My Coat of Arms

Rich gold and velvety black, the wingspan exemplifies its paradoxical promise. The artistry of the swirls and dashes and dots is one no human mind could conceive or hand could etch in so delicate a medium. The wings reach effortlessly to harness the breeze, riding the currents to the next flower. Or at least they would if this beautiful butterfly weren’t plastered to the grill of my oxygen blue MINI Cooper, zipping along a county road toward Gate’s Pass.

I’d never really noticed butterflies until we took Travis for a walk on Mt. Lemmon a few weeks after he’d lost his sight. The butterflies seemed to find and follow him, some even landing briefly on his head and body. They were always brilliant; rich autumn oranges and vibrating blacks, glorious goldenrods, some with royal purples or deep reds. All stunning, all oddly drawn to him. These butterfly sightings continued until his death six months later. We see Travis and his pack often as the lantana near our driveway has thrived this year. We’ve come to associate the butterflies with Travis and believe it’s his way of checking in on us. Each time we have a visit from a vibrant member of Travis’ pack, we say hello to Trav and appreciate the beauty and intricate design of the butterfly itself.

On my way toward an appointment on the other side of the pass, I didn’t know I was ferrying one of Trav’s buddies. I was too busy focusing on where my left foot should be, listening to the rev of the engine, glancing nervously at the tachometer. I’m 45 years old and just now learning to drive a stick. If necessity hadn’t forced my hand, I’d still be driving my steady Subaru Forrester, the comfortable automatic with the point-proving turbo, decorative fur and pervasive dog smell. Needless to say, it hasn’t been a smooth transition to the standard transmission, but I’m getting better.

I’ve been driving Kathy’s MINI for about two weeks and am almost at the point where I no longer dread having to stop the car because I know there a good chance I’ll stall out when I have to start moving again. The clutch and I are beginning to have an understanding, but my right foot and accelerator are still not confident of where they fit in this process. In the wise words of Margo Channing, ” Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

As I motor toward the pass, I’m ignorant to the fact that you can’t climb a 15 degree grade in fourth gear or that once you slow to 15 miles per hour to go around a hairpin curve just prior to said grade, you will lose all power if you don’t downshift into second. The power of hills to drain you of all confidence is a new and terrifying lesson I’m about to learn.

Simple turns were still a bit of a mystery for me. They involve both hands and both feet—right hand on the wheel, left hand tripping the blinker, right foot easing off the gas at just the right moment while the left foot massages the clutch. I was never much of a piano player, the left hand was always a challenge and the pedals were never an option so you can imagine my dread of making a simple right turn.

As I approach the hairpin in fourth gear, I feel good about my eye-hand-foot coordination as I keep the MINI squarely between the lines around the tight bend. Much to my surprise, though, as I exit the curve to the suddenly rising straightaway weaving its way up the incline, the MINI loses power and the tach plummets. I nail the accelerator thinking more gas is the obvious answer. It’s not. The engine whines and chokes to a chilling stall near the base of the incline. I’m tucked behind the scrub trees and bushes that shield this portion of road from oncoming traffic. I’ve stalled out in the blind spot of the curve.

Panicked, I throw the car into neutral and slam on the hazard lights. My feet pushing the clutch and brake through the floorboards, I try the start button. The car fires to life but I kill it again trying the move out of neutral. After a furtive check in the rear view mirror, I try again, this time starting in first. Again, the car comes to life, but again, I kill it with clumsy feet. Trying to calm myself, I rush the gear stick into what I think is first and start it again. Much to my shock as I nail the accelerator and frightfully lurch backward down the hill and into the thin gravel shoulder, I’ve found reverse and not first.

Nearing a full-blown panic attack, I take a quick deep breath, sneak a peek in the mirror and say aloud, “You can do this.” I try again. The engine roars to life, I beg my feet to find that sweet spot where the clutch releases and the accelerator takes hold. The rush of adrenaline wills us forward and up the incline in second gear. A final glance in the mirror reveals a small car just heading into the hairpin as I emerge onto the steep straightaway above.

I arrive at my appointment, sweaty and shaken. I exit the car and take a moment to try and gather myself before I go into the house. As I walk forward, I pause and look back at the car. There on the grill is a perfectly preserved member of Travis’ pack, his gold and black wingspan displayed like a coat of arms, a protective shield.

I’m always happy to have a butterfly riding sentry with me. My dad used to kid me that I had angels working overtime to keep me out of trouble. I guess he wasn’t joking.

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