by Erica Goss

I pointed my camera at the moon, trying to grasp what my son had just told me.

My husband, two grown sons and I had come to the beach town of Aptos, California, a few miles south of Santa Cruz, for our summer vacation. We hoped for a relaxing week of sun and sand, but every day a chilly fog hugged the coast. The weather too cold for beachcombing, we stared glumly out the window of a seaside café a short walk from the condo we’d rented, sipping cappuccinos.

I’d brought my new camera, planning to record us lying on the beach and frolicking in the surf. Instead, I filmed the gray sky, dull ocean, and my family, huddled in sweatshirts. Barely visible through the fog, we glimpsed the red tracks of the Giant Dipper rollercoaster at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. When the sky brightened a little, the outline of Seacliff Beach’s weird and wonderful landmark, the S.S. Palo Alto, came into view. A picturesque wreck covered in guano, the ship was originally a World War I concrete tanker, and then, inexplicably, a pleasure boat. Abandoned after 1930, it was left to decay into the sea, where it served as an artificial reef and bird sanctuary.

On our third afternoon, as I walked along the edge of the ocean, I noticed an object floating in the surf. It turned out to be a man’s sport shoe, size 12, the kind my father used to wear. He’d died two years prior to our beach trip; the sight of the shoe brought the grief of his loss, never far from my thoughts, back to the surface. I thought of how parents and children never really know each other, how we keep specific parts of our lives hidden from view. I knew my father, and yet I didn’t. When he died, dementia had stolen the person he used to be.

The night I filmed the moon over Seacliff Beach, my twenty-two year old son revealed that something had gone very wrong in his life. In fits and starts, he told us what he’d endured—extreme mood swings, hallucinations, hearing voices, and a lack of focus that made it impossible for him to keep up with his classes. A couple of months earlier, unbeknownst to his father and me, he’d dropped out of college.

That evening, the fog lifted. A spectacular full moon rose over the Pacific. My head swimming, I leaned over the railing of the balcony outside our condo and pointed my camera at the sky.

I’d never tried to film the moon before, and I did almost everything wrong. I didn’t use a tripod. I zoomed the lens on my camera as far as it would go, giving the resulting video a bouncing, shuddering effect. Knowing nothing of night photography, I didn’t wait long enough for the camera to focus on the bright, faraway object in the sky. And finally, I didn’t take into consideration the movement of the Earth, which can cause streaking or multiple images—in one of my videos, a tiny silver disc appears above the moon like a reverse shadow.

Until then, my son had mainly shown us his bright side: the creative, popular boy who did well in school and enjoyed spending time with friends. That night we learned of the side he’d kept hidden. As he spoke of his worsening mental state, I thought of my father, his intellect lost in a tangle of nerve cells. How strange that I’d seen that shoe wash up earlier that day.

During the last years of his life, I’d tried to help my father. It turned out that the job was beyond my skills. Here I was again, faced with a new challenge, that of helping my son through what would surely be a long, arduous process. I wondered how I could have missed the signs of his mental illness. They seemed so obvious now. I thought of the slightly-less-than-half of the moon we don’t see, the part facing away from Earth.

When I look back at the footage I shot that night—all three minutes, forty-five seconds of it—I remember my eagerness to capture the beauty of the moon glowing over the black water of Monterey Bay, and my frustration that something I thought should have been simple turned out to be so difficult. In every clip, the moon wobbles and jumps, coming into focus for a tantalizing second before blurring. It’s clear to me now that the contrast between the dark sky and the bright moon was just too much for my amateur skills, but at the time, I only saw the scene directly in front of me.

That night, my son’s revelations about his mental illness began a journey that continues to this day. I’ll never stop learning about how to help him live the best life he can. I’ve succeeded on some counts, and not on others. Like the far side of the moon, much remains hidden.

Photo by Dimka Nevedimka via Pexels