The kid sat perfectly still, hands in his lap, eyes straight ahead. He'd probably been told never to talk to strangers. Good, I thought.
Then the flight attendant came by. "Michael, I have to sit down now because we are about to take off," she said the boy. "This nice man will answer any of your questions, okay?"
Did I have a choice? I offered my hand, and Michael shook it twice, straight up and down. "Hi, I'm Jerry," I said. "You must be about seven years old."
"I'll bet you don’t have kids," he responded.
"Why do you think that? Sure I do." I took out my wallet to show him pictures.
"Because I'm six."
"I was way off, huh?"
The captain's voice came over the speakers: "Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff." Michael pulled his seat belt tight and gripped the armrests as the jet engines roared.
I leaned over. "Right about now I usually say a prayer. I ask God to keep the plane safe and to send angels to protect us."
"Amen," he said, then added, "but I'm not afraid of dying… I'm not afraid because my mama's already in heaven."
"Why are you sorry?" he asked, peering out the window as the plane lifted off.
"I'm sorry you don't have your mama here."
My briefcase jostled at my feet, reminding me of all the work I needed to do.
"Look at those boats down there!" Michael said as the plane banked over the Pacific. "Where are they going?"
"Just going sailing, having a good time. And there's probably a fishing boat full of guys like you and me."
"Fishing. For sea bass and tuna and halibut. Maybe some mackerel. Does your dad ever take you fishing?"
"I don't have a dad." He didn’t elaborate.
"Do they have a bathroom here?" Michael asked, squirming a little.
"Sure," I said. "Let me take you there."
I showed him how to work the Occupied sign and what buttons to push on the sink, then he closed the door. When he emerged he wore a wet shirt and a huge smile. "That sink shoots water everywhere!"
Michael got VIP treatment from the crew during snack time. I took out my laptop and tried to work on a talk I had to give, but my mind kept going back to Michael. I couldn't help looking at the crumbled grocery bag on the floor by his seat. He'd told me that everything he owned was in that bag. Poor kid.
While Michael was getting a tour of the cockpit the flight attendant told me that his grandmother would pick him up in Chicago. In the seat pocket a large manila envelope held all the paper work regarding his custody.
He came back exclaiming, "I got wings! I got cards! I got more peanuts. I got paper to draw on. I saw the pilot. And he said I could come back anytime!" But when he settled back he grew quiet. For a while he stared at the manila envelope.
"What are you thinking?" I asked. He didn't answer. He buried his face in his hands and started sobbing. It had been years since I heard a little one cry like that. My kids were grown—still, I don't think they'd ever cried so hard. I rubbed his back and wondered where the flight attendant was. "What's the matter Michael?" I asked.All I got were muffled words: "I don't know my grandma. Mama didn't want her to come visit and see her sick. What if Grandma doesn't want me? Where will I go?"
"Michael, do you remember the Christmas story?"
"I don't know."
"Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus? Remember how they came to Bethlehem just before Jesus was born? It was late and cold, and they didn't have anywhere to stay—no family, no hotels, not even hospitals where babies could be born. Well, God was watching over them. He found them a place to stay: a stable with animals."