Chasing The Moon In October

Jacqueline Dooley
10 min readOct 13, 2021

How a 4th grade science project taught me to write about the moon.

Photo by Jacqueline Dooley

October 1, 2010 | 3:30 pm | Last Quarter Phase

My daughter arrives home from school with a slim notebook covered with photos that represent the night — owls, a gibbous moon cut from white paper, a riot of stars.

She’s pasted the letters of her name (cut from the pages of a magazine) above the chaos of images. It looks a bit like a ransom note.

“A NA”

“What’s this, sweetie?” I ask.

She explains that she has a new 4th grade assignment. Starting on the 7th which is the first day of the next moon cycle, she is to go outside, observe the moon, then write and draw her observations. She must do this every day throughout the month until the 31st.

I am delighted. I run upstairs to retrieve my own notebook — an empty journal with a blue butterfly on the cover. I anticipate (with great enthusiasm) sitting outside in the dark each and every evening for a month, looking up at the sky, and writing about the mysteries of the moon.

A week later, armed with pens, notebooks, and flashlights, we make our way outside after dark. Emily, my younger daughter, joins us. She’s six years old and can’t read or write very well, so she brings her crayons and draws the sky on blank printer paper.

October 7, 2010 | 7:41 pm | New Moon

“The night sky is very clear. lots of stars are popping out tonight. The new moon is impossible to see. The stars are very faint. I saw a planet too.” — Ana

Ana’s first entry, carefully printed in neat letters beneath a pencil sketch of the sky, is perfectly, childishly literal. She reads it to me when we are done writing and drawing, then asks me to read mine.

“There is no moon, so what’s new? The sky, scrubbed clean, is a wash of darkness sparkling with faint starlight (only an echo of the moon). This house looms, a monolith set in stark relief, all angles and sharpness against the open dark.” — Jackie

She asks me why I wrote about our house when I was supposed to write about the moon. I say that since there’s no moon out tonight, I decided to write about the house, which is big and white and reminds me of the moon.

She looks at the house, perhaps trying to make sense of how it can be like the moon. I tell her that, for me, the moon is only the starting point. It is a prompt to write about what we see and feel in the night.

October, 12, 2010 | 7:59 pm | Waxing Crescent

“The moon is bright and slightly covered by clouds. The stars are faint. Again the only part of the moon we know is facing us. The moon is so beautiful.” — Ana

Four evenings pass before we catch a glimpse of the moon. On the fifth night, the crescent appears. Ana draws its sickle shape, a shaky outline in black pen. She adds some scribbled clouds below, behind, and beneath her moon.

We are happy — even elated — to see the moon. By now, after five days of sitting at our rickety old picnic table, we know there’s no guarantee that the moon will show itself. Even when it does, it’s not always possible to see it from our yard which is tucked between several low mountain ranges.

We are lucky this night, but our luck doesn’t hold. The moon fails to show itself over the next few days.

Ana is at a loss as, night after night, we sit beneath the moonless sky. She is supposed to draw the moon, but the sky seems determined to keep it hidden from us. She is frustrated, stuck, unable to think of what to write. So I make a suggestion. Why not write about what she can’t see? “Why do you think the moon is hiding?” I ask.

October 14, 2010 | 7:24 pm | First Quarter

“I am looking out my window and all I see is rain and clouds. A struck of lightening flashes by. It is very dark.” — Ana

She is being literal again. It is a night of unyielding rain, lightening, and thunder. We sit in dining room chairs at a window facing the yard. I tell Ana to write about the stormy sky. Pointing to the rain-streaked glass, I suggest that the tiny water droplets look like stars. Could one of the larger ones be the moon? How does all this rain make her feel?

Ana nods. She says she understands.

October 15, 2010 | 8:52 pm | First Quarter

“There is no life in the sky. Only gray and dark clouds. The sky obviously does not want the moon to show. It is cold and wet as if I was inside a cave. In the car is warm but outside, looking out at the moon, I shiver.” — Ana

The next day, it is still raining, so we sit in the car and peer into the murky dark. Ana is learning how to write about the moon even when she can’t see it. Her eyes shine with pride when she shows me her entry.

She is growing up beneath the waxing October moon and my heart is full.

(I cannot know that Ana will have just one more October before she is diagnosed with cancer and just seven more Octobers before I lose her forever.)

The next night is clear. I gaze up at the sky with my girls, our two ancient cats purring at our feet. We marvel at the waxing gibbous illuminating the early evening sky.

Our notebooks glow under the beam of our flashlights. There is a box of crayons on the picnic table and a heavy chorus of crickets serenading us. The full moon is coming and we’re ready for it.

October 21, 2010 | 7:30 pm | Full Moon

“The big circle is full, at last. It’s shining so bright. I am impatient and nervous, but I am not impatient about the moon.” — Ana

Ana is rewarded, at last, for her patience. The moon is full and bright and endless. She draws it in pencil surrounded by a halo of gold, filling in the edges of the page with navy blue crayon. We stay outside a bit longer than we need to.

By now, we understand that the moon doesn’t like to give itself away. We complete the assignment, of course, but this night is the true grand finale.

In the Northeastern US, October is a month of rapidly shifting priorities . It starts out warm and golden, and ends grey and colorless. The school year seems to echo this shift.

As winter edges closer, we fall fully into our autumn routines — homework, holidays, the short days and long nights where board games and roaring fires help alleviate tedium. We are busy discarding autumn in preparation for winter.

But on this October, in this moment in time, the month is paused. Charting the moon’s phases allows us to take a deep breath, to fully savor the season. The girls are still young enough to wear pink sherpa boots and anticipate Halloween candy. We do not feel rushed. We are absolutely certain that we have all the time in the world.

October 7, 2013 | 6:39 pm | Waxing Crescent

“Clouds clouds that’s all I see. Maybe just a tiny bit of trees. It’s just so soothing. I can’t stop moving! I cannot see you but I can still feel you. You will always be there even though its not fair. I miss you moon. Come again moon.” — Emily

Three Octobers later, I sit outside with Emily who has been tasked with creating her own moon journal. Emily, always filled with song, writes a poem about the moon.

Emily is in 4th grade now and Ana is in 7th. Ana does not join us on this night. At 12, she is busy with her homework and uninterested in looking up at the moon.

She is also healing, growing stronger after a liver transplant in February that saved her from a tumor that blossomed on her liver at the end of the previous year. The cancer is gone now. It is not supposed to come back.

The family is exhausted. We are nursing emotional battle scars from a harrowing year that kept us apart often.

The ancient picnic table is on its last legs, but the cats are both gone. Time did not stop on that October three years ago. It rolled forward, dragging us away from the magic of that year.

We have new kittens who are indoor cats only. So it is just Emily and I, peering up into the night. I try, and fail, to pretend that nothing has changed.

September 7, 2017 | 10:30 pm | Full Moon

“The moon is squat and round and brooding. I have no lightness left. No light. The terrestrial prison around me holds no fascination. I am old, at once, tired of missing you. I am afraid of bearing this grief forever.” — Jackie

It is September of 2017. Ana is gone. She died six months ago, on March 22, 2017. This year, I will not write about the moon in October. Instead, I sit outside by myself and weep under the impassive sky.

Monday, October 1st, 2018 | 8:30 pm | Last Quarter

“There’s no chance I’ll see the moon tonight. The steady rain made sure of that. Noon’s warmth seems like a dream in this bitter chill. It’s far too soon to lose the heat of summer, but who am I to say when a season should end?” — Jackie

I start on the first of the month instead of with the new moon. It is the last quarter of the previous cycle. Emily is 14 years old and has just started high school. Ana has been gone for 19 months. I am ready, once again, to write about the moon.

The picnic table is also gone. The old relic finally fell apart, so we replaced it with a few anti-gravity chairs. I sit in one now and stare up at the wet sky. It is impossible not to see Ana in the darkness. I don’t care about the rain. I don’t care that my notebook is getting soaked.

Alone in the yard, I close my eyes and recall the first year we chased the moon. It feels like an eternity ago. We are a changed family. I realize, in this moment, that it is the moon that bears witness to our tiny lives, not the other way around.

October 22, 2018 | 10:00 pm | Waxing Gibbous (Almost Full)

“The moon may as well be the sun or a strange planet or a dream you told me about once when your hands were small enough to fit into mine and nightmares scared you.” — Jackie

This year, I have managed to write about the moon nearly every day in October, but my last entry falls short of the full moon. Perhaps this is a way for me to honor Ana, who died a few weeks before her 16th birthday. She did not live to reach fullness, so why should I honor the full moon?

My heart still aches this soon after losing her, but the grief has begun to change in ways I am not fully aware of. I accept that the moon will always make me think of Ana. I also accept that if I want to write about the moon, I will have to do so alone.

I hope that Emily will join me one day, but she is nursing her own pain. I can only imagine what this moon ritual — for that is what it has become — brings up for her.

October 1, 2019 | 9:30 pm | Waxing Crescent

“We’ll begin together, another October. Can you still show me the moon? I imagine you looking up at age 9, the whole world a reflected wonder in your shining eyes.” — Jackie

I am finding my footing in grief, open to the possibility that Ana can see me sitting beneath the moon. I am thankful for the long-ago teacher who tasked both my girls with their moon journals.

This is an accidental gift she has given me, a way for me to simultaneously go back and move forward.

The smell of October, the growing sharpness in the air, the staid and stoic moon — all of it is visceral. When I close my eyes, I feel Ana beside me. I feel joy returning, phase by turning phase, to my aching heart.

October 2, 2021 (present) | 8:45 pm | Waning Crescent

“The starlight is a memory, just now reaching me, as I sit here on this second night and wonder if I, too, am just a memory. Perhaps I am shining over some vast dreamscape to manifest in my yard as a dream of myself.” — Jackie

I miss the first day of October this year, but make it outside on the second day. I sit in the anti-gravity chair and stare up at the sky. As usual, I can’t see the crescent from my yard. I smile up at the empty sky, wondering if Ana sits beside me in one of the two empty chairs.

The stars twinkle and the warm air feels soft against my skin.

I was not able to coax Emily, now 17, to write about the moon with me tonight. If I am persistent, I may pursuade her to join me when the moon is full on October 20th. I wonder if it will be a clear night, but I’ve learned by now that this doesn’t matter.

Eleven Octobers have passed since I sat outside with my bright-eyed 9- and 6-year-olds and we waited for the moon. I no longer have any expectations. Like walking on my favorite trails, watching birds, and foraging for mushrooms, observing the moon is about being present in a way that allows me to reflect on life, nature, and my love for both my girls. This is the true gift of the October moon.

Jacqueline Dooley

Essayist, content writer, bereaved parent. Bylines: Human Parts, GEN, Marker, OneZero, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Pulse, HuffPost, Longreads, Modern Loss