Peek-A-Boo

So I am on a flight from Raleigh to Philadelphia. I have an aisle seat toward the back of the plane. The window seat is empty, thank goodness, and I am sitting there playing Texas Hold-em on my iPad. Across the aisle from me sat a lovely young woman and her little boy. He was maybe two or three years old and to put it simply, he was being a real pain in the butt. This was an unruly child…loud, jumping around, kicking the seat and generally annoying.

Now I have two young kids myself and I know how hard it can be to fly with children. So I didn’t want to rush to judge this woman too harshly. But it seemed to me that she was totally oblivious to this kid’s behavior. “Why didn’t she bring crayons and a coloring book or some little toy to keep him occupied? What kind of mother gets on a plane with a kid and comes totally un-prepared?”

Whenever Rebecca and I go places with our kids she brings a full carry-on with every imaginable diversion. Distraction and focus-shifting have become critical sciences in my family and when flying with our kids they’re more vital than seatbelts.

His behavior was so disturbing that I had to get involved. But I figured I’d be nice at first and escalate my intervention as needed.

I started by catching his eye with a little game of peek-a-boo. Kids love this, I thought, and so did he. He stared over with these wide eyes like I was Santa Claus about to open the toy bag. Almost instantly, he calmed down and started to giggle and smile. He had this huge ear-to-ear grin and his face lit up with two twinkling brown eyes. Mom didn’t seem to see or care what was happening so I kept at it…just trying to engage him and maybe settle him down a bit. Honestly, it was totally a self-serving gesture…I wanted quiet.

After a minute or so, the little boy pointed at me and said to his mother, “He’s funny!” She casually glanced over at me and I smiled and said, “You have a sweet little boy.” She smiled back and thanked me and went back to her dazed detachment. But I had the kid’s attention now and needed to raise the ante a bit. “What’s your name?” I asked him. He giggled and smiled again. She answered for him. “It’s Joey.” “Hi Joey…I’m Frank.”

And so began a friendship in that amazing, innocent way friendships do when you’re two. All the bad behavior was gone in a flash and I congratulated myself for being so good with kids. The other passengers nearby nodded in approval.

All he needed was a little attention, but Joey’s mom was still strangely disinterested. So I figured if she was unwilling or unable to raise a well-behaved child, then I would demonstrate the proper behavior myself. Maybe I could teach her a thing or two about parenting.

Long story short…Joey and I hit it off and I asked his mother if I could read a story to him. She seemed bored and relieved more than anything. So I moved over to the window and Joey sprang into the aisle seat next to me and we had a great time reading one of my youngest daughter’s storybooks on the iPad and playing more peek-a-boo. I really do love kids and I couldn’t help thinking of my girls when they were his age. Time passes so damn fast and for a few minutes, little Joey transported me back to that wondrous new-parent world where everything is fun and laughter and smiles. Kids are an easy room and peek-a-boo is a universal crowd pleaser.

Finally it came time to land and Joey had to go back to his mom, but the bond was there. He kept looking over at me. I smiled and made airplane landing gestures. He just giggled and brightened up like a bulb. And then he started playing peek-a-boo with me!

He didn’t have the timing quite right and was too eager to see my reaction to fully cover his eyes with his little hands, but I made a funny face and a big look of surprise every time he looked over. We were having a ball!

Once we reached the gate, everyone started to get up to grab their bags. I struck up a conversation with his mom. “So do you live in Philly?” I asked. “No…near Jacksonville,” she answered quietly. “Oh, what brings you to Philadelphia?” I followed up.

She paused in a way that seemed odd…and then said simply and calmly, “We are going to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. My husband was just killed in Afghanistan and we are picking up his body.”

In the brief eternity we stood there, she told me part of the story. Joey’s dad was a Marine. He had been deployed for a year and was scheduled to come home in a month. They were stationed at Camp Lejeune but she was thinking of moving home to Cleveland with Joey to live with her parents. She didn’t know what she was going to do next. But today was all she could focus on for now.

* * *

I have no happy ending to this story. Joey and his mom left the plane with a uniformed military escort who was sitting two rows behind us. The moment in time our life paths crossed left me crushed. I crumpled back down in my seat and cried like a grown man probably shouldn’t do in public. Finally the flight attendants came over to find out why I wasn’t getting off the plane. I tried to speak but couldn’t, so I just grabbed my bag and walked off.

If there is a moral to this story it might be this. Take an extra minute today to do three things:

First, love your family, especially your kids. I can’t tell you how to do this because I’m not that good at it myself…but I started getting better the minute I got off that plane!

Second, if you see anyone in uniform or know of anyone who has a family member or a loved-one fighting overseas…thank them somehow. Pick up a restaurant tab, shake their hand, make a donation to one of the many military relief organizations who care for the families of deployed service members or to Wounded Warriors.  These are very special people and they are sacrificing more than most of us can ever know.

I am a veteran, but I never saw combat and I have no idea what that must feel like. Nor did I have a family back home who worried about me every minute of the day and struggled to get by while I was gone. So yes, as a young Army officer I did serve and was willing to put my life on the line. But in my heart, I know there’s a huge difference and an extra measure of respect today’s military members deserve.

Third…and this may seem like a stretch but it’s not. Remember why YOU are here. As financial professionals it is our mission to help people navigate through some of the most confusing and difficult decisions of their lives. The financial plans you put together might help one kid go to college and go on to cure malaria or become a leader wise enough to solve problems like the never-ending nightmare in the Middle East.

The good you do every day will live on in a thousand children you will never meet and help in ways you simply cannot calculate. We are truly in the life-saving business. Be worthy of that title.

Joey’s dad had been deployed to war for a year. Joey would never know him…never play ball with him, never put up a tire swing, build a model, play a video game, or watch football.

I only hope that before his Marine father went off to battle, he had a chance to see that amazing smile and those twinkling brown eyes…and maybe play one game of peek-a-boo.