This had to be heaven.
Or, so I thought when I was a tiny tyke no more than 8-years-old when the stars, moons, and comets lit up the ceiling of my bedroom. I was scared of the dark, but those glow-in-the-dark cosmic stickers made me unafraid and convinced that this was my first glimpse and interpretation of heaven: Heaven was high up where I could not touch or reach it, but I could certainly dream and imagine. Heaven was where the pearly white gates shone, angels flew, and sweet music played.
I wanted to touch heaven. I wondered if there was more than one heaven. ‘Tian’ is the word for ‘Heaven’ in Chinese. The Chinese believe there are many heavens and Gods. No matter if there were one or multiple heavens, I wanted to be up there among the skies, the birds, Mother Nature, and, essentially, God’s natural wonders and works of art.
I tried so hard to touch heaven. I attempted to climb trees when I was a little girl—a complete failed feat. I flew on airplanes thousands of feet high. I sweated up steep and ancient steps in the highest towers in foreign countries. Being short and closer to gravity made it even more frustrating that I could not reach heaven. Someday, I was convinced, it would happen.
It was finally in 2012 when I stared up into the open, vast, and limitless sky after being blessed as a Donate Life Float Rider at the Rose Bowl Parade that I saw balloons fly up and disappear into the sky that it dawned on me that the only way I could touch heaven was if I was a balloon. My best bet was flying in a hot air balloon, and, so this was created as my #1 Live List item.
It took from 2012 to 2016 to finally touch heaven because of medical procedures and, especially, no one wanted to accompany me. People spouted off that I was “crazy,” “bonkers,” and: “I would never do that!” Many have said and probably will continue to say that I am crazy with how I live my life with my “Live List” at hand. And, I don’t care. There comes a point you cannot and do not care what others think and say about you and how you live your life when the only choice is to live your life. No one is going to live it for you except for you. I spent so much of my youth overly caring and worrying what others thought, anxious, and serious that I missed out on life and living it. I do not have regrets, but I certainly am making up for lost time and all the things I did not say and was physically limited to do as a child to now I saying and doing.
My long-time brave soul of a friend for over 20 years finally stepped up and said that she would accompany me. Irony is that she is scared of heights. I did not remind her of her fears as I wanted her to be about life, and she was all about life when she proclaimed: “I want to say that I went on a hot air balloon ride!”
My Dad has always said that his greatest worry about me throughout 34 years of my life is how bold and fearless I am, but now accepts and concludes: “Well, you are going to do whatever you want anyway so just do it. Live it up!”
Those were my last words from my father on the phone on the day before I gunned the engine to drive over an hour to New Jersey with my friend while we listened to 1950’s rock n’ roll and contemporary pop music. This was our first road trip. We wanted to savor it. We oohed and ahhed on our travels about our friendship as fast food joints and “Wendys” and “White Castle” popped up.
We both squealed that we have never been to a “White Castle” before and then I said: “Oh, I’ve never been to a Wendys!”
“Yes, you have, Mary! We went together!”
I could always depend on her to remember my memories. That’s what happens when you’ve been friends with someone for so long—it’s the kind of friendship where you finish each other’s sentences, you remember for each other, you stick up for one another, and, most of all, you are there for one another when you are going to board a basket to fly up to who knows where.
My friend and I completely understood the significance and meaning of this combined road trip and hot air balloon ride being about the experience, the ride, and the companionship to really LIVE LIFE. We were making up for the lost time of our youth when we overly studied, cared, and believed that if we studied hard, worked even harder, and partied less that we would be successes. Now, over 20 years later, our successes were not in money, a corporate high-end job, or in advanced schooling, but our successes lay in our times together, memories made, and moments lived and savored. Now, as I get older and as my Live List continues to grow longer, I realize that I no longer wish for ‘things’ in my life, but just wish for experiences with the people I love and care for the most.
On the night of our hot air balloon ride, we ate cheesy and gooey “grown up” grilled cheese dipped in piping hot tomato bisque soup and stuffed our faces with pizza and burgers. Lying in bed in a fancy hotel, we read our “Live Lists” and how we would make them happen. At 4AM before the sun even rose and when we were wired and tired, we scrambled to get up and did the most important thing before we closed the hotel door to drive in the dark to the 34 annual QuickChek Hot Air Balloon Ride Festival: Pray. Pray before we were about the live the list item. Pray before we got to a glimpse of heaven.
A blast of stifling humidity suffocated us. It was complete chaos, crowds, and craze when we arrived with no signs and ongoing questions of where we were supposed to go. I was scared that we would miss the hot air balloon ride and my ride to heaven would not happen. I held in my bladder out of fear of missing our names to meet our pilot that I had learned about over a year ago. He was pretty much the only pilot who had hot air balloon baskets with open doors. I knew my limitation lied in climbing over the basket and a door would be the way to go. He was friendly, jovial, and I could see the spark and lights in his eyes as the hues of hazy purples and pinks of the sun was rising. This was the pilot who was going to steer us to heaven.
I wish I could tell you detail for detail what it was like to see all these beautiful, colorful, brilliant, and vibrant balloons lift off and up in the air. I wish I could tell you word for word and second for second what it was like to step into a basket with a group of complete strangers, my one dearest and long-time friend to accompany me, and a pilot who you could tell absolutely loved his job. But, this is the thing about moments—they fly and fleet just as fast as they happen as they make their way into memories that you just want to hold on, last, and keep forever. As the hot air balloon went up, up and away, all my nerves and thrilling exhilaration fell to the wayside. I did not feel the balloon take off. I did not feel the balloon move. I did not feel the balloon land. All I felt the entire time of this experience as I was floating high above the world below of lush green trees, tiny and perfectly manicured houses, and kidney-bean shaped swimming pools that I was finally as close to heaven as I could possibly be. Even as we hit 1100 feet and the balloon continued to glide easily in the air, I was quiet and calm, smaller and bigger, shorter and taller than ever before in my life. It is very humbling and an honor to be with the higher heavens, Mother Nature, and God.
The descend back to earth and solid ground happened quicker than the ascend to the skies and heaven. We landed in a stranger’s backyard. With all the hot air balloon riders and pilot, our plastic cups filled with fruity and tangy lemonade and champagne touched and we rang out a exuberant: “CHEERS!” Cheers to our safe and spectacular experience. Cheers to life.
It has been more than a week since my hot air balloon ride. The #1 item has been crossed off my list. The greatest treasures of this hot air balloon ride is what has happened to my life that led me to board a basket and take flight in the companionship of a valued friend and priceless friendship who ‘got’ the significance of this experience. The greatest value that has no price at all is my friend and her companionship from the time we scrambled into my car to road trip, flew on the balloon, and landed safely on ground. A ride in the company of one good friend means the world than a ride by oneself. It seems like a dream now when I look back. I suppose, in a sense, the most magical moments feel like a surreal dream.
Yet, it was not a dream. I finally did touch heaven.
What is on your Live List? What have you ALWAYS wanted to do but did not do it because of fear, of what people thought of you, of what people said about you? Do you feel like you are living YOUR life? What is your heaven?
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,