Of all childhood diversions, the helium balloon is the most compelling, because it is constantly on the brink of loss.
I recall, as a second-grader, being introduced to a truly timeless film -- ''The Red Balloon'' -- about a little boy who is befriended by the reddest, roundest, most persistent balloon there ever was. Not only does it follow the boy about, but it also hovers in a courtyard while he is in school, patiently awaiting his dismissal at the end of the day.
Throughout the film, the audience is constantly aware of the ethereal and fragile nature of this relationship, and no smile goes unaccompanied by the echo of a sigh for what must eventually be lost.
When I adopted my son from Russia over a year ago, I also had to deal with loss. His loss. Here I was, a strange man from a faraway place, flying to Russia to pluck a seven-year-old from his culture, from everything he had ever known: his friends, the impassioned susurrations of the Russians' language, the meaty aromas of their heavy foods....
Alyosha had existed in this milieu for seven years, and in the span of a transatlantic flight I had removed him from it, perhaps forever. How would he deal with the loss of the environment that had defined all that he was?
But grief was not his initial reaction to leaving Russia. The newness of life in America seemed to have forestalled any sense of loss. What was perhaps most striking about my new son's character was the pleasure he derived from the small and uncomplicated: building blocks, a ball, crayons.
The high-tech seductions of Power Rangers and video games had no appeal for him, probably because they were a bit too much to make sense of at first.
His charming lack of sophistication was more persistent than I had anticipated. By his third month in the United States, when he was just beginning to put his first full English sentences together, he still rarely asked me for anything in the way of toys or gadgets. New foods, new friends, and a new school seemed to be enough to occupy him.
One day, I took Alyosha with me to one of the vast, new mega-supermarkets, the ones that sell everything from apples to videocassettes to potted plants. Alyosha's blue eyes contemplated the glut with a quizzical interest. And then, suddenly, they sparkled.
''Balloon'' wasn't in his vocabulary yet, so all he could do was point. In the florist section was a bouquet of 20 or so helium balloons tied down by colored ribbons. But they weren't ordinary rubber balloons. They were the mylar type -- the metallic ones that look indestructible -- bobbing for attention in the breeze of a ceiling fan.
Alyosha turned to me and put his hands together in a pleading gesture. ''Russia,'' he said three or four times, meaning, I supposed, that he had had a balloon before coming to the States. The request was humble, the price was right, and the need appeared to be great, so I bought him one.
It was immediately clear that I had purchased more than a trinket. Alyosha not only romped with the balloon, but spoke to it in Russian. In the car, it bobbed amicably between us, like an acquaintance who turns out to be a character. At night, Alyosha took the balloon with him to bed, hugging it close. I knew he had drifted off when the thing slipped from his arms and bumped up against the ceiling, hovering above him like a guardian.
The thing that is so blessedly revolutionary about the mylar balloons is that they hold their helium for a long time. Four days after its purchase, it was still Alyosha's constant companion.
But there was a flip side to this invention's longevity: I began to fret, just a little, about my son's reaction when the laws of physics took their inexorable course and the helium molecules leaked out into the wide world.
One cold October morning there was a tragedy of sorts. I awoke to two events: Alyosha's crying and the furnace's inactivity, which were related.
I ran upstairs to Alyosha and found him sitting up in bed, sobbing. The balloon was in his hand, but it was deeply creased and barely able to float. Since it had been fully inflated the night before, and it didn't seem damaged in any way, I explained to Alyosha that the balloon would be all right.
''It's dead,'' he said.
''No,'' I assured him. ''It just doesn't like the cold.''
I quickly set up an electric heater and told Alyosha to hold the balloon in the path of the blower. His joy increased in tandem with the rapidly expanding balloon. ''Yay!'' he exclaimed, hugging it close.
The return of some warm weather brought Alyosha and his balloon outside again. One afternoon, while I was working in the kitchen, I paused to watch him from the window.
He had untied the balloon from his wrist and was releasing it and retrieving it by the ribbon. The balloon had grown a little lazy because of the loss of a bit of its gas. Barring an errant gust of wind on an otherwise calm day, loss seemed unlikely. So I went about my work.
Ten minutes later, I looked out the window again. This time I saw Alyosha, but no balloon. My son had his back to me, and his shoulders were heaving. I went out to him, bent down, and turned him toward me.
''Balloon,'' he wept. ''Gone.'' He pointed east, and I was able to make out a glint of silver, trailed by a red ribbon.
''Where is it going?'' he asked.
''Over the ocean,'' I said.
Alyosha looked at me and wiped his eyes. ''Russia?'' he asked.
''Yes,'' I said. ''That's where Russia is.''
And knowing how far balloons have been know to travel, and that Alyosha was already convinced of their power, I added a small conceit: ''And when the people there see it, Alyosha, they're going to know that you're here with me and that you're all right.''
For the moment, at least, this seemed to be enough.