Feather the clutch

Feather the clutch, he said.

First, it was my seminary classmate who spoke these words, gently, as I destroyed the transmission of his Mazda 5 in a church parking lot in El Cerrito. And soon after, a congregant from the church where I had interned, as I blocked an intersection in downtown Juneau with a Honda Civic hatchback. And then, my father, as we leapt over the berm of a hill in a Mustang Shelby, just a mile or so from his house in Western Pennsylvania.

It was an early summer evening, though it was humid enough to be confused for August. We had decided to go for a spin after dinner, and walking out into driveway was like wading into a swamp. The backs of my legs felt stuck to the driver’s seat as I moved it forward in order to reach the pedals.

I haven’t driven a stick in a while, I said, my palms sweaty on the steering wheel.

My father opened the passenger side door, and climbed in. It’s like riding a bike, he replied.

He had taught me that himself – thirty years earlier on a bitter winter afternoon. The bike had been a Christmas present, and I couldn’t even wait until New Year’s to try it out. I remember the chill on my fingers gripping the bright yellow handlebars, and the way the tires crunched in the patches of snow. My mother and my grandmother waved at me though the living room window. My mother was the same age as I am now, and she had lost her own father two years before.

My father’s hand was on the back of the seat, as he ran alongside the bike.

I’m not pushing anymore, he said. You’re doing it yourself.

Don’t let go, I shouted.

I’m still here, he said.

We went up and down the gentle sloping street a few more times. He talked me through using my foot brakes, and helped turn me around.

Just don’t let go, Dad, I shouted, as I went down the slope again. And then, I realized he wasn’t there. I was biking on my own.

This past June, I went back to Pennsylvania to visit my family. I flew into Philadelphia, and my parents picked me up there. As we were driving through Conshohocken, my father shared his diagnosis. He kept his eyes on the road. It was quite treatable, with a high success rate for patients, my mother explained from the backseat.

Sorry to dump this news on you, my dad said. I hate to ruin your trip.

I called my wife from a rest stop. I ate half of the container of homemade cookies that my mother had brought me for the car ride. I spent the next few days hearing my family members talk about how much they were praying. And on my last night there, my father and I lingered long after dinner, and we talked about his fears if the worst should happen. What about my mother? What about the rest of the family? He told me what he would have me do, whenever the time should come, and we permitted the truth to sit with us for a moment – my father’s mortality, staring us down from the other side of the table.

We didn’t yet know that the surgery would be successful. We didn’t yet know that we still had time. So, that night, we tried to outrun the diagnosis in a muscle car. He reminded me not to hold in the clutch too long, lest I burn out the transmission. And he imparted upon me, again, his (completely unfounded) confidence that I could do anything, while at the same time moving his hand on the handle of the emergency brake. He directed me around a circle in the neighborhood a few times, and then suggested that we hit the main road.

When I was younger, I thought that aging was a seamless process. I thought that each morning, I would wake up with a touch more awareness of my frailty; until the day came when I was old, and my parents were older, and none of us were surprised to be so. But that night, as my father directed me down my grandmother’s old street, time was much more erratic. I was still young, and he was dropping me off to play badminton in her backyard. And it was still seven years ago, and he was standing next to me in the snow, watching the paramedics load her into the ambulance.

You’re doing great, he said, as I made a particularly smooth shift from third to fourth. And I was still in middle school, as we accelerated past the turnoff for fields where he used to coach my soccer team. And I was still in college, calling him to say that my car had been stolen, because he was always the person who knew what I should do next.

Just when I thought I had the hang of it, we approached a stop sign at the top of a hill.

You got this! he said. But I didn’t. While I managed to avoid stalling out, it was as if I no longer had control of the vehicle. We lurched forward into the darkness, and for a moment, I could see nothing over the berm of the hill.

Feather the clutch! he shouted, laughing. At that point, so late in the evening, he was just a shadow beside me, but I could still see the outline of his hand, which had not moved from the brake.

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