The darkness came unexpectedly. One second my father was walking my 7-year-old brother and my 10-year-old self past a bodega in New York City; the next, a shadow descended. The noise of the city stopped. A taxi pulled up nearby and parked in the middle of the road. Feet clacked on the sidewalk once and fell silent. I gripped my brother’s hand and pulled him close. My dad turned around and stared at us, his fear confirming that something wasn’t right—and maybe even very wrong.
But no one around us seemed worried. A man beside the bodega’s fruit bins was excitedly gesturing to a girl a little younger than me. He lifted her onto a wooden crate and handed her a cereal box. She held it up and peered through the bottom. Around us, everyone was looking at the sky—some wearing glasses, some shielding their eyes and staring straight at where the sun once was.
“It’s an eclipse,” my dad said finally. “It’s an eclipse.” Relief spread across his face.
It was 1994, and our family was falling apart. My parents were in the midst of a divorce. Though we lived in Los Angeles, my father was working in New York; we’d come to see him because we missed him terribly and, uprooted and far away, he wanted his children nearby. But the sounds and smells of the city, coupled with being out of school in early May and not having our mother or baby brother around, made us feel even more acutely that life was off its axis.
In that moment when the city suddenly stopped, we three felt that since our lives were no longer certain, perhaps the existence of the sun wasn’t either. My father quickly realized what was happening, but for my brother and me those seconds before he named the phenomenon were full of terror.
Halfway across the country, a boy my age stood outside his elementary school waiting. He had almond eyes that looked brown until the light brought out their hints of green. He breathed in the empty air, still and dry. Around him, hundreds of kids shuffled their feet, expectant. As the sun was blotted out in New York, the moon moved halfway across its face in Colorado, where his teacher instructed the class to look down at the mirrors inside their cardboard solar eclipse viewers.
The boy had spent weeks waiting for this moment. In that time, his teacher had started every day with an astronomy lesson. He’d lived in Colorado for a while, but often still felt like the new kid in town, having moved from the South when his dad got a new job. For years, the mountains framing the sky were unfamiliar behemoths. His parents and sister were the only things grounding him in the thin air of that elevated place. But this teacher made him excited to learn. Made him feel like he was home. As the shadow crept past his feet, he thought about his friends in South Carolina, watching the same shadow approach from a different angle.
For his family, being in a new place was itself fairly common. They’d moved five times before. He had learned his geography was not fixed. The only thing fixed was himself, his family, and his willingness to keep moving. For now, that meant looking down to look up at one celestial body briefly veiling another.
But the boy, curious and impatient, didn’t want to see a shadow of the shadow on the sun. So when his teacher turned away, he looked directly at the sky. For a brief second he saw light flashing from behind a void, until he closed his eyes just in time to avoid blinding.
In New York, the man by the fruit stand beckoned my brother and I over. He showed us how to look into the viewer. I looked up at the same flash the boy in Colorado saw. We were strangers on different trajectories through space, sharing in the inescapable realization that sometimes even the sun disappears.
A decade later I met that boy and, almost without realizing it, tied my orbit to his. After another decade, I married him. And a few years after that we sat in the dusk light watching a lunar eclipse as contractions roiled my body to bring a combination of our cells into the world. We’d realize only then, awaiting our first child, that we had both watched the moon briefly conquer the sun all those years ago.
We have no photos of that shared experience to show our son. It exists only in memory. Back then moments of outrage or hope or joy weren’t documented en masse on Twitter. There is no video of our reactions, or Facebook status update from my husband expressing how disappointed he was by his eclipse viewer. There is no electronic record of my brother and I walking home with our dad, somehow comforted that even anomalies are on their own kind of planned path. There is only this story to tell as we build a cereal box viewer to show our son the solar eclipse on Monday. For him it will be different. There will be livestreams and Instagrams for him to look through when he’s grown. He’ll be able to scroll through the reactions of the entire world if he wants. We’ll take a thousand pics of him on our shoulders, pointing upward.
We’ll take him outside onto the street with our neighbors. He won’t even be 2 years old, so he won’t understand. But we’ll try to get him to look up, and we’ll explain that when the darkness comes it’s not forever.