A fish fell out of the sky yesterday.
Roughly 10 inches of silver flashed through the trees and landed with a thump in the grass 30 feet from our patio. My sons, neither of whom will become an ornithologist, claim that the fish fell from the talons of a hawk flying through the trees. They helpfully identified the bird as “large and brown.”
Together, we walked onto the grass and quickly located the fish, which looked quite unhappy to be in the middle of our backyard instead of Long Island Sound. While the kids – particularly my daughter – claimed to see signs of life still in our aquatic neighbor, it appeared to me that between the shock of being plucked from the water, having claws rip through its body and a subsequent fall of at least five stories, this poor creature had already passed into the Great Beyond.
Their reactions to this momentous event varied. Max chose not to opine about the emotional impact of a fish crashing to earth, instead snaring my cell phone and activating its video camera to document the moment (he hoped) when the hawk would swoop down from the trees to reclaim its prize. Jackson, after the excitement of the discovery had worn off, expressed concern for the fish, wondering if we might be able to transport it back to the harbor to save its life. Caroline asked if we could eat it. Then stated that she felt bad for it. Then showed me the picture of the fish she had taken – above – and insisted that it wasn’t so bad, the fish was smiling. (It wasn’t.)
Max’s documentary captures the moment:
Max: Explain to us what just happened.
Dave: [Looking skyward] So, I guess a hawk was flying back to its nest. Their nest is up in the trees up here, in the pines, and he dropped this fish that he was carrying right in the middle of our backyard.
Cara: [Standing five feet away from the fish, body positioned as if the fish might suddenly reanimate and flop towards her] Can the poor fish be sent home?
Dave: No, the poor fish is … gone.
Max: [Excited] Oh! It’s [the hawk] going to come back! [Camera pans upwards into the trees above]
Cara: Is he dead? [We will not delve in this post into the psychology of my wife, who witnessed me getting struck by a car, choosing to identify this scaled victim as male]
Dave: Oh yeah, look at him. But look – it’s a full fish!
Max: [Still panning the trees] Hawk’s going to come back! Okay, let’s back up and let the hawk come get him!
I felt badly for the fish, though I also noted that the hawk had lost dinner for itself and perhaps the rest of its family. But I imagined the fish, only minutes earlier, living the life it was designed for, water flowing through and around its gills as it cruised the coast of Huntington Harbor, suddenly crushed between the powerful claws of a nightmare creature and violently lurching into the air – drowning in oxygen – unable to move or breathe.
I found myself hoping that the fish had already expired by the time the hawk miscalculated its path, talons involuntarily opening and releasing the silvery slab of bone and muscle through the dusk, the crushing of flesh giving way to a brief moment of freedom before earth rose up to smash the unexpected descent.
I felt akin to the fish.
We navigate the world we live in always secure about its solidity – our solidity. We know that sure as we sit here today, we’ll be sitting here again tomorrow. Until we’re not.
As I lay in bed Sunday night, wondering if the hawk had reclaimed the fish that lay on the ground 20 yards and two stories below my window, I glanced at my Twitter feed and saw that the NFL writer, Peter King, had linked to an article written by Marina Keegan, a 22 year-old Yale student who, a week after graduation and only a few weeks before beginning a promising journalism career at The New Yorker, was killed in a one car crash Saturday when her boyfriend lost control of their vehicle. The Yale Daily News posted an article on its website that she had written for a collection of pieces distributed at Yale’s Commencement. In it, she said:
I plan on having parties when I’m 30. I plan on having fun when I’m old. Any notion of THE BEST years comes from clichéd “should haves…” “if I’d…” “wish I’d…”
We all plan on having parties with friends 10 years from now. We all plan on having fun when we’re old. I talk with my wife about what we’ll do together when the kids have all vacated the house for families of their own and college. I think about what I’ll be doing when I’m 65.
My mind works this way because, after all, nothing could possibly interrupt the never-ending parade of sunrises that I know will come tomorrow and all the days after that with the same certainty as I know that gravity exists. And unlike most of us, I think that way despite the fact that my personal experience has taught me – violently and suddenly – that this worldview is patently false.
Letting ourselves be gulled into a sense of our own immortality is uniquely human. Thinking about our death, of just how tenuous our hold on this world really is – or perhaps more correctly, how the world’s hold on us is about as secure as a spiderweb in a wind tunnel – terrifies us, so we ignore it.
The hawk will eventually grab me. He’ll get you, too. Remember that. Everything you see and do becomes more alive when we remember that we’re all just falling fish.
I’m looking out my window as I finish this and see a blazing red cardinal dancing in the green branches only a few feet from my bedroom window. I remember the falling fish. And I immerse myself in the flash of red and green, losing myself in the only moment that’s guaranteed to me – this one.