered off.
I went outside again to walk the perimeter of the house. As I came around the corner to the back again, where the swingset was, I saw movement in our car.
Our red Honda with heavily tinted windows was sitting in the sun near the swingset. Earlier in the day I’d filled the back with a bunch of bags full of clothes to take to the Goodwill. I hadn’t locked the car because of where we lived–you just didn’t need to lock things around there.
For reasons unknown, Chiara had climbed into the car while her siblings played, and shut the door. Then, horror of horrors, she got stuck in the bags–her foot got trapped between them and the back of the driver’s seat and she couldn’t extricate herself.
The movement I happened to see through the windshield, as I came around the corner, was her trying to pull herself into the front seats. It was a miraculous moment that was timed just right, considering the circumstances–the sun was beating down on the windshield, making it hard to see into the car. Since the doors were all closed, it didn’t occur to me to look in the car for her…it just wasn’t a place I would think she’d go.
I pulled the back door open quickly and felt the rush of heat on my face. There was Chiara, foot trapped in the bags, face bright red, crying in terror.
It was an incident that ended well but could have been tragic. As I consoled my frightened daughter, and cooled her hot little body, myriad scenarios twisted through my mind.
What if I hadn’t listened to my intuition?
What if I hadn’t seen that tiny movement through the sun-struck windshield?
What if…what if…what if?

A similar question was on everyone’s mind as the balloon drifted this way and that over Colorado. What if the little boy, whose name, Falcon, was by then known around the world, is really inside? Most were convinced he was, though there were some who speculated that he might not be. The only eyewitness was a 10 year-old, they pointed out, implying that he was unreliable due to his age.

The fact remained, however, that Falcon was nowhere to be found, and the analysis of the situation by reporters and experts followed the progress of the balloon until…it landed. Empty.

That’s when the collective speculation turned toward the ominous. What if he fell out? There was even a still shot of something perhaps falling from the bottom of the balloon.

Then, thankfully, Falcon emerged safe and sound in his own home after apparently hiding in the attic the whole time. He said he was afraid he’d get in trouble about the balloon, adding that his dad had yelled at him earlier in the day.

It was a happy ending, and the world let out a collective sigh of relief.

But shortly thereafter, some odd details began to emerge. Falcon’s own claim that he’d hidden because he’d been yelled at earlier in the day struck me as strange. I know parental anger is upsetting for any child, but in this situation an angry outburst had inspired a 6 year-old to hide out for 4 hours, despite apparently hearing people calling his name. Graysen is just slightly younger than this kid, and there’s no WAY he could do that. Shoot, he has to pee every half hour, at the very least, and in any case….he isn’t that afraid of our anger.

Following Falcon’s reappearance was what might amount to a damning interview on live television, during which Falcon alluded to the idea that he didn’t come out because his parents had told him it was all “for a show.” Had they set it all up? Asked the children to lie for them?

To lie to the world?

I don’t know yet what the upshot of all of this will be. Perhaps it was a “real event.” Perhaps it wasn’t staged. If real, these parents have my deepest sympathies and compassion. Until you’ve walked a mile in those shoes, you cannot know how deeply frightening it is to not know where your child is. To not know whether your child is safe. My own lapse in attention could have had a much more devastating outcome for Chiara. As it was, she wasn’t trapped in the car more than a few minutes and, though shaken, she was okay. Honestly, however, I’m not sure that I’ve completely recovered from the fright, though it happened 6 years ago now.

In the case of the “Balloon Boy,” I think it’s critical to determine the truth about this event, if for no other reason than to ensure that the children are in a safe, supportive, and nurturing environment.

No child should be that afraid of parental anger. Similarly, no child should be coerced to lie–especially by a parent.

I guess until more is revealed we at least know one thing, and one thing that, in a sense, eclipses all else:

Falcon is unhurt. He’s alive. Everything else can be remediated.

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