Midnight Moon Watch

ELEVEN years have come and gone between the last full lunar eclipse and the one that appeared in our hemisphere late in November. This time I boldly went out into the garden at midnight and sat on a very cold lawn chair to watch. The brilliant night sky was freshly scrubbed by the rousing storm that had passed through earlier in the day. This time I watched alone.

Eleven years ago, I had several companions for the vigil. I remember being awakened by the clink of dog tags as our Irish setter rolled over against the bed. I squinted at the alarm clock and realized that it was only 5:30 a.m., still dark, and too early to get up. But there was something else.

Winter moonlight filled our bedroom window, and I slipped out from under the warm covers, trying not to disturb my husband's sleep. For a moment I indulged my pleasure in looking at the moon's perfect orb. Nearly perfect. There was a small slice off one side.

Then I saw him: our 14-year-old son. He was sitting on a chair at the end of the driveway, bundled in a quilt and holding binoculars. Draped rakishly on the country mailbox next to him was our cat, watching the boy - who was watching the moon.

How did he manage to go downstairs and out the door carrying all that stuff without my hearing him? He would freeze out there!

I decided it was not a time to interfere but to let his wondering eyes fully see the spectacle. From the warmth of my room I watched, too. It was a rare moment for peace and pondering after a day filled with rushing. The dog woke and came to lean against my leg.

What was it Thoreau wrote in his journal? ``The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon ... and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.''

IN 1969, when feet from Earth first walked on the moon, my husband and I had taken this child and his brother to the rooftop of our apartment in faraway Spain. ``Remember,'' we said to their infant selves, ``this is a moment you will want to remember.'' And one summer in Switzerland, we had lifted them from their beds at dawn to hike up a mountain path where they could see the same full moon setting over the western Alps while the sun rose up in the east to warm their backs. ``Remember this beautiful moment,'' we urged.

As I watched through the window, the moon became totally eclipsed, and a bank of clouds slowly floated over it. Soon our son, carrying his binoculars and chair, and trailing the quilt - like some infant's blanket - paraded up the driveway toward the house. The cat, his tail like a small flagpole bearing a invisible banner, brought up the rear.

We drank cocoa together, and after a few minutes our son was back in bed and asleep, the cat curled at his feet. I slid under my blankets, and the dog flopped down with a sigh.

I lay awake savoring the gifts I had received. Not only had I experienced the transcendent beauty and power of nature through our son's eyes, but I also knew that he was open to finding his own beautiful moments to remember. When I finally drifted into sleep, it was with the words of a much-loved hymn going through my mind: ``Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight, and all the twinkling, starry host....''

Our son is now grown, the old dog is gone, and the cat sleeps deep in his basket at night. So last month I watched alone. But as I did, I thought about the earlier eclipse and the child who gave me back the gift of wonder that night. I know how time-consuming his adult schedule is, and I long to ask him: ``Do you still listen for the music of the spheres now that you deal with so many earthbound matters?'' He will have to build a lot of woodsheds in the coming years; but I hope one day he'll grow young enough to build bridges to the moon again. I have.

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