It was the Friday before Christmas, 5:30 p.m., dark and snowing big stick-to-your-jacket flakes outside. I sat bundled up on the bus coming home from work. I half-glanced at a news magazine summary: wars, genocide, deception. Not a pretty picture. New passengers boarded.
A thin man in his late 30s, carrying a young child in his arms, juggled the kid as he groped for change to pay his fare. The guy wore a baseball cap and jeans. His hair was beginning to gray.
There were few places to sit for the newest passengers. Many sojourners rode the same bus each day. Some slept. Others listened to their iPods. Among them was an elderly cleaning lady sitting in front, quietly fingering her rosary; a working mother and child coming from day care sat at the back. The man with the child made his way toward me and smiled. A thin lad who appeared to be from the Middle East sat next to me. He smiled, got up and offered his seat to the man and the little boy.
The pair were now in the seat next to me. As the father uncovered the child's head to make him more comfortable, I saw that the boy had no hair. The kid had a physical problem, but I didn't know what it was. He was too big to be carried, but not by much. The youngster wore a snow suit and held on to an old blanket. The father was very caring. He stroked his head to soothe him.
I watched all this over the top of my magazine. I didn't want to be obtrusive. But the child's father sensed my interest and concern.
"Bobby's 3," he said to me. "He's having chemotherapy and we're hoping he'll be OK."
I nodded with some warmth. The father wanted to talk. The little guy didn't look as if he was doing great to me. He moved slowly and seemed zoned out. He looked at me with his blue eyes and, prompted by his dad, he said, "Hi."
"Hi, Bobby," I said. The child reached out and touched my coat sleeve. He looked weary and knowing beyond his years.
"Bobby had some painful tests at the hospital today. It was real tough," the father said. "But the kid doesn't complain. He couldn't be better. The doctor and nurses were good, you know? Gentle. Going to the hospital with him and seeing him hurting like this is tough, harder than going to work," the father said.
Then came an awkward silence. I looked at my magazine for a few seconds and said, "I admire you for being a good father," not knowing what else to say.
"I hope I'm a good father, mister. I'd do anything for Bobby. It's hard to catch a bus and bring him home this way from the hospital," he said. "Takes more than an hour. Wish I had a car."
"I'm sure your wife appreciates all you do," I said.
"I know she does," he said simply. "She'd be here with me, except that she lost a baby this week," he whispered.
"I'm so sorry," I said, wishing that I hadn't made things worse by intruding. "Is there anything I can do?" Privately I wondered if the guy was making all this up, it sounded so awful.
"No, thanks." After a long pause, he said, "Well, maybe you could say some prayers. They're the best gifts," he said, giving Bobby a squeeze.
"I could certainly do that," I remarked.
My bus stop was coming up. I pressed the buzzer to let the driver know I was getting off.
What a Christmas time for the little family, I thought. Maybe little Bobby will get better -- and, maybe not. But his father was wise enough not to let trouble, bad luck, whatever you wanted to call it, defeat him. Instead of complaining, he reached out and asked somebody he didn't even know to help.
"Good luck to you," I said. "Hope everything works out."
"Thanks. I'm sure it will." Bobby's father took a deep breath. "This time of year, you follow the star, you know?"
"Yeah," I said, suppressing emotion as I got off the bus. I walked up the drive into my condo building. A Christmas tree in the lobby blinked light into the darkness outside. Wrapped boxes and colorful ribbons lay beneath the tree. There weren't any gifts inside. It was decoration masquerading as spirit.
Mr. Olumba, our building's desk attendant who migrated from Kenya, had a Bing Crosby Christmas CD playing on the sound system. "Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel," the long-dead crooner's voice sang out. Der Bingle continued: "They spied a light of that same star, the wise men came from countries far . . . to follow the star wherever it went."
"Evening, sir. Merry Christmas," he said. Mr. Olumba was studying to be a pharmacist and had his books at the desk with him.
"Thanks, Mr. Olumba," I said distractedly, still thinking about the boy and his father on the bus.
I opened my mailbox, gathered Christmas cards stacked inside and walked down the corridor.
It was then I had a little epiphany: Wise men are still with us on journeys, even on a bus. Bobby's father was a wise man, and the little boy was another! Little Bobby traveled with his dad, giving off light and hope. Neither would give in to fear or doubt. That was their gift.
Was Bobby the littlest wise man? Some may scoff at the idea. But not me.