Heaven Can’t Wait

On a Good Fri­day long ago, a cu­ri­ous boy was de­ter­mined to wit­ness God’s mys­te­ri­ous ways— in all their forms

Reader's Digest - - Contents - JOE RAO

On a Good Fri­day long ago, a cu­ri­ous boy was de­ter­mined to wit­ness God’s mys­te­ri­ous ways—in all their forms.

EV­ERY SO OF­TEN, the ce­les­tial wan­der­ings of the sun, earth, and moon will cause our near­est neigh­bor in space to be­come com­pletely im­mersed in the earth’s shadow, in turn pro­duc­ing one of na­ture’s most beau­ti­ful sky shows: a to­tal eclipse of the moon.

In my life­time, I’ve watched the moon be­come “just a shadow of its for­mer self” 18 times. But for me, the eclipse of April 12, 1968, stands out above all the oth­ers.

I was not quite 12 years old and liv­ing in the Bronx. The mid­point of the eclipse was to oc­cur around mid­night, but since it was a Fri­day night I had no wor­ries about home­work or go­ing to school the next day. I had re­ceived a tele­scope for Christ­mas and was so ex­cited that I had al­ready set it up in my back­yard that af­ter­noon. It was a per­fect early spring day, with prom­ise of a beau­ti­ful, clear night.

But there was a catch. April 12,

1968, also hap­pened to be Good Fri­day, and there was no way my mother was go­ing to let me skip church.

So I did the math. The ser­vice at

St. Benedict’s Church started at 9 p.m., and the eclipse would com­mence at 10:10 p.m. I knew from ex­pe­ri­ence that the av­er­age ser­vice in our parish lasted about 45 min­utes. I had plenty of time.

A Good Fri­day cer­e­mony is a very somber af­fair: Ev­ery­thing is draped in black, and there are long pe­ri­ods of ab­so­lute si­lence. On this par­tic­u­lar night Fa­ther Pa­trick O’kada felt a need to make it an es­pe­cially drawn-out and mourn­ful af­fair. Add the fact that on this par­tic­u­lar night the packed ser­vice started late, and I was anx­i­ety-rid­den. I squirmed with un­easi­ness as I eyed the big clock at the back of the church. By 9:45, Fa­ther O’kada was still deep into his homily. I kept whis­per­ing to my mother that if the ser­mon didn’t end soon, I’d miss the eclipse.

My mother, un­moved, just stared straight ahead and said noth­ing.

Fi­nally, just be­fore ten, I did some­thing that to this day I am sur­prised did not land me in the nether­world roast­ing on a spit: I bolted out of my pew and high­tailed it for the exit.

“Joe! Joe!” my mother whis­pered be­tween grit­ted teeth. My fate was al­ready sealed, so why stop now?

The only sound other than Fa­ther O’kada’s voice was that of my church shoes slap­ping against the mar­ble-floored cen­ter aisle as they pro­pelled me to­ward the exit. Ev­ery eye­ball—shocked, hor­ri­fied, en­vi­ous—was on me as I threw open the mas­sive wooden front doors and let them slam be­hind me with a re­sound­ing boom.

Adren­a­line kicked in as I raced to­ward East Tremont Av­enue and caught sight of the full moon glow­ing brightly in the south­east sky. Dodg­ing cars and pedes­tri­ans, I crossed three streets and two ma­jor thor­ough­fares and ar­rived home with only min­utes to spare. I was con­sumed with glee and had not yet con­sid­ered the po­ten­tial con­se­quences of my dis­play back at St. Benedict’s.

When the ser­vice fi­nally ended, my mother and sis­ter took their places in the line of peo­ple fil­ing out of the church. Wait­ing near the front en­trance was Fa­ther O’kada, along with the other priests, greet­ing the parish­ioners as they left.

When Mom fi­nally reached Fa­ther O’kada, she apol­o­gized pro­fusely. “For some stupid rea­son, Joe just had to see the moon eclipse from the very be­gin­ning,” she said, be­fore promis­ing to

JOE RAO is an as­so­ciate at New York’s Hay­den Plan­e­tar­ium and a me­te­o­rol­o­gist for Ver­i­zon Fios1 News in the Hud­son Val­ley.

se­verely rep­ri­mand me as soon as she got home.

Fa­ther O’kada’s re­sponse, which my mother shared with me later, saved my life.

“If your son wanted so badly to see this won­drous spec­ta­cle of na­ture— an event that God him­self has brought to all of us tonight to en­joy—then I can­not fault him at all.” Look­ing in the di­rec­tion of the other priests, he con­tin­ued. “We were all dis­cussing the eclipse be­fore tonight’s ser­vice, and we, too, are in­ter­ested in see­ing it.”

Then, tak­ing a few steps out­side, the priests, as well as my mother, my sis­ter, and a co­terie of parish­ioners, gazed up­ward to­ward the moon. A small scal­lop of dark­ness had made it­self ev­i­dent on its left-hand edge. “Isn’t this an amaz­ing ex­am­ple of the pre­ci­sion of the uni­verse?” Fa­ther O’kada asked no one in par­tic­u­lar. Even Mom was im­pressed.

Back at home, I was a wreck. As I watched the eclipse through my tele­scope, I con­sid­ered the im­pli­ca­tions of my mini-re­bel­lion at St. Benedict’s. In ret­ro­spect, maybe I should have stayed to the end of the ser­vice. Ret­ri­bu­tion, I knew, was nigh.

So when my mother’s car pulled up in front of our house, I kept my right eye firmly pressed against my tele­scope’s eye­piece as the moon slowly mor­phed into a bur­nished cop­pery-red ball. Surely, I thought, this would be my last view of the event be­fore all heck broke loose.

I heard the front door creak open and shut. I heard my mother’s foot­falls grow louder as they came closer and closer un­til she reached the back­yard. I soaked in the night sky’s per­for­mance, hop­ing to im­print it on my brain be­fore be­ing dragged away by an ear.

My mother stopped be­hind me.

I braced my­self.

She leaned in. I leaned away.

And then she ... gave me a peck on the cheek. With my sis­ter in tow, she headed inside, say­ing merely, “En­joy your eclipse.”

On Sun­day night, Jan­uary 20, 2019, in a play whose ce­les­tial script was writ­ten eons ago, the moon will once again plunge com­pletely into the earth’s shadow, pro­duc­ing a spec­tac­u­lar to­tal eclipse of the moon. To­tal­ity will be par­tic­u­larly dra­matic for those of us in North Amer­ica, where the ruddy moon will burn high over­head against the back­drop of a cold and starry win­ter sky.

I hope all of you en­joy your eclipse.

Ev­ery eye­ball— shocked, hor­ri­fied, en­vi­ous— was on me.

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