August 21, 2017.
As I’m coming down from the bedroom at my uncle’s house, my attention is on my aunt in the kitchen below. My foot misses a step, and I tumble head over heels to the bottom of their wooden staircase. After a minute at the bottom, I make an assessment. Nothing’s broken – not my laptop, none of my bones. My ankle hurts, and I know I hit my head. I’m shaking, like I always do after a faceplant.
Stupid me! Bad morning to have to go to an emergency room in central Oregon. Thank goodness I don’t need to!
My aunt and uncle surround me, worried. I’ve bent the wrought iron balustrade, probably with my shoulder, and they’re amazed that I’m in one piece. I’m just feeling guilty about damaging their staircase.
I shouldn’t try to multitask before I’ve had any coffee, I laugh. I get my coffee and attend to the ankle, which starts to swell alarmingly. It doesn’t hurt to walk on, though, so I refuse to worry about it.
By 9:06 we’re all set up in the yard – my brother Dave has his camera positioned, we’ve got chairs out on the expansive lawn and family and friends are in place. There is a forest fire raging less than six miles away, but luck is with us and the wind is blowing the smoke in another direction. I sit on a chair, my foot propped up with an icepack, as our friends crack cans of Eclipse beer (yes, I know, it’s still morning, but some things just cry out for a photo-op).
As I’m gazing through the certified protective glasses, watching the moon slide over the sun, I try to put my real glasses over the top of the cardboard ones to see if the image is sharper. The protective glasses slip – for just a microsecond – over my right eye. The blaze of light on my retina is still there when I close my eyes. All the warnings I’d read, all the emergency alerts DON’T LOOK AT THE SUN WITHOUT PROPER EYE PROTECTION OR YOU’LL GO BLIND!! — rush into my head. What have I done? I start to shake. How long until I go blind in my right eye? Hours? Days? Thank god it was just one eye. I can’t say anything to my uncle. Ever.
I try to remember the press release I’d read about protecting your eyes. Had it said that only a microsecond was enough to cause blindness? Or was it seconds? I can’t remember. I just sit, my ankle covered in ice and propped on a lawn chair, shaking, feeling sick to my stomach with panic. How could I be so stupid?
The minutes tick by and things start to get chilly, a sort of dusk is seeping over everything. My panic subsides a bit, and I decide to worry later. It’s not like there’s anything I can do about it, in any case. If I go blind, I go blind. At least it’s just the one eye. Every now and then I look up at the Sun, pressing my protective glasses firmly over my eyes. Not a chink of light gets through. The air gets colder and a weird shadowy hush settles in.
Then Dave shouts out, and the moment of totality arrives. We take off the glasses and gaze straight at It. A black disc in the sky with a bright halo surrounding it. There’s a bright red bit at the bottom. And for the third time that morning, I’m shaking. I can’t find the right words, really, to describe the feeling. Unbelievable. Awesome, as in full of awe. Then in what feels like an instant the moon moves past, the glasses are quickly back on, and morning begins its gradual return.
My uncle sums it up perfectly: “Now I get it. I get why people chase totality.”
The day goes on. I keep testing my eye, trying to see if anything is changing. Hard to tell, because the vision in my right eye is a little blurry to begin with. I hit the Internet and find the press release, which says it is an accumulation of seconds over a period of time that could damage the retina irreversibly. Not a microsecond! I relax ever so slightly.
I confess to Dave that I have been panicked. He laughs. There’s no need to worry.
The upside? In my panic about going blind and the experience of the eclipse, the fact that my ankle was roughly twice its normal size didn’t faze me at all.
UPDATE: Four weeks later, I’m back in Melbourne, my right eye good as ever, but just off a course of antibiotics because the ankle got infected. An article in today’s edition of the mighty Australian daily The Age tells of a scourge of flesh-eating bacteria plaguing the region. I keep palpating the tender flesh around the ankle…