Moss Landing looks at bit like Popeye town except that it sits in the shadow of the Duke Energy power plant and under the wings of the hundreds of species of migratory shorebirds that take rest in the Elkhorn Slough. It hadn’t changed much in my 30 years of driving Highway 101, the coastline that snakes beside the Pacific Ocean from Washington State all the way through California.
That day was no different. It was sunny, calm and crowded on the two lane road as I wound south from San Jose to Carmel to spend the weekend in a quaint hotel where I could listen to the ocean and write.
As I passed the webwork of metal and cables of the power plant I saw a duck, one of the rarer species at Elhhorn—a Harlequin—precisely in the middle of the road heading east. He had undershot his mark or maybe he was just tired or aging or sick. It didn’t matter. He was not attempting a quick exit; he was moving slow with head forward as if he knew he was taking his last few waddles. I glanced up to the truck in his path and realized I was going to watch him die. Two seconds passed and then the truck rolled over him as if it was just another foggy day. The truck and I passed each other and then I glanced in my rear-view mirror. The truck had struck the duck’s body and flattened it. His head was still in the air. I wondered if he was alive for that one more moment, his brain buzzing with its last grasp of energy, before the next car and the next…
Of all the things I wanted to think about that weekend, watching a duck get flattened by a semi a few feet away should have had the least impact. Instead, the vision of it lingered and the memory of my son’s near-fatal encounter with a car when he was two years old, flooded my mind and darkened my mood.
Twenty five years ago, I stood at the edge of a narrow street in Carmel paralyzed by fear. My son had pulled away from his father’s grasp, turned and ran directly back into the busy intersection. Time stopped. Sound vanished from my ears. Cars were stopping. They saw him—even the one that was not going to stop soon enough. We were shouting for him to stop running but I didn’t hear anything. I saw lips moving and people waving frantic arms. I couldn’t catch him. It was happening too fast. He was in the path of one car. That was all it would take. One car. One moment. I was going to watch my tiny son die.
A second later, my son stopped—exactly in the middle of the narrow Carmel street and bent over like two-year-olds do—at the waist—so that his head was pushed further into the oncoming lane just as the car passed him. The car may have brushed his hair; I couldn’t see, but I saw the car roll past him. As the car moved past and stopped 15 feet further, I glanced up to see the driver. A woman about my age was looking at me in horror—she didn’t know if she had hit him or not. I suspect that moment haunts her nearly as much as it has haunted me over the years.
My son had bent over to pick up a shiny toy medallion that lay on the white line—the only place on the road where a car could miss him. An inch of time saved him. He must have spotted it as he crossed the street carried by his father only moments before. He remembered exactly where it was and ran directly to it and then turned and ran toward me proudly holding it in the air. I was already in the street near him and it was only then, when I bent to scoop him up in my arms, that sound returned to my ears and the world turned again. He was happy and proud. I was sick and my knees felt weak as I hurried back to the sidewalk. It was one moment that permanently changed my life.
Decisions I wasn’t aware of at the time were made in that instant. Paths that were vague became clear. Circumstance and things beyond our control change us and we don’t even realize it until an era has passed; until we are looking back on the state of our lives and wondering how we got to this place and time. Why is it this way instead or that? Why did we take that turn? Why didn’t we make up a better story and tell ourselves the more agreeable one over and over until it became a reality? Some people do. Why do I have to question so much?
I don’t believe in miracles. I think life is a series of random events set in motion by our past and present and pushed into reality by circumstance. We can change things—if we know what to change or when to make a harsh decision. Even if we manage a major life change we are still chained to the past and forced to drag it with us constantly shuffling the links around to manage them better and quiet them down. We hide them and rearrange them as time passes and the weight becomes more bearable. We want miracles. We want to claim coherence of what we see and experience— we seek patterns and if we don’t find them, we make them up and embed them in our personal stories like little gems we can attach to a string, hang them around our neck and admire as our truth. We want the world to make sense but only if it is based in our own memories and beliefs. We pretend it all fits together and the myths we tell ourselves make up the whole of our lives. Any pursuit of a different reality is a staggering betrayal. If we try to assign meaning to the duck dying or my son living, it can blind us to what’s really happening—change is constant. Life is fragile.