Up ahead, where the hard flatness of the highway drops off to a ragged edge, a large bird sits with his back to the white line. I am immediately cautious. Once, years ago, when I was driving through Fort Stewart on my way to court, a huge black turkey buzzard, similarly situated just off the asphalt, abruptly rose into the air and, then, equally abruptly, dove into my windshield.
The windshield did not shatter, but the rear-view mirror broke off completely. I sat on the apron of the road long enough to calm my shaking hands and to offer assurances to the nice man who had seen the whole thing and stopped to check on me that I was, in fact, OK. And then I drove on.
Since then, ever mindful of road kill and its connoisseurs, I have been particularly alert to such things - things that move suddenly - that change course without warning, that defy expectation.
So no one can blame me when I take my foot off the accelerator, curl my fingers a little tighter around the steering wheel, glance quickly to make sure that the other lane is clear. No one can blame me for anticipating the worst and making preparation to avoid it. If, when the buzzard decides to forsake its noshing, I will be ready to slow, to swerve, to avert.
When I am about 30 yards away, the bird spreads its wings and begins to rise. At 20 yards away I can see it is not a turkey buzzard. At 10 I recognize the deep brick color of the red-tailed hawk. I catch my breath as I watch him lift slowly above the wet grass, tail feathers flared and fluttering like a fan in the hand of a belle. Wings the breadth of a good-sized kitchen table fold and unfold, pushing the air down and away. In seconds he is gone.
I love red-tailed hawks. Love the way they ride thermals across warm spring afternoons and swoop effortlessly through pale autumn mornings. Love the way they embrace the solitude of sky dancing, twirling and spinning for their pleasure alone. Love the way they hold their heads so high and straight when they perch on power lines.
I don't know that I have ever been this close to one outside a zoo or wildlife refuge and, despite the fact that our encounter was of the briefest kind, I find myself smiling broadly as I accelerate. On a cold and rainy, gloomy and messy morning, I've just been handed a lovely gift. A lovely gift made lovelier because it contradicted my expectation.
Expectation is a big, important word at Christmas. Children expect Santa to grant their wishes. Mothers expect children to come home for a visit. Shoppers expect stores to be filled with bargains and merchants expect shoppers to be filled with enthusiasm.
All of us, whether we willingly admit it or not, expect the lights and bows and tinsel and garland to somehow - Please, God, somehow! - make the hard things easier and the heavier things lighter. We expect the music and the cards and the Hallmark movies to ease the aches of our broken hearts and sand the edges of our difficult relationships.
That expectation, the one that exists despite all evidence to the contrary, the one that appears unbidden every single year right on cue, the one we can't avoid even when we know better, has a name. It is hope.
What did Emily Dickinson say? "‘Hope' is the thing with feathers - That perches in the soul." Hope is the red-tailed hawk that isn't a turkey buzzard. It is a reminder on the side of the highway that what has always been true before does not have to be true this time. It is the tap on the shoulder that says, "Don't believe that the way it's always been is the way it always has to be."
I loosen my grip on the steering wheel and turn my gaze to the road ahead while, somewhere behind me, hope goes soaring through the December sky on brick-colored wings.