I was out for a walk and bumped into Donald, a friend of mine. As we approached each other, he told me that he needed a hug. I wrapped my arms around him and held him for a long moment. When I asked if he’d like to talk about it, he told that he had just learned that a friend of his had died recently. He knew that the man had gone into hospital, and on this day Donald had gone to the restaurant where they usually met and had enquired about his progress.
What I learned about the fellow who had passed was his name was Mario, and he was a very poor Mexican man who had lost connection with his family. He would dress up as a clown and make balloon animals to sell to children for a few pesos. He was a familiar sight to me and to many others who walked the Malecón here in Puerto Vallarta.
I offered to walk with Donald for a while, but he chose to be alone. As I walked away from him, I walked toward the spot where Mario could always be found. I pictured Mario sitting in his usual place, and thought about how long it would have taken me to realize he was no longer around, if I hadn’t learned about his passing from my friend. I was struck by an idea that Donald might like – we could hand out some balloons at that spot as a memorial tribute to his late friend Mario. So off I went in search of a store that sells balloons.
A message from Donald confirmed my thought, when he responded with a resounding YES to the idea of handing out balloons. The next day, I met him at the store where he had purchased a large bunch of star shaped helium balloons. We had written up a card to attach to each balloon that read (in Spanish):
In memory of my friend Mario the balloon clown of the Malecon… RIP
Off we went, each holding a handful of brightly colored balloons. We felt giddy and childlike as we dodged people and trees. I highly recommend carrying a bunch of balloons as therapy for anyone who is feeling down!
When we arrived at the spot where Mario always sat, we untangled the strings and Donald approached Mexican families that passed by. He explained to them that he wanted to give their niños a balloon in memory of his friend. Most of the families had purchased balloons from Mario in the past, so they were very grateful to learn of his passing, and very touched by the gift of a memorial balloon. Many people shared their stories of Mario as well. What a thrill to see those bright star shaped balloons from a distance as the children walked away, knowing that Mario’s story would be shared with more people!
Donald even tied one onto the handlebar of a Segueway that was driven by an officer of the Tourist Safety Department who patrols that area and also knew Mario.
Next, we went to the restaurant where Donald would often meet him. The staff knew Mario, and it was one of them who had informed Donald of his passing. When Mario had some money in his pocket he would buy his own coffee and eat fruit he had picked off a tree somewhere, but often Donald would buy him a meal when Mario would let him. Donald tied a red balloon to the chair that Mario had always sat in. The staff was deeply moved, with many tears being shed.
What an amazing experience this was for both of us! Knowing that Mario received joy from making balloon animals for children and seeing the smile on their faces, it was so special to do something similar in his honor.
Through my hospice work and end-of-life training I have had opportunities to companion a person through their grief and was happy to do so with Donald. He had gone from a deep sadness to feelings of joy and love in a short time. My feeling is that it was no coincidence that we met up that day, and that it was inspiration from another source that gave me the balloon idea. The joy of being able to spread love and respect for a person who has passed has been indescribable. We will never forget seeing the faces of the children light up as he handed them their balloon. He also learned more about Mario through the sharing of stories from the people who stopped to chat with us.
As a final tribute, Donald let one balloon go up to the heavens to be caught by Mario’s welcoming hand!
Written by Nancy Lauro