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Is Dar my sun, or my moon? Or am I his?

Granted, those weren’t pressing questions during the planning of our cosmic pilgrimage to Oregon to see a total solar eclipse for the first time in our lives. Bigger questions: will Dar be able to camp for the first time? Considering we’re camping on a friend’s friend’s farm, will Dar’s noises drown out the farm animals and annoy our lovely hosts? How will we manage Dar in general? Will Dar afford either of us any time to talk to gathered friends? Will Dar grab any of them, or our new friends, inappropriately?

I know what you’re asking: will Dar go blind looking up at the sun? Meanwhile I was asking: will Dar notice the eclipse at all? If this is your first time reading this blog, a word to the wise: we go places. “Hey Dar, look, Half Dome!” Nothing. “Hey Dar, look, the Grand Canyon!” Nothing. “Hey Dar, we’ve been waiting an hour to see Old Faithful, do you think you could look at this geyser behind me spurting water 150 feet in the air?” Nothing.

In 2017, more than ever, Dar likes things to be just so, just the way he expects them. (Recent evidence: the other day he wouldn’t leave a room until I’d latched a door – this particular latch is designed to keep Dar out of another room, but he insisted I keep him out, though you might think that would be contrary to his interests.) Unless forced, he doesn’t really engage with new phenomena. That’s part of his condition.

Because of Dar’s autism, road trips, oddly, may be more fun for Dar than for us. Wifey and I do them mostly to see what we’re driving to. But Dar loves the journey. (Apparently Dar listens to Oprah more than we do.) I used to think Dar liked the blur of passing sights at 30mph, and he still might. This particular journey was fraught with some serious eclipse traffic on the Monday, but unlike his whingey brother, Dar never complained about the bumper-to-bumper-osity. He simply likes being in his place in the car.

Which helped us at our friend’s friend’s farm near Dallas, Oregon. Our car was parked near our campsite, which was also near everything else (house, animals, eclipse viewing area). We had reasoned that if Dar absolutely freaked out in his tent at night, we could always sleep with him in the car to muffle the noise. As it turned out, Dar loved being in the car so much, during daylight hours he repeatedly returned to it. Ah, Dar in his seat with windows rolled down: a place of comfort for us. We knew where he was, not disturbing others. Pretty sure Dar chose to hang in his car seat for significant portions of the partial eclipse. He likes his place, his place in the sun. Even if it is obscured by a car roof or a big-ass moon.

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By the way, Dar DID absolutely freak out on the first night. We’d arrived Saturday for just that reason, to get Dar accustomed to the lay of the land before most guests arrived Sunday. And as predicted, Dar’s first hour in a tent in a hayfield was bonkers-screamy. But heroic Mommy eventually got him down. Less predictable was the fact that on the next day, Sunday, Dar chose to return to the tent fairly often! He likes what he knows.

In many ways, a farm turns out to be a happy place for us with Dar, because his noises blend into the background. As daylight begins, the roosters crow, and so does Dar. Also, Dar doesn’t really seem to care about the other animals. (I personally fell in love with our host’s two donkeys, but Dar didn’t care. The following photo is a little deceptive.)

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Dar did follow some friends and interfere with their twilight bocce game. At another point, he lifted up a person’s dress. I truly understand why so many of my friends with autistic kids become hermits. It’s work. It’s constant, exhausting work. It’s the work that you parents of neuro-typical kids left behind after your kids stopped being toddlers. And let’s be honest, in Oregon, wifey was doing most of that work while I chatted with friends. Thank you, wifey.

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So, was it all worth it? In a word, yes. Saturday was smoky in Southern and East-of-Highway-5 Oregon (some of their worst wildfires ever), Sunday was cloud-covered in Dallas/Salem, but our Monday dawned with a crystal-clear blue sky. Yummy, yummy pancakes for breakfast, not that Dar cared. (He and his brother are slaves to their food routines; we pack as though for an army.) By 9:00, I’d packed up the car; our old and new friends had planted their chairs in an impromptu celestial viewpoint. And we put on our glasses and watched as the moon began to cover the sun.

Did we obtain eclipse glasses for Dar? Of course. Was he willing to wear them? Of course not. We can’t get him to keep on a hat or sunnies (you like that Aussie terminology?) to save our lives. Were we worried that he’d look up into the sun and go blind, like the kid in that book I read in sixth grade, “The Cay”?

Somewhere there must be an autistic kid who sees what other kids do and tries to do it. But I think most autistic kids don’t. If ten kids are doing one thing at recess, that autistic kid will do something else. We knew Dar was Dar. No way would he see 20 people looking up at the sky (wearing eclipse glasses) and say “Hey I want to do that!” Dar already plays unsupervised in our backyard all the time. He had plenty of chances to look at the sun before last Monday. Like every other creature on God’s green earth, he probably catches a glimpse and intuitively realizes that one shouldn’t keep glimpsing. One may need full human sentience to believe one can outsmart nature. Dar has something closer to the good sense God gave a dog. (And yes, we related a bit to the many sites, like this one, giving you advice on your pet’s eclipse viewing.)

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A partial eclipse, as many of my California friends learned for the first time on Monday, is barely noticeable if you’re not looking for it. In the path of totality, we learned that anything short of total is basically full daylight. Oh sure, the shadows got weird, including our own, which seemed to blur around the edges. Who knows, maybe, for a few minutes, we were seeing the world as Dar does.

And then, at about 10:17, about 15 miles west of Oregon’s state capital, it was like someone suddenly turned out the lights. The “dimmer switch” was much less gradual than I would have guessed. And I have nothing against Pink Floyd or Bonnie Tyler, but I kept thinking Johnny Cash. “I fell in, to a burning ring of fire…a ring of fire, a ring of fire.” Because it’s not just the sun’s corona making a ring around the black moon, it’s also the ring of muffled light in the horizon all around us, creating a blue-gray sky so different from twilight. Two rings of fire, then, one the size of the moon/sun, one the size of the seeable everything. And on a farm there ain’t much light pollution. The sky, so rich with a billion stars the night before, generously offered us unusual views of Venus and Jupiter, twinkling at us as though to approve our cosmic coinciding. The air froze, rekindled slightly by our palpable excitement.

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We hushed. We listened for animal noises, or the lack of same. Did we hear or not hear them? Maybe. Did birds stutter, did photosynthesis pause? Maybe. Even in the greatest umbra any of us will ever know, still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest. As far as I could tell, Dar didn’t really look up. But then, I wasn’t watching him much. We all shine on. Like the moon, and the stars, and the sun. I would say probably Dar got a little quieter, and probably his tee-tee-teeing resumed after two minutes with the resumption of full daylight. Like the nearby roosters.

Before the totality, we chatted about the significance of eclipses. We talked about ancient legends and the masculine crossing over with the feminine and giving birth to the stars. But my favorite way of thinking about an eclipse is: recall all the thoughts you’ve ever had about the sun, all the times the sun meant something to your life, and put those in a circle. Then do the same thing, in a different circle, with your lifetime of associations with the moon. You’ve now got two circles of data. Now overlap them, like a Venn diagram. That’s a total solar eclipse. It brings together otherwise discordant aspects of your life into what may be a new discord, or a new accord. It’s both a scary harbinger of the end of the world and an uncanny beauty that you wish would last much longer. It’s fear and hope and night and day and blue and gray and faith and science.

A bit like an autistic child. Or perhaps any child.

One reason that I was so excited for this eclipse was to give it, as a present (hey, it’s free!), to my 5-year-old. I remembered traveling to the desert to see Halley’s Comet as a 15-year-old, hoping that I would see it again as a 91-year-old. Celestial events are profound markers of our mortality compared with the universe’s immortality. And R did put down his Legos long enough to stare at the totally eclipsed sun with his naked eyes. And he thrilled me five minutes later when he ran over to me and said “Daddy I LOVE the eclipse!”

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Who knows, perhaps a few eclipses from now, I’ll read Dar’s memoir, and it will include a terrific chapter about our Oregon eclipse experience. (Won’t be hard to surpass this blog entry!) And I don’t know if I’ll be his moon, or sun, or if he’ll be mine. But even if I never read it, even if it never happens, I know this much: Dar has a place in the universe.

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