White Balloons over Heverlee

You asked what it was like to be here in Belgium when the terrible
news hit. I felt like a stranger at a funeral. A foreigner here of less
than a month, it’s not my tragedy. I don’t know anyone involved. I
don’t have children and can’t pretend to know a parent’s pain. Yet
when word spread that a makeshift memorial was forming outside
Sint-Lambertus school in Heverlee, something drew me down the
winding streets.

I stumbled my way there, stopping my bike periodically to ask a
passerby “
Alstdublieft, waar is Heverlee Leerschool?” Everyone knew
what I meant; everyone’s face changed when I asked the way.
They point and nod and go on their way, carrier bags bulging with
produce and bread and fresh fruits from the market, little dogs
on leads following in happy tongue-lolling ignorance. You’d like it
here—Belgium’s a country of dog-lovers,

their beloved pets go with them everywhere—not just to parks
but also into restaurants, grocery stores, the pharmacy, the coffee
house, the hairdresser’s, the library. As people neared the memorial
stretching far along the school’s face a palpable silence fell.
Young and old, parents, children, grandparents, gently added their
mementos to the long wall of remembrance: dozens of lit and
spent candles, stuffed animals, bouquets of tulips

and lilies and roses, white balloons tied to the railings; white is
a sign of hope in Belgium. Covering the redbrick wall as far as
the eye could see a massive gallery of paintings and drawings by
schoolchildren saying farewell to friends: colorful images of flying
birds, rainbows, families, houses, glowing suns, apple trees, portraits,
farewell messages. Several said “
Vaarwel, mijn vrienden.”
A good-bye from “
Nonkel Frank,”

“Uncle Frank,” and, if that weren’t enough to tear your heart
Tot ziensPapa.” “Goodbye—Papa.” The bouquets were so
many, you’d have liked them with your gardener’s eye, laid on top
of each other layer upon layer, so many that those underneath had
started to rot. Workmen came with wide plastic buckets and gathered
up the top layer, placing them carefully upright in a shallow
pool of water, that at least a few

might last a little longer. Many people carried white balloons in
their hands, cool wind tugging at the strings. Others untied them
from the railings; I didn’t have one so a family nearby gave me
one of theirs. We stood in mute stillness together as the minutes
passed, then after a silence and while the church bells rang out,
strong and vibrant and almost wildly, resonating off the stone and
brick surrounding us, we raised our eyes

from the memorial on the ground and as if of one accord released
our hands from the straining strings to watch hundreds
of balloons meander skyward and disappear one by one into the
bluegray clouds and barely drizzling rain. And that’s what it was
like to be here when the news hit, thanks for asking, hope the
garden’s doing well this year,
Love to the kids.

(On 13 March 2012, a school bus crash took the lives of 22 Belgian schoolchildren and 6 adults
traveling in Switzerland for a holiday.Belgium declared a National Day of Mourning.)

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