Right before the jet way door closed, I barely made it aboard my plane going from LA to Chicago, lugging my laptop and over-stuffed briefcase. I had a ton of work to catch up on, half wishing, half praying I muttered, "Please God, do me a favor; let there be an empty seat next to mine, I don't need any distractions."
I was on the aisle in a two seat row. Across sat a businesswoman with her nose buried in a newspaper. No problem. But in the seat beside mine, next to the window, sat a young boy wearing a big red tag around his neck: "Minor Traveling Unattended." 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 because we're about to take off," she said to the little 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. Michael pulled his seat belt tighter and gripped the armrests as the jet engines roared. I leaned over and said, "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."
"I'm sorry." I said.
"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."
"Doing what?" he asked.
"Just fishing, maybe for bass or tuna. Does your Dad ever take you fishing?"
"I don't have a Dad." Michael sadly said.
Michael got the VIP treatment from the crew during snack time while I took out my laptop and tried to work on a talk that I had to give, but my mind kept going to Michael. While Michael was getting a tour of the cockpit, the flight attendant told me his Grandmother would pick him up in Chicago and that in the seat pocket was a large manila envelope that held all the paperwork regarding his custody. He came back explaining, "I got wings! I got cards! I got more peanuts. I saw the pilot and he said I could come back anytime!"
It became quiet for awhile and he began to stare at the manila envelope. "What are you thinking?" I asked Michael. He didn't answer. He buried his face in his hhands and started sobbing.It had been years since I'd heard a little boy 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 buddy?" I asked.
"I don't know my Grandma. Mama didn't want her to come visit us and have her see my Mama sick. What if Grandma doesn't want me? Where will I go?"
"Michael, do you remember the Christmas story? Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus? Remember how they came to Bethlehem and it was late and cold. They didn't have anywhere to stay -- no family, no hotel, not even a hospital where baby Jesus could be born. Well, God was watching out for them and He will watch out for you."
"Wait, wait," Michael tugged on my sleeve. "I know Jesus. I remember now." Then he closed his eyes, lifted his head and began to sing. His voice rang out with a strength that rocked his tiny frame.
"Jeeesus looooves me--thiiiiiis I knowwwwwww. For the Biiiiiible tells meeeeee sooooo....."
Passengers turned or stood up to see the little boy who made the large sound. Michael didn't notice his audience. With his eyes shut tight and voice lifted high, he was in a good place.
"You've got a great voice," I told him when he was done. "I've never heard anyone sing like that."
"Mama said God gave me good pipes just like my Grandma's," he said. "My Grandma loves to sing, she sings in her church choir."
"Well, I'll bet you can sing there too. The two of you will be running that choir."
The seat belt sign came on as we approached O'Hare. The flight attendant came by and said we just have a few minutes now. By the time the seat belt sign went off, passengers were rushing down the aisle. Michael and I stayed seated.
"Are you gonna go with me?" he asked.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world, buddy!" I assured him.
Clutching the manila envelope in one hand, he grabbed my hand with the other. The two of us followed the flight attendant down the jet way. Michael stopped, pulling his hand from mine, he dropped to his knees. His mouth quivered. His eyes brimmed with tears. "What's wrong Michael?"
When I knelt next to him, he grabbed my neck. I felt his warm, wet face as he whispered in my ear "I want my Mama!!!"
I tried to stand, but Michael squeezed my neck even harder. Then I heard footsteps on the corridor's metal floor.
"Is that you baby?" I couldn't see the woman behind me, but I heard the warmth in her voice.
"Oh baby," she cried. "Come here. Grandma loves you so much. I need a hug baby." She knelt beside Michael and me. Michael's Grandma stroked his arm.
"You've got folks waiting for you out there Michael. Do you know that you've got aunts, and uncles and cousins?"
She patted his skinny shoulders and started humming. Then she lifted her head and sang. Her strong, clear voice filled the passageway, "Jesus loves me -- this I know..."
Michael's gasps quieted. He began to loosen his grip around my neck and reach for his Grandma as we started walking. Right before we got to the doorway to the terminal, cheers erupted. From the size of the crowd, I figured family, friends, the pastor, elders, deacons, choir members and most of the neighbors had come to meet Michael. A tall man hugged Michael and pulled off the red sign around his neck. It no longer applied.
As I made my way to the gate for my connecting flight, I barely noticed the weight of my overstuffed briefcase and laptop. I started to wonder who would be in the seat beside me this time. And I smiled.