I didn’t prepare for the eclipse: no special glasses, no time off, no road trip to prime viewing for totality.
My husband built pinhole viewers for the kids: tin foil and tape and Fruit Loops boxes configured with a tiny hole so when you peer in, you see the reflection instead of the real thing. He took the kids to the park; I drove to work wearing the sunglasses I wear every day. In the office, we turned on the Weather Channel and left it on, watching totality happen over and over, people cheering and sobbing and shrieking as darkness descended. When the time came, we went outside, unprepared. I wore my sunglasses. It wasn’t dark. I texted Tyler at the park: Is it happening? I can’t look but it’s now, right?
Look at the shadows, he texted back.
I squinted. Under the tree, hundreds of tiny crescents scattered over the sidewalk. I tried to remember the science—was the crescent the moon? Or the sun not yet shadowed?
I took the glasses and walked outside, mostly to be polite. I didn’t expect to be moved, but the sudden darkness of the glasses combined with the unexpected clarity of the eclipse itself left me stunned. Partially past, but still distinct, brilliance spilling out around sharp curves. I sat down on the concrete steps, leaned back on both hands, turned my face up to the sky, soaked it in.
Inside, my phone buzzed on my desk. Texts from my mom, then from my sisters. She’s being removed from the clinical trial; surgery to decompress the spinal cord is urgent. Responses piling up in the group chat with all my siblings. I’ll be there for surgery, I text back. Familiar logistics: clear my calendar for the consultation and surgery. Let Tyler know he’ll be alone with the kids for the weekend. Talk mom through the hotel reservations for us, find the purse big enough to hold book and wallet and water bottle and phone and charging cord to plug into the little USB ports on the hospital waiting room tables. Tell Siri the address of the hospital, the hotel, my dad’s favorite restaurant in Ann Arbor.
We meet the surgeon for a consultation; he is young, funny, kind. The nurses have told everyone about the time my dad wore my mom’s pink socks to an appointment by mistake, so the surgeon tells my dad that last week, he got dressed in the dark before an early surgery and ended up wearing his wife’s socks with cats on them. He jokes about his ten year old son who intentionally wears shoes that don’t match. He is patient and gentle with my mom’s nervous optimism. I like that he doesn’t turn the lights on while his wife is sleeping. I like that he just shrugs about his son’s shoes not matching.
I don’t tell him that I Googled him on the drive to Ann Arbor and read on his hospital online profile that his mom died of cancer while he was in med school. I don’t ask if my mom is dying.
I wonder if I should read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking or some other famous book about death and grief, confront my worst fears, but in my gut I don’t want to. I’m soliciting suggestions for the university’s annual common read but I ignore all death-related literary recommendations from friends and colleagues. I cannot imagine spending a year facilitating conversations about this.
I read stacks of graphic novels and comic books instead—they are piled in my office, next to my bed, on the fireplace next to the chair where I snuggle Charlie while he watches Lego Ninjas. On the page, lions roam Baghdad, starving, looking for the horizon, first freed then obliterated by a human war. One man survives a plague that women thought obliterated men. A journalist documents survival in post-apocalyptic Manhattan, stranded on the frontlines of a new civil war. After Tyler and I put the kids to bed at night, when I’m too tired to read, we watch Agents of SHIELD and the Flash and Legends. On the screen, an agent is resurrected with alien DNA in a lab called Tahiti. Speed force and time travel, heroes leap through portals to the future or the past or another Earth. Is it possible to simultaneously save the world and not change anything that matters? Time remnants and nightmares chase them, howling. I can’t tell if their superpowers are the speed and technology that propel them from death to life, childhood to 2043 and back to the present, or their endless good intentions and faith in their own ability to make it right when from my view on the couch it looks like something always goes wrong.
In the car on the way to Ann Arbor for surgery, I fill the anxious silence by explaining Wonder Woman’s origin story to my mom. In the hospital, waiting for her to come out of surgery, I curl up on the small lobby couch willing myself not to look again at the giant board updating patient status, to stay immersed instead in the story of alien parents fleeing with a newborn, searching a war-torn planet for a forest of rocket ships. I wear tiny silver lightning bolt earrings. My dad walks the halls aimlessly, coming back with a candy bar, a newspaper, then empty-handed. My sister folds herself into the cubicle seats and sleeps. On the page, tree branches morph into rocket fins and blast off, parents and child safe inside.
What I need is a super power: a way to be present but removed, to understand the whole of it without being swallowed up in the abyss.
In my mind I see the coming grief like panels on the pages of the comic books I’m reading: a bombing, an epic rain, an earthquake, a tidal wave, an eclipse. I am willing to look, but only through impenetrable glasses. I need a cereal box viewer, a way to see the reflection of the reflection of this cancer. I want to see it clearly but at a distance, twice removed. I want to hold it in focus, see it shift when my hands shake then come back clear when I steady my grip. I want to soak in totality safely, lean back on the hard steps and weep like the meteorologist on the Weather Channel as the darkness moves in: the dissolving vertebrate, the tendrils of tumor wrapping around arteries, the lesions emerging on the skull, the spinal cord compressing as the tumor grows, the cells slipping off the scalpel in the first surgery and lingering, seeds of the next tumors in her throat. I want to experience totality on my terms: a tiny moving image trapped inside a box. I want to see it all, then put it down and look away knowing the extent of the darkness. I want to know if there’s a glow around the edges, any evidence that light will return.
Jennifer Getting Jameslyn is a writer, a mother, a gardener, and makes excellent vegetarian chili. Her work has previously appeared in Literary Mama.