To Tell the Tooth


I love going to the dentist. Yes, you read that right; check-ups for my choppers have always been my favorite appointments. I realize this puts me in a class by myself. The scraping, the yummy bubble-gum flavored gritty toothpaste, the sparkly water rinsing, the suction cup hooked on the side of my mouth like I’m yesterday’s caught flounder, the flossing – ah, how I adore the flossing, and the measuring of my gum line. The entire experience is a spa day for my mouth. Afterwards, I run my tongue over the inside of my front bottom teeth, feeling the separation between the teeth rather than one long unitooth. And it’s always a shame to desecrate the newly polished finish with that first post-exam meal.

By contrast, for decades, I loathed going to the eye doctor. That puff of air they blew into my eyes to check eye pressure raised my blood pressure significantly. I'd grip the table, put my eye up to that cold black metal Spanish Inquisition device and tell myself, Don’t flinch. I jumped every time, without fail. I'm sure my ophthalmologist was quite exasperated by the fifteenth attempt. That and the fact that I pushed the wheeled table into his ribs. A few years ago, my general medicine doctor tried to put drops in my eyes. I sat perched on his examination table, thinking this would go well since I was no longer three years old. Next thing I knew, my feet were on his chest as I catapulted him across the room. I was as shocked as he was. I made my apologies, and he gamely came back into the ring for another round.

But sitting in that cool recliner at the dentist held no fear or anxiety for me. No big deal; I always got an A+. Had there been a Dental Hygiene section on the SAT, I would have scored 1600 and attended Harvard. I was teacher’s pet of the dental world.

Then, I bore a child.

Fourteen months of glorious motherhood flew by; it was past time for my biannual cleaning and exam. I showed up for my next appointment with plenty of photos of my baby to show off. I was beaming, and soon, my choppers would beam too.

All was going as planned. I was relishing my break in the Mommy Time-Out Chair as the hygienist worked her magic.

Then, it was time. The grand finale equivalent to getting a sticker to wear on my shirt on my way home. The doctor came in to give her glowing report. After gazing into my mouth, her brow furrowed. I thought perhaps it was a bit of indigestion from her breakfast that morning. Or maybe she remembered she left the stove on at home.

"Okay, well, I see a couple of spots we need to fill," she said in her melodious tone that I had previously thought was beautiful.

She was not following her dentist script, and I was confused by her new language. Spots. What does she mean by spots? She didn’t say holes, she said spots; and you cannot fill a spot. So spots are better than holes. I was sure she meant something preventative – something to put on my teeth so there would never be holes.

I raised my bewildered face to hers and ever so eloquently blurted, "What? Filled? What?"

"You have two cavities."

Ringing started in my ears. Suddenly my head was swimming in a lake of tooth decay, and I heard myself scream, "Cavities?! What? I have cavities? How did this happen?"

I saw her reach for the bright red button under the counter. Security was on the way.

"They are really tiny. Just two of them." Just two of them. As in “just two nuclear explosions,” “just two scorpions in your bed,” “just two more hours of your life left.”

"Two of them? Two? How did this happen? Are you sure?"

Dr. Dentist indulged me with a smile as I questioned her competence as well as her vision, "It's okay. These things happen, and we'll take care of it."

"It's not okay. My dad is 75 years old and has never had a cavity; I've never had a cavity. I was never going to have one!" She had foiled my plans.

Suddenly, my thoughts drifted to my little darling at home. Aha! That was it! "Is this because I had a baby? Really? He sucked out all of my memory cells and my calcium too!"

I was no longer rational. Nine months of heartburn. Two months of throwing up every day at 2 p.m. Twenty-four hours a day of breastfeeding, diaper-changing, laundry, and Elmo. Twenty-five pounds gained. And my reward was two more holes in my head.

The cavities in my mouth were filled, but the cavern in my soul never recovered. I failed to honor my father’s family crest as well as the empty tube of Crest on my bathroom counter. I had been the only hope for carrying on Dad’s exceptional dental heritage. My brother, Doc, didn’t even come close. Finally, I’d had one up on him. Oh, sure, he has a larger vocabulary and knows more trivia, but I’d had all my teeth intact. Then, I dropped the baton. I switched to an electric toothbrush and never again heard that horrid word “cavity” from my dentist. Until the next year, when a third one popped up. In the same way I referred to my 20-pound weight gain as “baby fat” when Cowboy was three, I held my son accountable for this last blow to my psyche.

But I kept my child. Although I blamed him for my entire fall from grace, our bond was stronger than resin composite.

Recently I recalled the trauma with my dentist and laughed about it. The passing of time put a few craters in perspective. I reminisced “…and I was so devastated when I had those cavities because Cowboy had sucked the life out of my teeth in utero.”

“Oh, well, that’s not really true,” the mistaken dentist explained. “A lot of people think that; the baby does not take calcium from the teeth.”

“I always heard it was the calcium lost during pregnancy because of the baby.” I guess even dentists can be wrong, I thought.

“No - changes in dental hygiene, changes in diet during pregnancy. You’re tired; you may not be as diligent. Flossing less.”

She was blaming me. Me. The tooth freak. Clearly her concern for the truth was lacking; her opinion was a bit skewed.

“Seriously? Um, no. No. All the parenting things I’ll get blamed for later when Cowboy is grown? All the reasons it’s my fault he’ll be in therapy? Doctor, I finally found something to blame on him, and you’re telling me he’s innocent? I have enough mother’s guilt without adding 28 more enamel-covered reasons.” My four wisdom teeth were removed long ago, in no way diminishing my wisdom, but decreasing my tooth count to 28. “No way. He’s taking the fall for this one,” I insisted.

She wore a “poor thing is in perpetual denial” smile; I flashed my “you can’t handle the truth” grin. I still see her biannually, of course. She is a lovely, misguided person.

Now, dear reader, you may google to check my facts. But be cautious. After all, truth is not measured by research and the concurrence of many professionals in a field of study. Rather, the best yardstick for truth is a knowing, desperate, guilt-ridden mother’s heart.