Thursday marked the end of a countdown my daughter started on January 6: Muses.
Each night, after she listed her daily gratitudes and wrote in her diary, she would find the countdown calender drawn on pink paper and dressed in white, silver, purple, and red glitter. With her very special pen, she would carefully cross off one more day, informing me of the new countdown as she called out wishes of sweet dreams. As the countdown slimmed from a month, to a week, and then to days, her excitement grew.
“I don’t know if I should wear a costume this year or not, Mama,” she contemplated in the middle of a lesson on polygons for her sixth grade math class.
“Mama. do you think I will get a shoe?”
“What do you think the floats will look like?”
“Which book should I bring with me to read while we wait?”
“Should I take pictures with my cell phone?”
“I am so excited for beads, Mama!”
She was preoccupied with the parade, the Krewe of Muses, and our Mardi Gras holiday.
Since our first parades as New Orleanians a few years ago, our Mardi Gras holiday has consisted of Muses on Thursday and d’Etat on Friday. Having a spouse working in the restaurant business, Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras were never spent together – he is busy insuring everyone else has their spirits high on these two special days. And because my daughter is a high-functioning autistic child, we stayed away from the crowds of the super krewes. Just in case.
We have always watched the parades along the extended route, sometimes called the family zone, and it has been an enjoyable experience. We have reconnected with old friends, exchanging Mardi Gras wishes while catching up with the latest changes in our lives, and have met many new friends. My daughter has played along strangers, created art while patiently waiting for the show to start, and read her first Nancy Drew book along the parade route. Through the challenges that we sometimes face throughout the year, issues dealing with social and sensory issues, Mardi Gras and Muses was the moment of the year where it all faded away, where we were a normal family embracing the culture in our new city, creating memories of our new life.
As we sat on the sidewalk along the parade route and patiently waited for start time, we talked about what we thought we would see, which bands we loved listening to best, and whether Elvis would make an appearance on his moped. We watched Pussyfooters pass by on foot, 610 Stompers in full uniform, and a few Bearded Oysters with high hair weaving through the crowd. As parade time approached, as cliche as it sounds, there was a sparkle in my daughter’s eye and a smile so big, it made me wish that she could spend her life this happy – always.
And then they came. Despite sitting on the ground, our feet on the street, they came in front of us, a gaggle of college kids holding to-go cups full of booze, cigarettes in hand, f-bombs flying out of their mouths with no care who was around them. Once the parade started, we stood, them still in the street. Then the first marching band hit the road, forcing us all to back up, my daughter getting lost in a sea of twenty-somethings drinking a little too much. Some were local, others were not. She looked at me, her eyes tense.
“Mama, I can’t see. And that guy keeps touching me with his beer.”
Despite her 5′ 6′ frame, she was surrounded by young adults too involved in gossiping about who was going to be screwing who, which picture they had on their phones that were “too epic’ to not post on Facebook, and preoccupied by the booze pouring out of their red SOLO cups.
One boy, over 6 foot, came dangerously close to starting my daughter’s hair on fire. Only one float had passed by.
“Excuse me, Sir,” I said, ” do you think you could move over a bit. My daughter cannot see, you’ve spilled some beer on her, and you almost got her with your cigarette.”
He looked at me blankly, then looked at her. He looked at my daughter from head to toe, staring at the patch on her coat that would indicate she was autistic to medical personal should an emergency arise. He sneered at me before laughing in my face.
I put my arms around my daughter, warming her up, protecting her, whispering in her ear.
The tall man with the bear hat on his head paid no mind to us. He didn’t move, either.
“Hey, man! I need to move. This woman is bitching at me because her retard daughter can’t see the parade!” he shouted to a kid a few feet away.
He turned back to us, looked my daughter in the eye, and shouted to no one in particular. “This retard is making watching the parade a challenge.”
My daughter looked at me, knowing he was talking about her, and tears formed in her eyes. I wrapped my arms around her a bit tighter and whispered in her ear that the man was drunk, didn’t know what he was saying, and sometimes the best thing to do is to know the truth about yourself and ignore what other people say.
My words didn’t matter, though. By then, she had heard what he had said, knew what he was implying about her, and she wanted to go home. Had she not been with, I may have had a few choice words of my own, but I knew it wasn’t the time and certainly not the place.
A night she had been looking forward to, planning and anticipating for a few months, had just been marred by that bad behavior of a grown person.
“Mama. please, can we go home? He told everyone I’m a retard. I’m not a retard, am I, Mama?” she asked. The grin was gone, replaced by a quivering lip. The sparkle in her eyes had dispersed, and they were now filled with a flow of tears falling down her full, pink cheeks.
“Are you sure, honey? We could walk somewhere else and watch the parade. We could move.”
“No, Mama. I don’t think that would be a good idea. People there will probably think I’m a retard, too. People don’t want people like me at parades. They won’t let us in to watch the parade. I just know it.”
I tried to comfort her with my words, encourage her, but the more I pushed, the more this man’s words hurt.
We packed up the bag holding the the goods that had entertained us for the two hours we sat on the sidewalk, waiting for our special night. The bag that held my daughter’s snacks, sketch pad, books, and blanket. I took her hand, and led her to the car to go home.
She cried in the car on the way home, having seen exactly two floats from Muses and having exactly zero throws to show for the verbal attack that she endured just trying to watch her favorite parade.
“Honey, I am really sorry about what happened. Maybe we can try tomorrow night. Maybe we can go to a different spot, ” I said, trying to encourage her and save the rest of our Mardi Gras.
“No, Mama. I don’t think I want to do Mardi Gras anymore. Not ever again.”
A year ago, I asked my daughter what she most loved about Mardi Gras, expecting her to say the throws, the beads, and the pretty costumes. Her answer surprised me: “I don’t feel like I am different than everyone else during Mardi Gras, Mama. During Mardi Gras, everyone is a little weird like me.”
That night, she didn’t want to share her daily gratitudes, shrugging her shoulders and telling me she didn’t really feel grateful for much. She didn’t write in her journal, only wanting to forget the night had even happened. Her countdown calendar peppered the floor in tear-soaked pieces. A night that he had probably already forgotten by the next morning; a night that her broken heart will never let her forget.
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