I was still on the phone with Mama during my on-line search for an airplane ticket back to New York. I was able to keep her on the phone until I had entered my debit card number on the airline website and secured my round- trip tickets: the earliest flight to JFK on Friday and the last one back to SFO on Monday. Then I told her the exact dates I was going to come and there was an even bigger smile in her voice.
The week went by faster than I had expected and then Friday came. Through the bus ride and the BART, I was smiling to myself, feeling the familiar ache returning to my cheeks, replacing another ache that had been haunting my heart and mangling my mind. Then as the BART reached its final destination, I hauled my backpack and my sleepy body off my seat and hopped off the car onto the platform.
The first real pangs of yearning to go home began when, in the waiting area of the gate, in one of my rare moments of warm-heartedness towards children, I giggled silently to myself when I heard a mother attempting to tell a joke to her son and proceeded to tickling him when he didn’t laugh. He finally relented. My wandering thoughts were suddenly plucked and plunged into a cabinet full of memories, and I landed in a folder of that day in the car.
It was snowing outside. In the backseat, I saw Mama and a boy, he couldn’t be more than four years old. I didn’t know who the boy was at first, but then I noticed a scar on his right leg. I knew that scar. I still had it, though it had faded. I still remembered how I got it: a little prancing along the edge of a gutter and a little slip followed by a loud wailing and Mama came rushing out to rush me inside the house and put iodine and bandaged the wound.
“Mama, I’m bored!” the young boy said in that irritating whiny tone that all children make.
“Daddy will be out soon, sweetie,” she replied with a smile, then looked out of the window. I followed her gaze and saw a church. I remembered that church. It was where Dad and Mama got married, where Ben and I were baptized, and where Ben and I went for our confirmation. It was one of those Wednesdays when Dad gave his legal service for free at the church.
“I wish he’d come out sooner,” the boy replied, still whining. Yet Mama looked back at him with an even wider smile that slanted her eyes into short back lines.
“Would you like to play a game?” she asked.
“Would I?” the boy said. They giggled at his enthusiasm. Mama took a worn gray blanket from the back compartment.
“I’ll be the mother hen, and you’ll be the chick,” she spread the blanket on the boy, covering him from head to toe. “This is you inside the egg, what do you feel?”
“What do you hear?”
“What do you see?”
“Nothing! It’s dark!” the boy replied.
“Would you like to see the light, then?” she asked.
“Yes, please!” the boy said.
“Alright, but you will need to let go off the warmth for a bit. Follow my voice and come out of the egg,” Mama replied. I could see the boy’s body wiggling underneath the blanket, and slowly his head came out, then his arms, then his body.
“Mama, it’s cold!” he protested.
“Then come here, come here under my wings!” she said, and the boy scrambled into her arms. “Oh, no! Look! There’s a nasty hawk up there!” Mama warned. The boy let out a muffled scream and ducked his head under her armpit. I giggled. “But you don’t have to worry, for you are safe with me,” she said.
“I know, Mama. I will never, ever leave you,” said the boy as he kissed her cheek.
The boarding announcement whisked me back to the waiting area of SFO. I got up and defeated the deadening burden of my backpack. Then I realized that in that car, in that moment, that young boy hadn’t had the slightest idea that he would’ve ended up thousands of miles away from the safety of her mother, ducking for cover every time hawks attacked him, over and over again.
Then, with a determined stride, I braced myself for the joys of budget flying: a six-hour flight in a cramped seat, hopefully next to someone not too obnoxious.