The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.
This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?
Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away. It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain, faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling. It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light. It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the Earth’s face.
When the sun appeared as a blinding bead on the ring’s side, the eclipse was over. The black lens cover appeared again, back-lighted, and slid away. At once the yellow light made the sky blue again; the black lid dissolved and vanished. The real world began there. I remember now: We all hurried away.
We never looked back. It was a general vamoose … but enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.
~Annie Dillard from her essay “Total Eclipse” in The Atlantic about the February 1979 eclipse in Washington State
In February 1979, I was working as a medical student on an inpatient psychiatric unit in a large hospital in Seattle, less than a hundred miles from the band of total eclipse Annie Dillard describes above happening just to the south.
Our clinical team tried to prepare our mostly psychotic and paranoid schizophrenic patients for what was about to happen outside that morning.
Our patients were clearly more anxious than usual, pacing and wringing their hands as the light outside slowly faded, with high noon transformed gradually to an oddly shadowy dusk. The street lights turned on automatically and cars moved about with headlights shining.
We all stood at the windows in the hospital perched high on a hill, watching the city become dark as night in the middle of the day. Our unstable patients were sure the world was ending and certain they had caused it to happen. Extra doses of medication were dispensed as needed while the light faded away and then slowly returned to the streets outside. Within an hour the sunlight was fully back, and most of the patients were napping soundly.
We all breathed a sigh of relief, having witnessed such glory from the heavens, acknowledging we did not cause it but a power far greater did. The eclipse swept, with its racing shadow followed by restoration of light, the edge of our sanity to accept that our light can indeed be taken away. For some, they live their whole lives consumed by shadow.
Miraculously, the Light has been returned to us. We may not be able to look if in the Face — too blinding — but we need never dwell in darkness again.