Monday, December 21, 2015

Day of Reckoning

Does the Tooth Fairy bring change to grownups?
All I Want for Christmas Is a New Front Tooth

On the first day of Christmas vacation 2015, I shivered in a dentist’s chair, trying not to throw up. The day I had been dreading for more than 23 years—the day my right front tooth had to go—was finally here. And I was foolish or hubristic enough to think I could handle the extraction without nitrous oxide.

I listened to the swishes and whirrs and slurps, trying to ignore the dentist as he wrenched and tugged and clawed at my tooth. My mind wandered back to the last day of class my sophomore year in college, when I lost the tooth the first time. It was late afternoon, and the sun was setting in flaming pinks and golds over the mountains as I returned exhausted but happy from an 18-mile spring bike ride up Provo Canyon. As I leaned in to hop onto the curb in front of Stan’s Drive-In on Ninth Street, I realized too late I was going too fast.

I wish I could say I don’t remember the next few seconds, but I do. As my front tire clipped the curb, I soared over the handlebars, connecting jaw-first with the gravelly pavement. When I came to rest, I lay still for a moment, noting strange and somehow significant patterns in the pink tinged cotton ball clouds above my head. Then I tasted salt. My hand, when it touched my lip, dripped bright blood.

“Are you okay? Are you okay?” A crowd had gathered around me. One of Stan’s employees handed me a towel as I gingerly tried to sit up. At least my neck wasn’t broken. But I couldn’t talk. A young man helped me into his car and offered to take me to the school clinic. When we got there, the intake nurse took one look at me and said, “Take her to the hospital. Now.”

The hospital was a blur. The triage nurse kept calling me the wrong name, and I couldn’t correct her. My roommates came as soon as they learned the news—a police officer had been called to the scene and took my bike home. My fiancĂ©e showed up a few hours later. The ER doctor ordered x-rays and after studying them, told me it could have been much worse; instead of a snapped spine or a traumatic brain injury, I had a broken jaw, a broken chin, and several loose or broken teeth, one of which was lodged in my lower lip. He told me I’d need surgery to set things right, and he suggested that I have general anesthesia, though that would mean taking incompletes in my classes, since I wouldn’t be able to take final exams the next day.

“Let’s do local anesthetic,” I wrote on a notepad. I’d worked too hard that semester. Five hours later, I regretted my decision, but I was stable—my lip and chin sewn shut, and my jaw wired together. I don’t remember my finals, though apparently I passed them.

A week later, I was home recuperating—without a ring on my finger. Though my heart hurt all summer long, my jaw healed right on schedule. I spent that summer in the dentist’s chair, having some of the strangest one-sided conversations of my life as he applied crowns and esthetics to my shattered mouth. My dentist then was an evangelical Christian, and since he knew I was majoring in Greek, he would ask me all kinds of questions about New Testament things like kaire (loosely, “grace”) and hamartia (loosely, “sin”), to which I would reply, my mouth stuffed with wads of cotton, “Hmahnt mah hmmnn.”

The dentist wasn’t able to save my soul, but with a root canal and some fancy polymer tricks, he did save that front tooth. “You’ll probably get ten years out of this, tops,” he told me. “It was in pretty bad shape.”

Twenty-three years later, I feel like I definitely got my money’s worth out of that tooth. I wish I could say the same for my first marriage.

When my father would retell the story of my bike accident, he would say, “It was a miracle. God caused the pavement to rise up and save you from getting married to the wrong man.”

I don’t know if it was God who caused my bike accident. But I do know my Dad was right—I was good at a lot of things, but choosing to be with men who treated me well was not one of them.

Dad died after a long struggle with cancer a few months after I started graduate school. Before he died, my father did meet J, the man who would become my first husband, at our college graduation, and later, I would imbue my memory of their brief conversation with special significance, just as my father had seen my bike accident a few years earlier as fortuitous.

I don’t blame myself or him. We are all creatures of story, looking for signs in accidents.

Here was the incontrovertible sign (from God, I thought then) that J was meant to be with me: We were missing the same front right tooth. Or rather, he was missing his front right tooth—and mine was barely hanging on, by the grace of God and my dentist.

The missing tooth was one of the first things I knew about the man who would become the father of my children. J was sitting in front of me in a Latin class senior year, and when he turned around to give me one of his brilliant smiles, there was a dark, shocking gap where his tooth should have been. I gasped, then giggled, catching an uncharacteristic glare from our professor, an elderly Mormon classicist who called us his “Greeklings” and once told a colleague, in my presence, that I was the perfect woman because I baked the most delicious sugar cookies. And also (an afterthought), I could read Greek.

J flipped his artificial tooth back in and smiled innocently, a row of straight, white teeth. After class, he got the conversation he was clearly fishing for. He explained about the tooth—and other things, including his recent divorce.

The fact that he had been married before his senior year of college was not all that shocking. This was Brigham Young University, after all, where every sidewalk crossing and Sunday School class was a potential opportunity to find your eternal companion. But the divorce had made him an almost a legendary figure among my starry-eyed schoolmates.

How bad must his marriage have been, if it had ended so quickly?

The story, like many of his stories, was truly tragic. He was clearly a victim. His first wife was a monster. And since I had come too close for comfort to a similar fate, escaping only at the last moment through God’s miraculous jaw-breaking, tooth-loosening intervention, I was sympathetic.  

Many years later, when he started to tell the same kinds of stories about me, I was less inclined to think of J’s first wife as a monster. It was more complicated than that.

My marriage to J was perfect, right up until it wasn’t. “We never disagree,” he would tell our friends when they asked our secret.

“It is important to compromise in marriage,” I would tell myself.

And we did agree, about many, many things. When we didn’t, I quickly learned to be quiet. That’s what I meant by “compromise.”

I rarely thought about my tooth during those years. Contrary to my dentist’s doomsday predictions, it didn’t give me a bit of trouble at the ten year mark. There were plenty of other troubles that year though. J was fired. We moved to Idaho, away from our family and friends. I struggled with depression and a child with severe behavioral problems.

In 2008, I lost my faith and my marriage, in quick succession.  

A few years later, I was surprised and humbled to find myself in love with the most unlikely person for me: a man who treats me well. He’s from New Jersey. His teeth are fine, and I take that as a sign of nothing more (and nothing less) than good oral hygiene habits through the years.

Shortly after I married for the second time, my new dentist gave me some bad news: my front tooth was in trouble. He couldn’t tell me how long I had, and it was just before my book tour, so we made a fake tooth flipper “just in case.”

“We wouldn’t want you to have to go on Dr. Oz with a broken tooth,” he laughed. I thought it was somewhat ironic that I would be talking about mental illness, an invisible disability, but that people would be much less likely to listen to me or take me seriously if I were missing my front tooth.

My front tooth lasted another year. Then one morning in late November, I woke up with a mouthful of blood, and that day, I decided I’d had enough. I called my dentist and scheduled the tooth extraction.

As with most reckoning days, the anticipation has proven far worse than the actual experience. Besides, as I left the dentist’s office, I found a penny. Later that day, my husband texted me a picture of a double rainbow. And I found my favorite windmill necklace that has been missing for a year.

I may be missing a tooth. But I’m lucky. I’m not missing much else.

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Frank Maui said...

I hope the best with you and your son. I watched a video "mind of a rampage killer" and felt your struggle from within. I hope things are going much better for your son. I noticed you indicate that you live in Boise, Idaho.

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I dedicated this page to susan. Maybe someday in the future your son will dedicate a page for you...your efforts will not be in vain.

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