An Axiomatic Hydra-matic

Our minds have a marvelous capacity to notice the unusual. However, the opposite is true as well…because we see things so often, we see them less and less…Every day is a new canvas—a new opportunity – Joseph B. Wirthlin
In the 1930’s General Motors developed an automatic shifting transmission. It was coined the Hydra-Matic or Hydramatic. A purpose behind the invention (it is considered one of the most important innovations in the history of the automobile) was to reduce the need to shift gears while driving, or at least eliminate the regular need to shift gears. You still need to shift from Park to Drive, or if necessary from Drive to Reverse, if you’ve gotten yourself in a pickle and need to back out, but the constant need to shift gears as your speed changes, or as the road grade changes, has become obsolete, for the most part.

Many of us, it is human nature after all, take such things as shifting gears for granted. We get in our car, we make that initial shift to get the car started, we may even shift once more just to send us off in the right direction, but once there, shifting is forgotten. Did you realize every time we stop and start again from a stoplight that our car shifts three, sometimes four times to get us back up to speed? And when we slow, or come to a stop our car shifts again another three or four times. How many hundreds of times does your car shift between your house and your work? How about between your house and Disneyland? The beach? Downey, California? Logan, Utah? I have no idea, I’ve never cared to know, I’ve just been grateful that it did!

Last month our $100 car finally died. It was a great car while it lasted. It was a white 1987 Oldsmobile Calais with 68,000 miles on the odometer, and red velour interior. Morgan described it as Sick (I think that means awesome) and dropped the O calling it the LDSmobile. It was a great car, while it lasted.

Well, the car didn’t actually die, but it was on the verge. I had noticed that Thursday that I was staring to experience engine trouble. This caused me serious reflection and concern, because it would cost money; more money than the car was worth! The next day my oldest boy drove it to work. When he got home he announced that the car was overheating. I let it cool down then started it. I instantly knew why it was overheating, in idle the engine was racing at high speed. I knew where this issue was coming from, and I knew it would cost four times the purchase price of the car as I had fixed the problem once before.

We decided it was time for a new car, and we would see what we could get as a trade-in. As I got in the car and began the drive down to the dealer I suddenly became intently focused on how many times my car transmission shifted. The car was not just overheating the transmission was failing. I could shift exactly two times—you heard right I shifted—the automatic transmission wasn’t working. I manually had to shift gears and then I could only get it into second gear.

Sometimes something awkward, or even serious, needs to happen before we stop and reexamine our lives and look at things from a different point of view; stop taking things for granted. I can attest that driving 50ish miles per hour, in second gear, on the freeway, the hazard lights on your dashboard flashing steadily, is one way to do just that. There is something about it that shifts you into introspection. The loss of my Hydramatic gave me reason to be axiomatic!

Other recent changes—all to occur within the next few months—have made this feeling even more pronounced in me as I consider Ethan. Let me explain.

Ann and Rob, my wife’s sister and her husband (ever notice the tendency to list the direct relative first in such pairings, or did you take it for granted that you did?), announced that their family, and their four wonderful kids, will be moving to the mid-west! 

This will affect me. I know it will affect my wife, it already has, and they haven’t moved yet. My wife still recalls the loneliness she experienced when her big sister went away to BYU in the mid-eighties. But we get used to those thoughts, we store away that empty feeling, and look forward with anticipation to a reunion. But those are abstract emotions; can they be explained in pictures?

Ethan is a kid who thrives on routine, how do we explain this to him? He loves Ann and Rob, he loves their kids, loves their house, and he loves their toys. Will he understand? When driving on the freeway, Ethan can tell where we are going miles before we get there just because of the route we take. If we happen to have been heading in the same direction, but weren’t intending on going to their house, he immediately recognizes when the routine changes. 

‘I want Annie. Uuuuuuuuughhhh! Mom, we need to go that way,’ 

or 

‘Mom, you forgot to turn!’

So, how do we tell him they aren’t there anymore? He’ll know the house is there, but how do you explain that they aren’t? 

For the eighteen months Ethan’s grandparents were serving as missionaries in Hong Kong, he prayed for their safety in every prayer. He continued to pray for them ‘on their mission’ for two more years after they returned home. Eventually his prayer changed and he simply adjusted one word: ‘on their mission,’ became ‘off their mission.’ But that took months and months to bring about.

Ethan saw his grandparents a little more then quarterly; while they were away he saw them every nine months. What happens when it is somebody he sees more often, and they are gone longer? What will he do when his brother, his roommate everyday for the past 5,542 days—give or take ¼ of a day due to leap years, etc.—leaves for the Philippines? What will it be like when his big sister, his Guardian Angel from high school, goes off to college, or gets married? Will there be something he can equate to their being gone? Will he understand that people grow up and move on? Will he feel sad?

I know he is aware of sadness, but not like most people understand it. Sadness, in his mind is linked to a visual image. The image is a scene in the movie The Land Before Time where Little Foot’s mother dies. I only know it is that visual image because of the occasions when we would find him suddenly weeping for no apparent reason. After several attempts to coax ‘What’s wrong?’ out of him, he would simply reply, ‘Little Foot’s mother.’ We have identified the image, but we don’t know what that image really means to him, so we don’t know what to expect when either his brother or sister leave.

Last week he asked if he could buy a certain toy at his favorite store. My wife reminded him that his birthday was coming up, and we could get it then. ‘How many days is my birthday?’ he asked. She replied, ‘twenty-one days.’ What came next startled my wife. He cried. No, he wept. His sobbing was as deeply moving as when his balloon broke. He was inconsolable. Had he identified his balloon’s demise with Little Foot’s mother? Did he consider twenty-one days to be comparable to that? If three weeks were this traumatic, what would two years be like? Certainly we will miss Michael, but will Ethan be like this when he leaves? If so, for how long?

That day I considered other seemingly more pressing things that I have been taking for granted. What will he do for seminary next year? His sister took him every morning, and sat with him, then walked him to his first class. Will somebody be there to replace her? What happens if seminary moves from the school to the new church building down the street? How will he get to school from there?

As those questions appeared panoramic across my mind, I never even felt the shift or the increase in momentum. My mind accelerated, each thought increased speed exponentially. The colorful landscape, once distinct in the daylight, suddenly turned to a blur; the leisurely drive swiftly became a road course of switchbacks, hairpins, and s-curves. My mind persisted. Will I ever be able to teach him how to ride a bike? Will he ever be able to be left home alone? Will he ever be able to walk to the store on his own? Will he ever understand money? Will he be able to have a job? Will he ever go on a mission? Will he ever get married? Will he be able to move out of the house?

My mind raced so quickly through those thoughts I never noticed the distorted landscape withdrawing. Smooth concrete walls closed in, as light faded from around me. Speed was irrelevant in the darkness with nothing to give proportion; distance and time deferred. Will we need to file for guardianship on him? How long can insurance cover him? How long can he be claimed as a dependent for taxes? Will my wife and me ever be empty nesters? What do I do for retirement? Do I find a second career, one that he and I can work together? If he can’t live on his own, when we can no longer provide for him, will our other children be able to?

Suddenly, before me I could see a faint glow in the distance. It was light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel walls fell away to the open air and landscape. Its original beauty brightened by the darkened passageway. Clearly, as clearly as the sun now shown, this thought dawned. 
‘I don’t have all the answers to the questions that race through my mind immediately, there are many more to come, and that’s okay.’
I consciously slowed down, and shifted to lower gears intent on taking in the immediate scenery while it lasted, appreciating the shifting of the gears. My wife, knowing my thoughts, turned to remind me, just as Ethan climbed onto the chair to cuddle on my lap, that we are well equipped to deal with whatever our journey had to offer, and we determined we would enjoy the journey.

So we traded-in the LDSmobile (FYI, I got my $100 bucks back) and bought a new car, a Honda. It's roomy, economical, and best yet, provides excellent forward vision and handling. What's more, a bigger chair has replaced my old desk chair and he and I can sit together comfortably, with room to spare. 

So for now, when life gets difficult and we need a place to feel safe, both the car and chair are a perfect Fit. :)

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