Having traveled extensively over the years, I’ve sat next to all kinds of people. Most of them decidedly unpleasant……………and a few quite pleasant indeed.
But, by far my most interesting encounter was with a 10-year-old girl, who sat next to me on a flight from Stockholm to London in 2012.
She was traveling with her parents; apparently, there’d been an issue with their tickets, and they were forced to sit separately — her mom and dad sat somewhere at the back of the plane, and the little girl sat next to me up front.
I didn’t notice her at first; the moment the plane lifted, and leveled off, I dug out my laptop, and started to work on some presentations for my upcoming seminar in London.
After about 20 mins, I felt a tap on my arm, and turned to her. She said : “Hello”
I replied : “Hello”.
“What are you doing?”
I was taken aback at first, but I smiled and replied : “Just working”
Her : “Yes, I can see that. What are you doing?”
Her reply struck me as amusing, so I replied : “I’m drafting presentations for a seminar”
Her : “That’s nice. Can I see?”
I showed her my laptop. Right away, she proceeded to shoot one question after another at me: what’s this for? what does that mean? I adore kids, so I didn’t mind. I found it rather amusing. This went on for maybe 10 minutes, and then her mother appeared next to us. She disapproved right away, and snapped at the little girl to “leave this gentleman alone. It’s not polite to bug people!”
The smile that had been on the girl’s face evaporated instantly, and was replaced with a sad look. I felt bad, and told her mom that, really, it was ok. We were only reading some funny stuff together. Her mom asked if I was really ok with it, otherwise she could take her daughter away, if she was bugging me. I said “No”, it’s fine.
After she left, the little girl seemed reluctant to continue our convo, in case she got another slapdown. I sensed her mood, and proceeded to close what I was doing on the laptop, and opened a game of Solitaire. I challenged her to a duel, to which she responded eagerly. For the next hour, we battled on the laptop.
After she’d beaten me with a score of 4 – 1, we took a break. She proceeded to flood me with more questions: where are you from? what do you do? do you like cookies? do you have a big, fast car (I found this one most hilarious:=))) ?
Then, it was my turn: I asked her the same questions (minus the big, fast car). Then, I came to : “your guys live in London?”
Her : “No. We’re from London, but we live in Stockholm”
Me : “Going to London for holiday?”
Her : “No, we need to see the doctor”
Her: “Because I’m sick”
Me: “Why didn’t you see the doctor in Stockholm?”
Her: “Daddy says I must see the doctor in London, because it is easier”
Me: “What kind of sickness do you have?”
I don’t think there’ve been many times in my life when I was struck speechless. But, this certainly qualified as one of them. I could only stare at her afterwards. I realized that my staring might make her uncomfortable, so I quickly tried to recover, and put a light air on things.
Me:”I am very sorry. Are you ok?”
Her:(shrugs) “I’m fine. Mommy and daddy are a bit stressed, though. I ask them sometimes, but they won’t tell me anything. So I know it’s bad. I read some stuff about cancer on my computer. I don’t understand most of it. But I know that when you have cancer, you can die.”
And then she looks up at me, and says : “Do you think I will die?”
I instinctively grabbed her hand: “NO! You won’t. I promise, you will be alright!”
She held my hand in both of hers, smiled, and said the strangest thing ever: “It’s ok. You don’t have to lie to me. I know I might die soon. I am not scared. I just wish I had more time.”
I asked: “Time for what?”
Her reply : “To show mommy and daddy how much I love them.”
That was too much for me. I put my arm around her, and hugged her tight. At that moment, her mother appeared again beside us. The little girl didn’t see her, as her face was buried in my right shoulder. I looked up at her mom. I don’t know what she saw in my face, or what she was thinking. But, she didn’t say anything. She must have understood. Or, at least, it seemed like she did. She stood looking at us for a few seconds, then turned around and walked away.
After that, I couldn’t bring myself to let go of that little girl. And she seemed quite content to stay where she was. I held her like that for the rest of the flight.
Since then, not a day goes by that I don’t remember this little girl. Sometimes, the father in me comes out, and I find myself asking: “what if that were MY little girl……my Keona?”
My one regret is not staying in touch with her. I could have asked her parents if they wanted to exchange contact info; but, I felt, there and then, that it would be invasive of their privacy………and even downright inappropriate. They had enough to deal with.
Wherever that girl is now, I hope she’s okay. I really do. I’ve never seen courage like she possessed. Not ever.