Side-by side we sat in a Chevy Chevette.
In a cemetery.
Two men. Confident and scared. Teacher and student. Father and son.
Tree-filtered breezes meandered across the polished yellow hood and through windows hand-cranked to full openness. The contrast of the car’s deep space black vinyl interior gave the impression we were pilots of a man-sized bumblebee. A masculine carriage, it was not. But that was of little concern.
Because I was under siege, pinned-down by a series of moments strung together with a thread of terror. I could not master the mechanical dance between the brake, clutch, and accelerator. Stooges, those three. Starts and stops and stalls was their schtick. A humiliating assembly of cyclic failure – which I didn’t find funny.
Succumbing to numerous resets, I struggled to gain ground toward acquiring stick-shifting skill. During each re-collecting, I’d direct my gaze past the windshield and upon the root-heaved asphalt further along. I yearned to cruise the curvy paths, deftly marching through the gears. But that required something I did not have. And at the time, I was beginning to think never would.
Amidst this battle between man and machine, my passenger-seated father was calm, fully immersed in saintly patience. From the noisy barrage of a high-revved engine and grinding gears emerged phrases of gentle instruction and well placed encouragement. Over and over, he renewed his commitment after each false start. He loved me well.
That scene from my 16th summer is a highlight, still vivid in the present because of its ongoing effect. I now fill the office of father and have spent time in the passenger seat. That seat is revelatory. It has brought forth some of my finest, and most despicable behaviors. It has frustrated and badgered. It has made me laugh and wonder and cry. That seat demands much – day after day.
There are many tasks and requirements we as students and spouses and parents and professionals do because we must. That’s our reality, and it is good. Even so, how we engage our compulsory duties is a strong indicator of who we are, what we value, and how we grant our trust.
Recalling my rough road to mastering a manual transmission brings to mind this quote from Thomas Watson: “To do duty without love, is not sacrifice, but penance.” (All Things for Good, p.88) My father had a duty to teach me how to drive a stick shift. But in that necessity, he chose long-suffering, patient love. He went beyond himself, and through his risk of releasing control I felt his side-by-side care for my development as a young man.
I have wandered into loveless duty and found – indeed – it is punishing. A snare of ungrateful effort. A joyless enduring, pock-marked by missed opportunity.
Yet, today is new! Mercy abounds, and each relational intersection is a divinely planned setup for us to love with patient kindness. To give not only because we should, but because it is our desire.
With the onset of a new season of school and activities and fresh routines, my desire that those things I want to do – as well as my duties – be done with tangible, sincere, freely-gifted love.
Like that which was given to me on a breezy afternoon in a car the color of sunflowers.