Last year at this time, my daughter was crossing off the days until the Muses parade on her calendar — a handmade number made of pink construction paper with silver glitter borders, sprinkles of red, pink, and white glitter sparkles, the month and days written in her rough cursive handwriting, and the numbers big and bold in black marker. Each day, after we talked about the things we were grateful for that day, she wrote in her diary, and told me what she hoped to dream of that night. Then it would be time to cross off one more day, slimming down the days until we took to the streets of New Orleans with our book bag full of art supplies, snacks, and her favorite books waiting for parade start.
The beauty that is carnival time in New Orleans was stolen from her that night with the words of drunk young man that didn’t know her, but made a snap judgment about her based on a patch she had on her sleeve: a puzzle piece with the word “autistic” written on it. He lashed out when I asked him to move after he nearly lit her hair on fire with a cigarette, spilled some cheap beer out of his red SOLO cup, and blocked her view from the parade. First he mocked us to his friends, saying he had to move because the woman and her “retard” daughter couldn’t see, then he looked directly at us, even narrowing his gaze onto my daughter, when he proclaimed that the “retard” was making watching the parade a challenge.
Our words have power. Words mean things. To her, that word meant that she wasn’t accepted and that there was something “wrong” with her. It made her feel that no one would accept her. She wanted to just go home.
It was difficult to walk away from my daughter being treated that way. I’ve even seen some comments online calling me a coward for not standing up to this young man. My concern in that moment, however, was not an unpredictable drunken stranger, but my daughter. It was more important to make sure my daughter was ok, that she knew she was loved, and that she knew that she was accepted just as she is. I think I made the right choice.
What he did to her that night, in his drunken stupor, didn’t need to happen. But it did. And that night, it changed the way she looked at Mardi Gras. That night, he became a thief, stealing with his words something from my daughter that could be made right, but never be made whole. Not as if it didn’t happen.
It’s that time of year again. Families will pack up their children – all ages and all abilities – and will line the streets to be participants in one of the most magical traditions New Orleans has to offer. It’s the time of year where family memories are made, where legacies begin, and where laughter and smiles overtake even the heaviest of hearts. Strangers become friends and friends reconnect. In those moments, along that parade route, everything else plaguing the city disappears. We become one place, a united place, we become the best of New Orleans has to offer.
This year, please offer a kind word to the person next to you. You do not know what battle they are facing that day. If you cannot offer kindness, then please, above all, do not do any harm. Be mindful of your actions and responsible with your words. If you see the person next to you struggling a little bit, offer a hand. As much as Mardi Gras is one of the most magical traditions New Orleans offers, the kindness and love of the city is really what makes this city what it is – the best damn city in the world.
As for us this year, we were invited by the Krewe of Muses to watch this year’s parade from their box at Gallier Hall. Instead of worrying about drunken college boys calling my daughter names, we will be joined by two players from Tulane’s baseball team wanting to make right what a boy their age made wrong. Emily said it made sense to have baseball players there. There is a lot of catching in baseball and Mardi Gras, don’t you know? Thank you, Krewe of Muses, for everything you did last year with Emily Gras (another post about that soon) and for this very special invitation to Emily this year.
If you see us along the parade route, come on over and say hello. Mardi Gras is the place where new friends meet.