Last night Michael went to fish on a pier 20 minutes north of West Palm. I peeked over the edge of the pier and went for a walk on the beach where I was cut off by a baby sea turtle pushing its way to the water. A shell about the size of a poker chip, it wasn’t scrambling, just moving one flipper after another, seeming to push the sand aside, inching its way along. The hard sand right by the water was the fast track compared to the rolling moguls of the beach, still the creature was plodding slowly, almost hypnotically toward the water. But with the first slap in the face of sea wave, the turtle turned around and headed back. Then thinking better of it, the little life turned back toward the water and let the next wave take it. But the waves seemed to be telling the baby turtle to turn back while there was still time, the waves tried to slap it back up on the beach several times. The turtle tested out swimming, holding its nose above water and then seeing that it could hold its breath, taking its first smooth strokes beneath the surface. Then the ocean flipped it over on its back up on the shore again, feet scratching the air. About this time, I thought to reach for my camera and I considered for a hot second, putting the struggler back up on the beach and staging a photo op. But, I self corrected the aberrant thought. Who was I to interfere in this primal process? And in the second that I looked down to unhook my camera from my belt, it disappeared, sucked into the Atlantic on the adventure of a lifetime.
But what is the expectancy for a baby sea turtle’s lifetime? From up on the pier I had observed the intense traffic flow in the clear water twenty feet below. The turtle was swimming out to greet stingray, needle fish that looked like poles, snook, spanish mackerels and at least one sand shark lurking 30 feet off shore. What were the odds it would make it past the predatory reef, and after that, what were the odds it would survive the night and all the other indigenous critters looking for a snack?
I scoured the beach (camera in hand) for another. I wondered if the turtle was a pioneer from a newly opened nest or a straggler. There had to be more. I searched and then stood my ground, thinking if this was the causeway to the water, I wanted to have an overpass view of the next traveler. Two sisters from Buffalo, now tanned like true Florida natives, walked by in surprisingly transparent white stretch pants and daring V necks. “I saw a baby sea turtle!” I said. One sister answered, “not this time of night, they come out in the morning and go for the light,” she pointed east, “toward the dawn. That’s why they ask us to dim the lights at night up on the road because sometimes they come out at night and get confused. I’ve picked them up on the road up there and brought them down to the water.”
“Oh,” I said, “well, I’m from Cleveland and I’ve never seen one in the wild before, but I know it was a baby.” Which is when I found out they originally from Buffalo. That made us practically neighbors a thousand miles from home.
The one sister smiled (sort of, botox and plastic surgery are like a disease around here), and kindly said, “then you saw something special then,” as they turned to power walk north. I stood around a little longer, flip flops in one hand, camera in the other.
That was it. I’d seen something special. No re-runs. No TIVO, no on-demand. No snap shot to take home for the fridge. A one time thing. The kind nature dishes out occasionally. A sign. Sign of . . . what else could that baby turtle confronting the ocean be but a sign of hope? Odds of survival to adulthood being what they are, the turtle’s dogged tenacity was reassuring. Hopeful.
And I immediately tried to assign that sign of hope to someone I thought needed it. Maybe I saw this and it was a sign of hope for one of the grandkids, that they would go on to greatness? Was it a sign of hope that Michael’s kids would have a good year at school? A sign of hope for his triathalon next week? For my friend who needs a little hope in her life?
One other time, walking across Case Western Reserve’s urban campus, an eagle or falcon landed practically at my feet and sat for a full minute looking me in the eye. A young Asian student was standing beside me. When the bird (with a wing span of a station wagon) took off with a mouse or mole in its talons, I turned to her and said, “That was a sign.” She had limited English and looked at me like I was crazy, “Bird,” she said. “Yes, but a sign,” I replied. “Bird,” she corrected. And we went back and forth like that a couple more rounds. I obsessed about that encounter for months – checking out bird books to identify it, looking up native American symbols and discovered that eagles were a sign of strength. Since I was trying to establish myself as an independent poet and extricating myself from an unhealthy relationship, nature had given me just want I needed. A bold sign of strength, out of context in the city, coming to show me how to be courageous. And I so needed it at the time.
Last night, I wasn’t feeling low on hope, but no one else saw the turtle,(thankfully, not a bird of prey) so I guess the sign was meant for me. I can tuck it in my wallet, behind the pictures of loved ones, an image to be slipped out the next time I need a little hope – that baby sea turtle, inching along off schedule into a perilous future. Surviving.