But now there's only love in the dark
Five years ago, surrounded by death and dying, my dad and I looked toward the light.
I wasn’t planning on writing about the 2017 eclipse today.
But when my friend, Colleen, posted her own memory of the day on Facebook, I flashed back to that unforgettable time, one that was too tender to write about then.
As you might remember, a full solar eclipse crossed much of the United States on August 21 of that year, and although the path of totality crossed just 150 miles north of where I was in Missouri, I was there to let a different kind of shadow carve a path on my heart.
At 87, my grandmother had just entered the local nursing home, where she would die three weeks later. My dad had just started chemotherapy for a terminal cancer that would kill him 17 months down the road.
It was a heartbreaking season and we were calling in the troops. My cousin, Nick, had flown in from California to help. I was there, working remotely, writing about how you could use a saltine cracker or a colander to safely watch the eclipse that afternoon.
That morning, I went to visit my beloved Gaga in her new room at a nursing home that was the final home for so many elderly relatives in our family over the years.
The elder I loved the very most was facing her final weeks. I was devastated. If she was, too, she hid it well.
I bought her sunflowers to brighten up the John Deere green room. “Are you going to watch the eclipse, Gaga?”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Yeah, it would be hard to get outside, wouldn’t it,” I replied. “At least the window is so big. You have a nice view of the outside.”
“Nick and I are going to watch it with Dad,” I continued.
“Is that so?” she said, her words not very pronounced. “I’ll just rest, I think.”
“That’s a good idea.”
Back at the house, Nick and I got to work on making a viewing box with a hole punched in just the right spot. My dad was resting in the bedroom, but as the start time neared, he emerged with a Boise State T-shirt on and a smile on his face.
The astronomical anomaly happening outside would be a welcome distraction from the pain he’d struggled to manage that summer. It would be a few months before he lost his hair.
But this eclipse would only last an hour or so, full sun start to full sun finish. We were a couple of hours south of where eclipse-watchers would experience up to 7 minutes of 100 percent totality. We would get 95 percent.
There had been some talk of driving up to Columbia to catch it, but as the day neared, we knew my dad wasn’t in any shape to get in a car for that length of time.
I’d thought about going anyway to experience it with friends from college, but my heart was fixated on what was happening at home.
My dad was dying, and I couldn’t do anything about it.
I figured that seeing the eclipse with him would surely be more meaningful than seeing the much-hyped totality.
I can’t say what I missed in Columbia, but I can tell you what I gained by staying.
I put on my eclipse merch — a shirt my dad had likely picked up at Walmart earlier in the year — and we stepped out on the back porch to witness this slow, steady transition.
The sun started to feel lighter and less intense as the moon crossed in front. The birds settled down in the trees, and the wind fell flat. It was noticeably quieter, except for our laughter each time we discovered something new about this unique experience.
We took turns peering through the homemade viewing box and observing from our perch on the back of this house that my grandparents bought in the 1950s and was the house my mom grew up in. (And still lives in today.)
“Look at the shadows from the tree!” The slowly changing outline of the crescent moon shined through the leaves and projected onto the concrete. A macro version of what was happening in our little box.
“You can even see them in your hair!” My dad stayed in his chair while the three of us leaned our curly hair over the slab to see the fingernail-shaped moons scattered among the ringlets.
It was as baffling as it was beautiful.
Before long, the moon crossed the center of the sun, marking the climax of the eclipse.
I remember it being somewhat of a letdown. There was still enough light to look like daytime. The initial rush of the moment was starting to fade. My dad announced that he was going back inside to lie down. I’m sure we went back in not long afterward.
The climax was far less exciting than when we first discovered those crescent shadows or noticed that the sunshine didn’t look as dim as the sunshine felt.
My grandmother needed us to run a few errands, including buying her new lipstick at Walmart. (When a dying woman asks for a new tube of lipstick, you buy her a new tube of lipstick.)
I’m sure my dad had a bunch of prescriptions to fill or appointments to book.
I was probably on deadline because I was always on deadline.
There were a lot of sad, bittersweet days over the course of those years when we were losing these family pillars. And it was days like this one that taught me how to find something that shimmered amid the sorrow. To find the light in the shadow. To find love in the dark.
It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since that eclipse (and all of the pandemonium leading up to it). And to think that there’s another one on the horizon in 2024, which will cross directly above Central Texas.
What were you doing during the eclipse five years ago? Are you planning something special for this one coming up? Do you hold memories of bittersweet days like this close to your heart, too?
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