In a bedroom in a townhouse near Amsterdam, Miguel Panduwinata reached out for his mother. “Mama, may I hug you?”
Samira Calehr wrapped her arms around her 11-year-old son, who’d been oddly agitated for days, peppering her with questions about death, about his soul, about God. The next morning, she would drop Miguel and his big brother Shaka at the airport so they could catch Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the first leg of their journey to Bali to visit their grandmother.
Her normally cheerful, well-traveled boy should have been excited. His silver suitcase sat in the living room, ready to go. Jetskiing and surfing in paradise awaited. But something was off. A day earlier, while playing soccer, Miguel had burst out: “How would you choose to die? What would happen to my body if I was buried? Would I not feel anything because our souls go back to God?”
And now, the night before his big trip, Miguel refused to release his mother from his grasp. He’s just going to miss me, Calehr told herself. So she stretched out beside him and held him all night. It was 11 p.m. on Wednesday, July 16. Miguel, Shaka and the 296 other people aboard Flight 17 had around 15 hours left to live.
The next morning, Samira Calehr and her friend Aan ushered her sons onto the train to the airport. They were joking and laughing. Shaka, 19, had just finished his first year of college, where he was studying textile engineering, and promised to keep an eye on Miguel. Their other brother, Mika, 16, hadn’t been able to get a seat on Flight 17 and would travel to Bali the next day.
At the check-in counter, Calehr fussed over her boys’ luggage. Shaka, meanwhile, realized he’d forgotten to pack socks. Calehr promised to buy him some and send them along with Mika.
Finally, they were outside customs. The boys hugged Calehr goodbye and walked toward passport control. Suddenly, Miguel whirled around and ran back, throwing his arms around his mother. “Mama, I’m going to miss you,” he said. “What will happen if the airplane crashes?”
What was this all about? she wondered. “Don’t say that,” she said, squeezing him. “Everything will be OK.” Shaka tried to reassure them both. “I will take care of him,” he said to his mom. “He’s my baby.” She watched the two boys walk away. But Miguel kept looking back at his mother. His big brown eyes looked sad.
Then he vanished from view. Flight 17 took off around 12:15 p.m. on what should have been an 11 hour and 45 minute flight. It lasted two hours. Calehr had just finished buying Shaka’s socks when her phone rang. It was her friend Aan. “Where are you?” he screamed. “The plane crashed!” She made it home just in time to faint.
She grapples now with the what-ifs, the astronomical odds, the realization that the world she knew has grown alien in a blink. She thinks about how her baby boy seemed to sense that his time on earth was running short. She imagines the futures that will never be: Shaka’s dream of becoming a textile engineer, gone. Miguel’s dream of becoming a go-kart race driver, gone.
How could he have known? How could she have known? “I should have listened to him,” she says softly. “I should have listened to him.”