The kid

Sean of the South

 

 

Walmart. The cereal aisle. I’m browsing a wall of colorful boxes. I’m interrupted by the voice of a child. A kid is riding on the front of a buggy like George Washington crossing the Delaware. His mother is driving. His father is following.

The kid is making airplane noises.

The child is small. His joints are bony. His skin is pale. He is bald. There is a half-moon-shaped scar on his scalp. Another scar travels down the back of his neck.

He jumps off the cart. His tennis shoes hit the floor hard with a loud squeak.

“Can I buy EVERY kinda cereal?” he asks.

“You’re not going to feel like cereal after surgery,” his father says.

“Let’s wait until surgery’s over,” adds his mother. “Once you’re better, then you can have as many boxes as you want.”

The boy is younger than young. Barely out of toddlerhood. He looks sick. And the parents’ words just hang in the air.

Surgery.

Next I see his mother and father scoop him into their arms. I have to leave the aisle quickly because of the prickling behind my nose and eyes.

All of a sudden, I am in the produce section. I see a Mexican family. They are standing in a huddle, speaking rapid-fire Español.

The youngest girl – maybe 10 years old – is teaching two adult women to speak English. The girl holds an onion toward them.

“UN-yun,” she says.

The adults say, “OWN-YOAN.”

“UNNN-yunnnn.”

“OWN-EEE-OWN.”

The girl laughs. The women laugh and remark, “Qué difícil es inglés.”

Which, you know, is so true.

Next I pass two elderly women, sharing the same walker to putter through the dairy department. They are having a heated conversation loud enough to affect the climate.

“Are we out of cheese?” says one.

“How should I know? You wrote the list, Charlene.”

“Don’t snap my head off, it was just a question.”

“Don’t gimme that. You’re always blaming me for everything, you big old cow.”

Good times.

By the time I get to the checkout line, it is long. There are only two cashiers open. And as it happens, I am a few shopping buggies behind the boy with the scar. In a moment, all the people in Walmart become temporarily invisible to me. I only see him. This child about to go under the knife.

The boy and I make eye contact for a brief moment. It’s not long, but just enough for him to smile at me. I smile back. His eyes are blue. He seems like the happiest creature God ever made. And I don’t know how he does it. How, I ask, does a mere child endure medical hell with a smile on his face?

When he and his parents leave through the double doors, he’s holding his father’s and mother’s hands and I’m wondering what kind of fate awaits him.

I’m thinking about life itself. How precious it is. How brief. Unpredictable. How good. Life is good.

I flatly disagree with any man who doesn’t think life is good. Because it is.

Family is good. Dogs are good, mothers are good, daddies are good. Sunsets, ice cream, screened porches, handwritten letters, wives, rainstorms over hayfields, toys in cereal boxes, striped bass, elderly women arguing in the dairy department, and Mexican families who help each other speak English. It’s all so beautiful that it hurts.

I hope that boy’s surgery went well.

Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, he has authored 13 books, and he is creator of the Sean of the South Podcast.