Smarter Than an Ox

My son D. told me at one point this spring that he is, on average, 82 percent correct. Every time he knows something I don’t, or knows how to use technology that I fumble over, he claims his percentage is increasing (and mine is clearly decreasing—although neither of us has attempted to quantify what mine might be).

Still, I’m the adult and he’s the kid, and at 13, he has a lot to learn. I surpass him in emotional intelligence (and humility). I’ve been trying to expand his ability to empathize and to teach him basic sensitivity skills in order to prepare him for the fast-approaching world of true love (I’m sure his first girlfriend will appreciate it—she can thank me later).

I was recently packing to head to a conference in Dallas for a few days, and so I said to him at the end of our phone conversation, very enthusiastically, “I love you!”

And he responded—“Night.”

So I said, “I love you,” again, louder this time.

And he said, a little louder, “Night”!

If my mother were still alive, she would have said, “D., you can be so obstinate!”

So I asked him, “What is your hang-up with saying ‘I love you’? What if my plane crashes tomorrow and you will be left the rest of your life with not having said it?”

If nothing else works, I go for the guilt.

“I dunno,” he said. “It’s uh….it’s political or something.”

“Political”? I laughed. “It’s emotional, not political. Do you know why it’s important to me that we say ‘I love you’ to each other?”

“No,” he said. He sounded like he really didn’t want to know.

“Well, I grew up in a house where we didn’t say ‘I love you’ to each other. Ever. We knew we loved each other, but we never would say it. And so when my mom was sick and dying, it felt weird to say it to her. And even now with Bapop in the nursing home, every time I leave him, I want to say it. But it feels awkward because it’s just not part of our family’s usual conversation. And I don’t want it to ever be that way with us.”

“Oh,” he said.

There was a long pause.

“How about if I say XOXO”? he asked.

I laughed. “Well, that could work…if we agree that’s what it means. Although XOXO really means hugs and kisses.”

“How about XO? Maybe I will just say XO.”

“That works for me, I said. “As long as we both know what it means, I don’t really care,” I said.

“Okay. Actually, I will say ‘OX.’ How about that?”

I smiled. “I love you, D.,” I said.

“OX,” he said back.

A few days later, while I was still in Dallas, I told D. over the phone that we were going to a hoedown at Eddie Deene’s ranch. We were dressed in our best cowboy gear, ready for a Texas BBQ and to do some line dancing and to practice calf-roping on a fake calf. I told D. there was also going to be a mechanical bull.

“You should ride it,” he said.

“Oh, I don’t think so.”

“You should!” D. was always encouraging me to step out. He knew his mother—that I was more likely to stand back and admire everyone else doing it.

“We’ll see,” I said. 

I didn’t end up riding the mechanical bull at Eddie Deene’s. But they had a real texas longhorn named Gus that you could sit on for an authentic Texas picture. So I climbed up a stepstool with the help of a cowboy and cowgirl, sat on Gus’s back, and held tight as he heaved forward. I knew D. would be impressed; my friends and I decided it sounded a lot scarier getting on a real bull instead of a mechanical one. 

A few minutes later, I texted D. a pic, simply labeled “Me and Gus.”

D. immediately texted me back: “Good for you.”

I laughed. I wasn’t sure if D. could see that Gus was real, and not mechanical. It was kind of hard to tell by the picture—with Gus’s big horns and wide body, he actually looked fake. I had to clarify, just to make sure.

“Gus was real,” I wrote, “Not mechanical.”

“Yea,” he texted back. I could tell he was proud.

I went to get a lemonade. I was thirsty after all that riding. When I came back to the table, I had received another text.

“Funny…” D. had written. “You were sittin on an OX.”

*     *     *     *     *

I’m sure D. has a few stupid moves ahead of him in the coming adolescent years. There will be times where he’ll forget to study for his biology mid-term. He’ll probably miss a few curfews, and get a few speeding tickets. He might even break up with his first love by texting “I don’t OX you anymore,” on his cell phone. But all in all, I will have done what I can.

In the meantime, I think he’s moved up a percentage point this summer. Maybe we both have.