By JUDY WELLS Feature Writer

I don’t usually write about myself. I’d much rather tell about other people’s adventures. But every now and then, it becomes necessary to include myself in someone else’s story. This story about Stanley is one of those times.

Stanley and I have never met. I don’t even know his last name. He lived in a different time zone than me. He and his wife lived in Merrillville Indiana, near Chicago. And while we will never meet, our lives will forever be entwined, even though he will never know it.

For the past several years, Stanley was ill with Parkinson’s disease and spinal stenosis. He lived in a skilled nursing facility in Merrillville, where his wife was a resident in the assisted living section of the same facility. In January, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and required nearly round-the-clock nursing care. But when the coronavirus hit Indiana and the rest of the nation, the facility was so short-staffed that Stanley’s and the other residents’ care declined and his health deteriorated even more rapidly.

April 5 was Stanley’s 79th birthday. Because the nursing home was on lockdown, his family was unable to celebrate with him in his room. So, they did the next best thing. They invited several friends and family members to gather outside his window with balloons, signs and streamers to wish him a happy birthday. When the celebration ended, Stanley’s daughter Jill and her boyfriend, Jim, headed back to her house to put things away. That’s when Jim said, “I have those red and yellow balloons and ribbons in the trunk of my car. Let’s release them in honor of Stanley.” They decided to attach a note to the balloons, asking anyone who discovered them to text a message to Jim’s cell phone and tell him where they’d been found.

That’s where I enter the story. On April 20, 15 days after they were released, I found the remnants of the balloons and ribbons, complete with a barely-legible, sun-and-rain-faded note attached, in the grass at LaFountain Park in Paulding. Merrillville, Indiana is 167 miles from Paulding, Ohio as the crow flies. The population of the city is just over 35,000. The population of all of Paulding County is just under 20,000.

I texted the number on the note and almost immediately received a reply from Jim. He was astounded that I’d found the balloons at all, but said he’d never heard of “Spaulding.” I told him Paulding was about an hour east of Fort Wayne and that I didn’t know exactly where Merrillville was, either. Jim even sent me a one-minute video of the balloons and the note being released.

Because conditions in the nursing home were getting worse and Stanley was getting weaker by the day, Jill decided to bring both her parents home to live with her on April 15. Stanley was unable to communicate or even comprehend what was going on around him at that time. Doctors told the family that his condition was grave and that he would probably only live a few months, weeks or even days. But Jill was determined to make her father as comfortable as possible for the short time he had left.

Stanley passed away on April 23, eight days after he was brought to Jill’s home. Jill said he died they way he wanted, at home, surrounded by his loving family.

Even though Stanley will never know about the balloons or that they were found in a small town far from his home, his family will remember the incident forever. When Jill and Jim released the balloons, they expected them to be found a few miles away, or perhaps even right there in Merrillville. They had no idea they would travel as far as they did, or that a woman taking photos of a playground that had been roped off because of the coronavirus would find them.

It truly is a small world. One in which we never know how things will turn out. So, no matter what your situation, release your own balloons and let them fly up to the sky. Or in Stanley’s case, allow someone to release them for you. There just may be someone out there waiting to find them and to share your story.

RIP, Stanley.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

By Oscar Hammerstein II

When you walk through the storm

Hold your head up high,

And don’t be afraid of the dark.

At the end of the storm

Is a golden sky,

And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,

Walk on through the rain,

Though your dreams be tossed and blown,

Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone.

You’ll never walk alone.