I didn't see them at first. Too many other things competed for my attention at the midtown intersection where I sat waiting for the light to turn green: The streaming line of cars, trucks, and SUVs in the street in front of me. The high price of super unleaded at the corner station. The hot-dog special at the AM/PM Minimart on the right. The dust on the dashboard.
I could barely hear the radio, what with the noise of the cross traffic and a construction crew's jackhammer at work in the minimart's parking lot.
I'd been listening for the latest news from Baghdad, like a lot of people earlier this spring. Roman, my 19-year-old son and a new private in the United States Army, had received orders to head to Iraq along with the rest of his division, the 1st Armored.
His choice of the infantry after high school surprised everyone who knew him. I'm still mystified by it. Up until that point, he had never been a joiner. He'd found even a Little League uniform too confining. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld starting a news conference with "Yo!" could not have been more incongruous.
Roman was still in Germany that afternoon, where he'd been stationed since January. But a newly issued pair of desert boots, he said, now rested near his rucksack.
That day's news sounded positive, as if the war might actually end soon and without the lengthy street fighting, heavy losses, or the biochemical nightmare many had predicted. For weeks I had been afraid - for Roman and for the rest of the world, too. And while waiting to see how the war would unfold, I found myself watching too much CNN and putting life on pause.
With the fall of Baghdad looking imminent, I began to feel something close to hope. And it felt good, there in that intersection I'd driven through so many times before. I'd driven through it every few weeks, in fact, when my son was in middle school and his orthodontist had an office up the street. Yesterday, it seemed.
Back then I'd been the kind of mom given to gasps if my son or daughter disappeared for any length of time in the plastic quicksand of balls at Chuck E. Cheese. The kind of mom who couldn't fall asleep on Friday night until both teenagers were home. "Call when you get there" often punctuated my goodbyes as they grew older.
But foot soldiers at the front lines don't carry cellphones.
Just then a big supermarket truck, brakes groaning, made a tight turn into the lane on my left. And through the aftermath haze of its exhaust, I spied, close to the ground, something that looked like an apparition.
"Can't be," I thought, staring.
But it was.
A family of ducks. Well, not the whole family. A single parent and seven fluffy ducklings, each no bigger than a softball.
I saw the last one jump up from the street to the curb. Now all eight huddled together on the sidewalk in the shadow of a Mobil sign, tail feathers twitching. The ducklings were still at that stubby-wing stage where the idea of flight was nothing more than a fantasy. Waddling, wriggling, tumbling was the only way they had of getting from Point A to Point B.
And it obviously had gotten them to where they were at that moment: a busy street corner in the middle of a business district. Not a pond in sight. No grubs, either, as far as I could tell. What on earth had possessed them to take that route?
I hadn't witnessed the drama of their trek across the street. I caught only the tail end of it, literally. Somehow that daring phalanx of feathers had made it safely to the other side. Danger had threatened at every turn. Disaster seemed imminent. Yet in spite of that, they'd obviously managed to put one webbed foot in front of the other, sidestepping potholes, pedestrians, and traffic. There they were, beaks bobbing, waiting for the next sign to flash "Walk."
And I wondered, were they some sort of sign?
Who can say? But I decided to see them as one, nonetheless. A sign that spelled out in small, fuzzy letters a message that was good for a soldier's mom to see that day: Life here may seem crazy and unpredictable, but it is kind, too.
Then the light turned green. And with the tap of a horn from the car behind, I eased my foot off the brake and moved on.