‘It only happens once in my lifetime – perhaps twice,’ my son told me when I asked for details. ‘That’s once every 150 years,’ he added cheerfully.
You have to admire his optimism but that’s millennials for you. Staying up till nearly three in the morning was a definite bonus for him, less so for me. As a baby boomer, I have come to cherish my sleep but of course I agreed. I am not yet so old that the idea of once in a lifetime, or even several lifetimes, has lost its power to charm me.
‘You’ll have to have a rest in the afternoon,’ I said without much hope.
He thought about this for a full two seconds. ‘I’ll watch you have one,’ he offered at last in the spirit of compromise.
As resident astronomical expert, he declared no eclipse party complete without snacks. So, armed with supplies of junk food enough to satisfy a medium-sized army, or one twelve-year-old boy, we settled into our hammock to wait.
We saw a super moon only last year in Denmark. I remember the date because it was my father’s birthday. My son remembers it because he caught a Snorlax on Pokemon Go. Both things felt equally important to us at the time. They probably still do.
It was a crisp winter night and the sky was perfectly clear as we walked out at dusk to watch the moon climb above the treetops, ten times its usual size. We talked about my father seeing the same super moon at my son’s age. As I watched him stare up at the sky, I wondered if his grandfather had once looked just as small and earnest. It was impossible to tell. Like all children, I had only ever known my father as a very old man.
Exactly a year later, we waited for the super moon to rise over Australia. We talked of my son’s possible descendants and decided that even his grandchildren would be quite old before they saw what we hoped to see that night. He was too preoccupied with idea of the possums challenging us for our snacks to think much about his own mortality , but while he practised various growling noises, I thought a little about my own.
There are times in life that force such thoughts upon us and do not allow us to look away. For me, the day my mother died was one such time. I was faced with time’s relentless forward progression and the thought that my own generation now stood on the front line, facing the end of all things. Those are the three o’clock in the morning thoughts and quite possibly the reason our species chooses to sleep at night.
Thankfully, the night of the eclipse was not one of those times. I watched the moon drift gently upwards over the trees, coldly indifferent to the millions of us watching it together, and felt oddly comforted. ‘It’ll all be the same in a hundred years,’ is a saying I was brought up on. As a child, it meant very little. A hundred years was a million lifetimes and would never pass, any more than our six week summer holidays could possibly end. As an adult, I am beginning to make more sense of it.
The moon rose higher until what appeared to be but was not a cloud crept across one edge. The shadow moved steadily forward, swallowing the light, until the moon blushed faintly and turned at last to blood. It hung in the sky as it always had, only now behind a shroud of red. For half an hour, we hardly dared to breathe in case the shadow became a permanence and the world stood still and trapped us in the moment. Suddenly, at a signal only the moon could hear, it stirred, woke and shrugged a little of the red shawl from one edge. Emboldened, it slid more quickly from its covering until at last it blazed with the same cold splendour as before. I have no idea what happened to the red shroud. Possibly it is up there still, waiting for the next time it might be needed. To a sky as old as ours, 150 years must seem less than a day.
As I watched with my son for those three rapt hours, I forgot that I will not be here the next time the sun and moon perform this particular dance. I thought instead of those who would and of those lucky enough to see it the last time. Some are no longer here to see it and some have not yet been born, but they will be. Like us, they will live in in their own short moment, enjoying it for what it is without mourning for what it is not. Nothing is lost only because the characters change.
As we had known it must, the eclipse came, but it also left. Darkness covered all things, but as it did, we saw the light behind it. Gradually, the darkness left and everything was the same as before, or very nearly so. We had been privileged to see something which most of those who came before us never saw and most of those who come after us will never see. I understand more clearly now that the saying from my childhood is true – it will all be the same in 150 years.