Rhonda Gill froze as she heard her four-year-old daughter, Desiree, sobbing quietly in the family room that morning in October 1993. Rhonda tiptoed through the doorway. The tiny dark-haired child was hugging a photograph of her father, who had died nine months earlier. Rhonda, 24, watched as Desiree gently ran her fingers around her father’s face. “Daddy,” she said softly, “why won’t you come back?”
The petite brunette college student felt a surge of despair. It had been hard enough coping with her husband Ken’s death, but her daughter’s grief was more than she could bear. If only I could tear the pain out of her, Rhonda thought.
Ken Gill and Rhonda Hill of Yuba City, California, had met when Rhonda was 18, and had married after a whirlwind courtship. Their daughter, Desiree, was born on January 9, 1989. Although a muscular six feet, three inches tall, Ken was a gentle man whom everyone loved. His big passion was his daughter. “She’s a real daddy’s girl,” Rhonda would often say as Ken’s eyes twinkled with pride. Father and daughter went everywhere together: hiking, dune-buggy riding and fishing for bass and salmon on the Feather River.
Instead of gradually adjusting to her father’s death, Desiree had refused to accept it. “Daddy will be home soon,” she would tell her mother. “He’s at work.” When she played with her toy telephone, she pretended she was chatting with him. “I miss you, Daddy,” she’d say. “When will you come back?”
Immediately after Ken’s death, Rhonda moved from her apartment in Yuba City to her mother’s home in nearby Live Oak. Seven weeks after the funeral, Desiree was still inconsolable. “I just don’t know what to do,” Rhonda told her mother, Trish Moore, a 47-year-old medical assistant.
One evening the three of them sat outside, gazing at the stars over the Sacramento Valley. “See that one, Desiree?” Her grandmother pointed at a bright speck near the horizon. “That’s your daddy shining down from heaven.” Several nights later Rhonda woke to find Desiree on the doorstep in her pajamas, weeping as she sought her daddy’s star. Twice they took her to a child therapist, but nothing seemed to help.
As a last resort, Trish took Desiree to Ken’s grave, hoping that it would help her come to terms with his death. The child laid her head against his gravestone and said, “Maybe if I listen hard enough I can hear Daddy talk to me.”
Then one evening, as Rhonda tucked her child in, Desiree announced, “I want to die, Mommy, so I can be with Daddy.” God help me, Rhonda prayed. What more can I possibly do?
November 8, 1993, would have been Ken’s 29th birthday. “How will I send him a card?” Desiree asked her grandmother.
“How about if we tie a letter to a balloon,” Trish said, “and send it up to heaven?” Desiree’s eyes immediately lit up.
On their way to the cemetery, the back seat of the car full of flowers for their planned gravesite visit, the three stopped at a store. “Help Mom pick out a balloon,” Trish instructed. At a rack where dozens of helium-filled silver Mylar balloons bobbed, Desiree made an instant decision: “That one!” HAPPY BIRTHDAY was emblazoned above a drawing of the Little Mermaid from the Disney film. Desiree and her father had often watched the video together.
The child’s eyes shone as they arranged flowers on Ken’s grave. It was a beautiful day, with a slight breeze rippling the eucalyptus trees. Then Desiree dictated a letter to her dad. “Tell him ‘Happy Birthday. I love you and miss you,’” she rattled off. “‘I hope you get this and can write me on my birthday in January.’”
Trish wrote the message and their address on a small piece of paper, which was then wrapped in plastic and tied to the end of the string on the balloon. Finally Desiree released the balloon.
For almost an hour they watched the shining spot of silver grow ever smaller. “Okay,” Trish said at last. “Time to go home.” Rhonda and Trish were beginning to walk slowly from the grave when they heard Desiree shout excitedly, “Did you see that? I saw Daddy reach down and take it!” The balloon, visible just moments earlier, had disappeared. “Now Dad’s going to write me back,” Desiree declared as she walked past them toward the car.
On a cold, rainy November morning on Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada, 32-year-old Wade MacKinnon pulled on his waterproof duck-hunting gear. MacKinnon, a forest ranger, lived with his wife and three children in Mermaid, a rural community a few miles east of Charlottetown.
But instead of driving to the estuary where he usually hunted, he suddenly decided to go to Mermaid Lake, two miles away. Leaving his pickup, he hiked past dripping spruce and pine and soon entered a cranberry bog surrounding the 23-acre lake. In the bushes on the shoreline, something fluttered and caught his eye. Curious, he approached to find a silver balloon snagged in the branches of a thigh-high bayberry bush. Printed on one side was a picture of a mermaid. When he untangled the string, he found a soggy piece of paper at the end of it, wrapped in plastic.
At home, MacKinnon carefully removed the wet note, allowing it to dry. When his wife, Donna, came home later, he said, “Look at this,” and showed her the balloon and note. Intrigued, she read: “November 8, 1993. Happy Birthday, Daddy…” It finished with a mailing address in Live Oak, California.
“It’s only November 12,” Wade exclaimed. “This balloon traveled 3,000 miles in four days!”
“And look,” said Donna, turning the balloon over. “This is a Little Mermaid balloon, and it landed at Mermaid Lake.”
“We have to write to Desiree,” Wade said. “Maybe we were chosen to help this little girl.” But he could see that his wife didn’t feel the same way. With tears in her eyes, Donna stepped away from the balloon. “Such a young girl having to deal with death—it’s awful,” she said.
Wade let the matter rest. He placed the note in a drawer and tied the balloon, still buoyant, to the railing of the balcony overlooking their living room. But the sight of the balloon made Donna uncomfortable. A few days later, she stuffed it in a closet.
As the weeks went by, however, Donna found herself thinking more and more about the balloon. It had flown over the Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes. Just a few more miles and it would have landed in the ocean. Instead it had stopped there, in Mermaid.
Our three children are so lucky, she thought. They have two healthy parents. She imagined how their daughter, Hailey, almost two years old, would feel if Wade were to die.
The next morning, Donna said to Wade: “You’re right. We have this balloon for a reason. We have to try to help Desiree.”
In a Charlottetown bookstore Donna MacKinnon bought an adaptation of The Little Mermaid. A few days later, just after Christmas, Wade brought home a birthday card that read “For a Dear Daughter, Loving Birthday Wishes.”
Donna sat down one morning to write a letter to Desiree. When she finished, she tucked it into the birthday card, wrapped it up with the book and mailed the package on January 3, 1994.
Desiree’s fifth birthday came and went quietly with a small party on January 9. Every day since they’d released the balloon, Desiree had asked Rhonda, “Do you think Daddy has my balloon yet?” After her party she stopped asking.
Late on the afternoon of January 19, the MacKinnons’ package arrived. Busy cooking dinner, Trish looked at the unfamiliar return address and assumed it was a birthday gift for her granddaughter from someone in Ken’s family. Rhonda and Desiree had moved back to Yuba City, so Trish decided to deliver it to Rhonda the next day.
As Trish watched television that evening, a thought nagged at her. Why would someone send a parcel for Desiree to this address? Tearing the package open, she found the card. “For a Dear Daughter…” Her heart raced. Dear God! she thought, and reached for the telephone. It was after midnight, but she had to call Rhonda.
When Trish, eyes red from weeping, pulled into Rhonda’s driveway the next morning at 6:45, her daughter and granddaughter were already up. Rhonda and Trish sat Desiree between them on the couch. Trish said, “Desiree, this is for you,” and handed her the parcel. “It’s from your daddy.”
“I know,” said Desiree matter-of-factly. “Here, Grandma, read it to me.”
“Happy birthday from your daddy,” Trish began. “I guess you must be wondering who we are. Well, it all started in November when my husband, Wade, went duck hunting. Guess what he found? A mermaid balloon that you sent your daddy…” Trish paused. A single tear began to trickle down Desiree’s cheek. “There are no stores in heaven, so your daddy wanted someone to do his shopping for him. I think he picked us because we live in a town called Mermaid.”
Trish continued reading: “I know your daddy would want you to be happy and not sad. I know he loves you very much and will always be watching over you. Lots of love, the MacKinnons.”
When Trish finished reading, she looked at Desiree. “I knew Daddy would find a way not to forget me,” the child said.
Wiping the tears from her eyes, Trish put her arm around Desiree and began to read The Little Mermaid that the MacKinnons had sent. The story was different from the one Ken had so often read to the child. In that version, the Little Mermaid lives happily ever after with the handsome prince. But in the new one, she dies because a wicked witch has taken her tail. Three angels carry her away.
As Trish finished reading, she worried that the ending would upset her granddaughter. But Desiree put her hands on her cheeks with delight. “She goes to heaven!” she cried. “That’s why Daddy sent me this book. Because the mermaid goes to heaven just like him!”
In mid-February the MacKinnons received a letter from Rhonda: “On January 19 my little girl’s dream came true when your parcel arrived.”
During the next few weeks, the MacKinnons and the Gills often telephoned each other. Then, in March, Rhonda, Trish and Desiree flew to Prince Edward Island to meet the MacKinnons. As the two families walked through the forest on snowshoes to see the spot beside the lake where Wade had found the balloon, Rhonda and Desiree fell silent. It seemed as though Ken was there with them.
Today whenever Desiree wants to talk about her dad, she still calls the MacKinnons. A few minutes on the telephone soothes her as nothing else can.
“People tell me, ‘What a coincidence that your mermaid balloon landed so far away at a place called Mermaid Lake,’” says Rhonda. “But we know Ken picked the MacKinnons as a way to send his love to Desiree. She understands now that her father is with her always.”