A Memorial Day in the park


Sunset. There must be a million people gathered in Railroad Park tonight. Downtown Birmingham is crazy. There are no parking spots left. People are parking cars as far away as Milwaukee.
The Alabama Symphony Orchestra is playing a Memorial Day weekend concert outdoors in the park. Concert goers have come from every corner of the earth. This place is like Woodstock, only with fewer naked people.
There are children, playing tag. Young families. High-schoolers, full of hormones, with only one thing on their minds. (Hint: It ain’t bingo.) College couples on first dates, carrying on intense conversations. And elderly married couples, who haven’t conversed since the Nixon administration.
The symphony tunes up. And away we go. The music can be heard all the way in Hoover.
The most interesting person I will meet this evening is a young man with Down syndrome. He is 6 years old. His family’s blanket is near mine. He listens to the orchestra with slack-jawed awe. I’ll call him Ray.
“We just adopted him,” Ray’s parents say.
Ray’s biological mother got rid of her son when he was a newborn. And by “got rid of” I mean that she threw Ray in a dumpster when she discovered his developmental disabilities.
A neighbor found the infant screaming among the garbage. And yet here he is. I have never seen a child more excited. Also, I have never been hugged so many times. Ray is a big hugger.
After each hug, Ray listens to music for a few seconds, until he suddenly realizes he isn’t hugging me, so he re-hugs me again. We do this every 9 seconds.
“Ray loves everyone,” says his mother.
Ray and I meet a young woman nearby. I’d guess she is maybe 16. She is very pretty. Ray wanders over to this girl and gives her a big hug.
“You smell good,” Ray tells her.
“Thank you,” she says.
“What about me?” I ask Ray. “Do I smell good?”
“No. You smell like a fart.”
You have to worry about America’s youth sometimes.
Ray and I are also introduced to a dog named Lawrence. Lawrence is white and brown. He walks with a pronounced limp in his gait. It takes him a long time to cover short distances.
“Lawrence was a stray,” his owner tells us. “He was hit by a car. The guy who hit him just drove away, and I found Lawrence lying in the road, I thought he was dead.”
Ray is remarkably touched by this for some reason. He gets down on all fours and tells the dog, “I love you, Doggie.”
Then he hugs the dog.
During the concert, Ray’s father and I decide to stretch our legs and walk around the park. Soon, we are all standing in line for the restroom.
The bathroom line is long. Ridiculously long. If you’re standing in this line and you are having a bladder emergency you are—how do I put this?—screwed.
Ray knows no strangers. He meets a 22-year-old young woman in line. She is bald, wearing a scarf over her head.
“Why do you have no hair?” Ray asks.
“I had cancer,” she tells Ray.
Ray just looks at her.
“But as of this week,” she says, “I don’t have cancer anymore. I’ve been cut open, and had enough chemo to last a lifetime. But my cancer’s gone. And I’m about to go to college.”
I ask the woman what she wants to major in.
“I want to be a therapist,” she says, “so I can help people who’ve been what I’ve been through.”
Ray hugs her.
Soon, we return to our blankets. The orchestra begins playing the theme to the movie “Superman.” The music is lush and triumphant. The cymbals crash. You can feel the brass section in the pit of your belly.
Little Ray stands. “Superman!” he shouts.
Ray starts zooming around, pretending he is flying. His hands are held out before him, he is running at top speed. His little legs move fast.
And I’m just watching this child. This boy. Once an infant. Once lying on a bed of trash. Once laid into a manger of old coffee grounds and empty beer cans. Left for dead. But tonight he laughs. Tonight he smiles. Tonight we are all so lucky to bask in his marvelous light.
“I’m flying, Mom!” Little Ray shouts. “I’m flying!”
And deep within my heart, I know he’s right.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist and stand-up storyteller known for his commentary on life in the American South. His column appears in newspapers throughout the U.S. He has authored 15 books, he is the creator of the Sean of the South Podcast and he makes appearances at the Grand Ole Opry.