Tuesday, April 16, 2024

on total eclipses and having babies and other unrepeatable life moments

We packed up our five kids in the minivan a week ago Sunday evening and drove up to Vermont for the much-anticipated total solar eclipse. 

I experienced totality and even a week later, every time I think about it I sort of want to cry.

I'm so incredibly grateful that my parents had called me up some weeks back and encouraged me to make the short trip if at all possible. They had traveled to Oregon in 2017 to be in the path of totality, and shared with me their experience that it was the sort of thing not to be missed -- the next total solar eclipse that will cross New England won't be until 2079! Convinced that the 93% partial eclipse Massachusetts would be experiencing was thus cool but totally insufficient when totality was so within our reach, we planned a trip to Vermont with friends for the big event. 

Since the small hometown of one of our friends was right in the path of totality, we settled on an excursion to her hometown of Jericho, VT, with the wide open fields of her friend's farm as our viewing space. In the end five families from our homeschool collaborative made the drive up and met for the day's activities. We had a wonderful day together ending with maple creemees and then lots of texting commiserating messages back and forth as we all endured bumper-to-bumper traffic on the drive home, traffic that turned a 3-ish hour trip into 9-ish hours for us. 

I'd do it all again in a heartbeat.

I keep thinking on what it is that made it so utterly, indescribably amazing of an experience. And alongside those thoughts, I periodically have strange thoughts of regret -- Did I look at it in the right ways, take it in fully? Did I research enough ahead of time to know what I should be looking for and seeing? Did I know the difference between Baily's Beads and solar prominences? Did I appreciate it properly? Why can't I remember more details? Why didn't I take more pictures? A better picture of each of my kids that day? Why didn't I take a good video? Why weren't we quieter to listen and see if there was insect activity? Did we let the kids (and ourselves, if we're honest) make way too much noise in our totality of excitement and joy? All these thoughts boiling down to this: did I do this total eclipse the "right" way?

* * *

Silly thoughts, but they remind me in a way of the ways I've felt after having each of my babies. I'd go into the big experiences with a plan, or so I thought. This time I'll labor better, I'll be more prepared, I'll stay calmer and more focused, I'll make sure things go according to plan. This time, I'll cherish the newborn moments and experience it all fully and stay present and be joyful and take the right amount of pictures but not too many because... being in the moment and all that. This time I won't let anxieties or baby blues weigh me down. This time I'll do it "right."

And each and every time, it just went the way it went. Yes, my plans and preparations played a significant role, I'm sure. But also, things we could never have prepared for just happened. The moments of birth happened, and those moments and the days that followed were the sort you wish you could bottle up and save forever. And then they're gone, and no matter how much you told yourself you'd savor it the right amount, you can't ever get that newborn head smell back again once it's faded. The newborn days will fade into baby days of equal sweetness, and those will fade into one-year-old days and into toddler days, each every bit as good as the last. But if you find yourself wishing to experience those bygone moments again, just once more to nuzzle a freshly-born head or to kiss a chubby baby tummy or scoop a toddler into your arms and feel her arms wrapped around your neck, you can't. They've slipped away, fleeting and unrepeatable.

* * *

In a strange way, to experience the total eclipse felt like a reminder of the births and growing up of all five of my babies in the timespan of three minutes. It happened so fast, it was so deeply beautiful, and then it was over. Could I chase another eclipse someday, by going to Iceland or Egypt or waiting 20 years and traveling to Montana or living to be 95? It's theoretically possible, but not entirely practical. But I experienced it this once, and in its strange and surreal beauty of mid-day twilight, it impressed upon me the fleetingness of every morning, mid-day, and twilight of our ordinary lives. 

Over lunch before the eclipse began, Nathan had shared his opinion that we should just be in the moment -- that plenty of professionals with proper equipment would take amazing pictures and we should just experience it. I have a video, purposely poorly shot -- I just recorded video on my phone without looking at it or caring what I captured; I wanted to remember my kids' reactions without missing the experience myself. It's a couple of minutes of everyone screaming "I can't believe it!" and "It's amazing!" and "I can see Venus and Jupiter!" and "I'm going to cry!" And it's somehow good enough even though it's objectively a horrible video, because we lived in the moment, and preserved something that can carry us all back to that time and place just a tiny bit. Not the same - for like looking at a picture of a baby once that baby has grown, it's not ever the same - but it's a glimpse and a memory. 

In the end, as Nathan has reminded me, we were there and we experienced it. And I don't really think you can always choose how to experience something, especially not something that happens in a matter of minutes and is, like a child and her childhood, so fleeting and unrepeatable.