Monday, September 15, 2008


Pedestrians have the right-of-way. The ones we get in the country, however, don't always cross at the corner or wait for the light.

When every trip begins on a dirt road you develop the ability, not quite an instinct, to respond to the sudden dart, the unexpected flash of fur that moves from periphery to focus in a fraction of a second. You learn that a rabbit generally runs straight across and the only effort needed to avoid it is a slight turn in the direction from which it came. You learn that a squirrel is decidedly undecided and the only thing you can do is grip the steering wheel, mutter "Please, please, please! Don't, don't, don't!", and hope you won't feel that slight thud under the chassis.

A turtle you just go around. You just wait for the wild turkey to stumble toward the ditch and, at the last possible moment, throw itself into the air. Deer, dashing across a field or out of the brush, call for nothing more than quick reflexes. Sometimes even that doesn't help.
Rabbits, squirrels, turtles, deer. You get used to them.

This morning, however, there was something else. A pedestrian I'd never encountered before. A sudden flash at the corner of my eye and then, headed straight into the path of the car, something long and wet, fat and round. In that strange way that the human brain processes thousands of pieces of information in less than a second, I experienced simultaneously panic and repulsion and fear, exactly what anyone experiences when The Unknown takes material shape and invades one's conscious.

As I lifted my foot from the accelerator and goose bumps rose on my arms, I realized that the creature was a beaver, not yet full-grown, his dark wet fur plastered against his skin and glistening in the morning sunshine. He had darted from the pond that comes right up to the edge of the pavement straight onto the county-maintained road and, clearly, had no idea that his impulsivity would land him in harm's way.

Spinning around on himself, he scurried back the way he had come and disappeared back over the edge of the dam. I shook myself to dispel the goose bumps and speeded back up.

This has been the summer of the funerals. Eight since the first of June. I am weary of funerals. Weary of watching the faces of people I love reflecting the pain of losses that can not be recouped. Weary of trying to find words that do not sound trite and insincere. Weary, quite frankly, of the flowers and food and fatigue of jarringly inane conversation.

It is not as though death is a stranger. It is, as the paradoxical cliche' tells us, a part of life. But no one, not even the most exhausted caregiver, is ever prepared.

Most of the deaths I've noted this summer were like the rabbit or squirrel or even the deer: I was startled out of my ordinary daily routine, but responded appropriately without thinking. Three times it was the long-ill mother of a friend. Twice a grandparent of someone close.

A couple, though, were like that unfamiliar, chill-producing beaver. Out of place, stunning. They left me reminded in jarring terms that all we hold close, all that motivates us to get up each morning, all that provides any meaning is so ephemeral, so transient, so temporary.

They reminded me that, despite our ridiculous efforts at preparedness – whether for a hurricane that never arrives or the death of someone we love –, life is a serious of shocks and surprises. Some are heart-breaking, some are delights. Some are history-altering, some are inconsequential to all but a few. Some are nothing more than inconveniences, all are pedestrians demanding the right-of-way. And as for all pedestrians, the only thing to do is slow down and watch what happens.

Copyright 2008

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