Robert’s review: Grit your teeth, a biting good story.
I sat in the dentist’s chair and cautiously opened wide. This felt like a moment of great trust—that the vaccine would surely keep me from harm and the person cleaning my teeth would do a thorough job considering how long it had been since my last visit. I was holding over a year’s worth of pandemic tension in my body and, cradled in the confines of the chair, I felt like this was the right time to finally let it go. Tracey, the dental hygienist, was helpful, speaking about things other than my teeth as she scraped away at more than a year’s worth of tartar and anxiety.
During the pandemic, I decided to put off going to the dentist. Of course, like everyone else, I had no idea how long that wait would be. A year and a half, it turns out. With the current low rates of infection and my own vaccination confidence, I made an appointment. I could not remember exactly where the office was located, but I thought I might recognize the building if my dentist was still on the same street. I did, and was elated I didn’t have to drive what I considered too far and then have to turn around and view everything from the opposite, unfamiliar, direction until I found it, which would only intensify the stress I was feeling over this visit.
I tend to my teeth religiously. My mother lost most of her teeth at a young age and had full dentures in her twenties. I never saw her without her dentures until the end of her life. Remembering her dental woes, I take good care of my teeth with daily brushing and flossing and regular checkups. That is, until 2020 wreaked its havoc, and COVID made me leery of allowing someone to breathe contagion over my open maw. I doubled down on plowing that toothbrush across my teeth, seeking out the nooks and crannies around the back molars and over the surfaces top and bottom. I tried a plaque rinse and experimented with different types of floss. Who knew there was so much variation? I was determined to keep my teeth in good working order, scouring away at them with my bamboo toothbrush with all the thoroughness and exuberance of preparing for a first date.
Tracey inspected my mouth, probably anticipating the full-on horror story of missed cleanings. She noted the gum recession around some of my teeth and asked if I had a habit of clenching my jaw. Tension? In the jaw? Does she even know me? She doesn’t actually, so yes, I confessed I sometimes hold tension, though I do specific exercises meant to release the muscular contractions surrounding the jawline. Plus, meditation designed to relax my entire body and circus-like mind.
As she gently water-blasted away the plaque and tartar in residence on my neglected chompers, we fell into a comfortable silence. It was the gentlest cleaning I had ever had in the dentist chair. I was consequently startled when she apologized for having to be a little more rigorous than usual with the scrubbing equipment during my long past-due cleaning. As she reached for a metal tool, I wondered instead if she was actually expressing remorse for what was about to go down. When I saw the medieval scraping implements, I braced a bit, but in comparison with past ordeals, her rendering of the manual-scraping process produced minimal whimpering on my part. Her previous comment made me wonder if my gums were bleeding but I was not to know this as water and any possible blood were sucked away by the suctioning air hook.
We took a break while she fished out the floss. I stared down the chair to the sight of my shoes and wondered how on earth the tops of my shoes got so dirty. I asked Tracey if she ever wondered what her patients were thinking as she rummaged around in their mouths. She answered by stating she often wondered if the patient ever wondered what she was thinking about. I felt a stab of panic with this answer as she began threading the waxy string in between my teeth. Surely her mind stayed concentrated on the task at hand. Her thoughts were, professionally speaking, not permitted to wander about in the minutia of her private life while completing mouth-invading procedures on her patients. I inwardly chided myself over this obviously hopeful bit of thinking. How many mouths were stared into during the course of her day? The mind can only take so many repetitive tasks before it needs a respite. I decided to trust any cerebral wanderings were kept to a minimum and professional attention was full and center at the appropriate moments.
As we waited for the dentist to arrive, Tracey shared a story about a patient who was a minister. He asked if she had a spiritual home and she answered yes. As she clanged instruments about in his gaping muzzle, she described her church as open and affirming, in short, a liberal-minded congregation. He prudently waited for the removal of metal objects from his mouth and the completion of her invasive tasks to explain all the reasons she had made the wrong choice. She politely listened, but of course, was not swayed by his dire proclamations as to the condition of her soul. I was touched by her willingness to share this story with me. It changed her status from unknowable dental professional to interesting person I met while hanging out in the dentist office to get my teeth cleaned.
When the dentist arrived, I was reminded of how young he looks. Anyone in or starting to scratch around the Medicare years might recognize this age-related phenomenon: Every doctor/dentist looks too young for the job. Though I feel rather sheepish about this ageism, I know I’m not alone in this horrifying revelation. Not only do I have my advanced age to give me this perception, I also saw most of the doctors I had in Houston for many years and we grew old together. Though my Asheville dentist has no gray hairs to qualify him, I advanced his age in my mind to what is probably closer to the real number and was able to restore my confidence in him. I’m certain this is a practice I will need to perfect over the coming years.
Then there is the bad news. I need to see a periodontist. I had to look it up in the dictionary, where the word disease hopped out at me. I suppose it should not be so surprising given my family history of crummy teeth. Tracey asked if I used a heavy hand when brushing–rigorous application of the brush being the bad guy here. It seems my previous attentions were a bit heavy handed. I got a lesson in physics by way of holding the brush at the very end so as to avoid maniacal pressure at the gums. Something like bathing a baby vs. scrubbing road tar off my car. Of course, I’m not happy about this diagnosis, but grateful I can see to its alleviation, whatever form that eventually takes.
As I was preparing to leave, I told Tracey I write a blog about life’s wondrous experiences, and this little chapter deserved a mention. She asked how she could find it online. I got her permission to use her real first name and assured her my readership is limited to family and friends. She grabbed my referral for the periodontist and asked if I wanted to set up my next appointment. This visit-ending ritual seemed ordinary and mundane, a natural order in dental office happenings, which prompted a feeling of familiarity and comfort. I was relieved that this long-postponed task could be checked off my list of long-postponed tasks. So, with clean teeth and the phone number for the periodontist, I joyfully considered the way in which life was slowly getting back to some fashion of normal. I drove home with the sunroof open and the radio blasting.
Next stop Haircut,
Guest Editor Robert had no choice but to visit the dentist during the worst of the pandemic. I admired his courage and of course, his teeth are lovely.