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Teachable Moment


It wasn’t the sentence “I screwed up” that made my blood run cold so much as how it was said.
Heir 2 has always been a forthright kind of guy who is perfectly willing to admit to mistakes, so he’s used the sentence many times before. Only this time there was a waver in the voice and not a shred of irony or sarcasm.
I did that quick inventory of his person that, after 15 years, I can complete in an instant. Limbs all accounted for, no blood spurting, eyes clear, lungs working. Okay. Now we listen.
He’d been taking one last lap on our new four-wheeler, purchased for our soils business for Dirtman to carry equipment to sites with no access. I had been reluctant to allow our son to use the vehicle. But Dirtman, knowing the heady seduction of a motor to a teenager three months from his learner’s permit, convinced me he would be safe and responsible. So he was permitted to ride the ATV down our driveway and back and to our pond and back, but not before hours of lectures on safety and responsibility. And I do mean hours.
“I know you told me not to go too fast . . .”
Well, you know the rest.
We went to tell Dirtman. “Dad, I screwed up. . .”
I watched my husband do the same inventory, with the added question of, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I did almost flip over the handlebars, but I pulled back onto the seat. But the four-wheeler…it’s really messed it up.”
Dirtman is not known for his patience, so Heir 2 and I were both prepared for the inevitable explosion, which rumbled all the way to the site of the accident where it came to an abrupt stop.
Poised at the edge of an embankment, the vehicle was inches from continuing onto the jagged rocks below. “I did almost flip over the handlebars. . .”
“You could have been killed,” Dirtman said tensely, more to himself than to Heir 2 or me.
Heir 2, his voice tense and thin: “I know.”
There are times in parenting when you know that what you do next is one of the most important decisions you will ever have to make concerning that child. These are also usually the most emotional times when you really want to tend to your own feelings. To hell with this kid who’s giving you all this worry and gray hair and probably ulcers, you want to scream, hit him upside the head, lock him in his room, feed him chicken soup, hug him, smack him and, mostly, not allow him to drive anything until he’s 37 or you’re dead.
One of God’s little ironies.
“So now you know,” I said.
“Know what?” my son asked.
“You’re not immortal.” I said the memento mori again, looking him straight in the eye to make sure it sunk in. “You are not immortal.”
I am always grateful for teachable moments, though I have to add this time I would have preferred a less traumatic one. Though I don’t know that there is gentle way to teach mortality.
“I’m never driving that thing again,” Heir 2 informed me that night, a statement with which his father, now back to a vociferous rant, was in full agreement.
After later discussion, though, we realized he has to drive “that thing” again. The problem had not been with “that thing,” and there is, therefore, no reason to fear it. And he needs to prove that to himself.
Then finally, after all the rants and promises had died down, I could be thankful that apparently the Universe has other plans for my son, at least for today.
That’s the only guarantee we ever get anyway.

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