It was the summer of the great solar eclipse, the first total eclipse of the sun visible in the United States since 1979 and the first to traverse the entire country in more than a century. Here in New England, only about 60 percent of the sun was blocked out by the moon’s shadow. While we didn’t have what observers described as the other-worldly experience of totality, we were treated to enough of a show to justify the hype that the event generated.
When I look back on this summer of the great solar eclipse, I will remember the view through my eclipse glasses as the edge of the moon’s perfect curve sliced into the sun’s surprisingly compact orb. I will recall the clear blue sky, my fumbling attempts to photograph transcendence, the passerby who said he was too busy to look and the boys whose smiles said they were glad they did.
Most of all, I will remember how my wife and I shared this day with an old friend whose reappearance in our lives was as fortuitous as the movements of the celestial bodies dancing in the sky above us.
While a total eclipse of the sun can be seen from some place on earth on an average of every 18 months, you would be lucky to see one or two from your driveway in a lifetime. For any eclipse to occur at all, total or partial, the sun, moon and earth must be in perfect alignment so that when the moon passes between the sun and the earth, it moves along the same horizontal plane, passing neither higher nor lower than the sun.
For an eclipse to occur over any given place, that place would have to be on the daylight side of the earth as it turns through its 24-hour cycle and in a direct line with the sun and moon.
As if all of these contingencies needed to produce an eclipse weren’t enough, there is one more that is related to the nature of our particular niche in the universe. In order for a solar eclipse to occur, the apparent discs of the sun and moon must be close to the same size.
If the apparent size of the moon were much smaller than that of the sun, we would need a telescope to see a black dot moving across the face of the sun during a total eclipse.
If the apparent size of the moon were much larger, the sun would be blotted out but without the spectacle of solar flares and other phenomena that happen when the moon’s orb slides into position over the matching disc of the sun.
As it happens, the diameter of the sun is 400 times larger than that of the moon and we would appear to be out of luck unless the sun were 400 times farther away. And that’s exactly the way it is. Whether by physics or fortune, we make it. The spectacle of the solar eclipse is there for us to enjoy.
Although I am a lifelong amateur astronomer, this summer’s eclipse took me by surprise. I only heard of it through newspaper and television announcements and had just enough time to develop a bare-bones observing plan. Although my wife and I would be observing alone at home, we wanted to share the event and enjoyed finding eclipse glasses for family and friends.
About a week before the show, we were visiting my mother-in-law at her memory care center when I heard a familiar and distinctive voice just out of sight as I approached with her wheelchair. We were face to face in no more than a second or two, but in that tiny sliver of time, a sequence of familiarity, recognition and relief washed over me.
It was the voice of a former neighbor and close friend with whom we had lost touch, a man we had tried to find without success when we learned his wife had died two years ago. We feared we would never see him again but there he was, not as a resident with memory problems, but as a volunteer care-giver, getting to know the resident he introduced simply as his friend.
We greeted one another like long-lost family and talked for hours in the parking lot, making plans to meet again at our house the next week for the eclipse.
On the day of the great solar eclipse of the summer, the sun and moon did their improbable dance in the sky and, when clouds cut the performance short, we caught each other up on the last 15 years of our lives. Always a great storyteller, our friend took us back to his childhood and the events that set the stage for his marriage and career. He led us forward from the time he moved away from our neighborhood through the joy of his son’s marriage, the sadness of his wife’s illness and death and his own successes and sorrows along the way.
As we listened late into the night, I thought about how our later years challenge us to sum up our lives even as we continue to live them. In that summing up, we try to understand the motivation and consequences of our decisions and life choices. We like to think that our choices have been rational and reasonable, that we have lived our lives just as we wanted to, but we know it isn’t so.
As unlikely as a total solar eclipse, as a chance meeting of a lost friend in an improbable place and time, a plan greater than our own shocks us into humble recognition and leaves us with nothing to say but thank you.
Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.