We take the normal things for granted. We don’t think much about them. We see the same sights, hear the same sounds, all merging into this nondescript tapestry of a day that repeats itself until we’re barely aware of it. It’s just there, background noise to all the much more important things going on in our heads.
Until one thing seems naggingly out-of-place. Until something just doesn’t feel right. It’s the kind of awareness when you’re around something you’re so used to that the smallest change is deafening.
That’s why I hesitated next to my car this morning. The insistent peeping sounded too loud, too urgent, too close to be the normal happy chirping of ducklings bobbing along after their mother. Moments later, peering down through the sewer grating, I saw two frightened little balls of fuzz frantically paddling around, and my whole morning changed.
I’m surprised at how instantly, how intently I wanted to help them. I pulled on the grate, but it proved far too heavy. I looked around for maintenance, but it was too early for them to be in yet. I was failing them. I was letting them down. I tried the grate again, succeeding only in getting my hands dirty. The peeping continued, and now I could see the mother and the rest of her brood circling the scene, as if they sensed I was trying to help but not knowing what else they could do.
I called animal control, which boiled the whole situation down to a sterile string of information and case numbers. I finally found one of the maintenance crew, who had no way to open the grate, and who sounded pessimistic at the chances of rescuing the ducklings. I felt helpless. I wasn’t doing enough. I couldn’t leave them there. I had to do more.
So I talked to them. I told them to hang on, that we’d get them out. I got some bread from my apartment and dropped it down to them so they wouldn’t be hungry. I knew they couldn’t understand me, that, if anything, I was probably only scaring them more, this big looming shadow above them. But I was all they had.
Finally, one of the managers from my complex arrived for work. She saw me hovering over this sewer grate, and when she came over, I told her what was happening. I gave her the case number I’d been given, and I finally started to feel like I’d maybe done all I could. Someone else knew. Someone who’d be there and could check on them. Maybe it was a comfortable fiction, so I could go to work without feeling like I’d abandoned my charges. But I felt better. Although the rest of my morning echoed with those scared little peeps.
A few minutes later, and I never would have heard them. The mechanical roar of lawn mowers and weed whackers and hedge trimmers would have almost certainly drowned them out. I’d have gotten in my car and driven away and maybe nobody would have ever known anything had happened, and nature would have taken its course. I’ve seen plenty of duck families go from a dozen to a half-dozen to two or three over the course of a few weeks. But this wasn’t some bird or cat leaping out of nowhere, or a bad turn in the weather. This was some dumb accident. Maybe those ducklings weren’t meant to make it. But I’ll be damned if I was going to just watch it happen and do nothing about it.
I wish there was a happy ending to this story. I wish there was any kind of ending. But I’ve been told that animal services couldn’t get into the sewer. They said if the sewer leads to a retention pond, the ducklings could follow the drain back out to it and be all right. Small comfort. But I guess that’s how life goes. We do what we can, try our best, but sometimes, we just have to wait and see if it’s all right.
I do wonder why these two trapped little ducks produced such a reaction, when I’ve watched people on street corners with “Will work for food” signs and felt nary a thing. Maybe I have a degree of cynicism towards my own species that I don’t have towards cute baby animals. Maybe it’s latent paternal instinct. All I know is that, even if I didn’t make one shred of difference in what eventually happens to those two, it didn’t go unmarked. And that makes me feel ever so slightly better about the whole thing.
Perhaps we should spend a little more time paying attention to everything instead of just letting it wash over us in a dull wave. Nothing should just be the background. Nothing should just fade away in the haze of our own self-importance. One day, it might be one of us who’s trapped. Would we want someone to decide to just go to work instead of helping us out?