Whack-a-Molar (May 9, 2014)

During the summer of 1984, at six years old, I experienced a second life-changing event that would forever alter the course of my personal history. The first such moment arrived in August 1980 with the birth of my younger sister Jennifer, a gift that felt very much mine, then as now. I took immediate responsibility for the baby, though I was barely two years old, pushing her stroller and introducing her to folks as “MY sister Jennifer.” Without conscious awareness, I established a dynamic that persisted more or less until Jenny met and married her wonderful husband: “When (other kids/our parents/the world) hurt and fail you, you’ve got me. I’ll do anything I can to make it better.”

This second transformative event was of a more tragic variety. The summer morning started simply enough: Jenny and I bumming around our grandparents apartment in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago, watching Sesame Street. Grover and some of the other puppets appeared in a segment called “Let’s All Exercise,” a worthy piece of child propaganda responding to the early 1980s home fitness craze and its ambassadors such as Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda. As you can tell from the hyperlink, I found an upload of this bit on YouTube. I watched just enough of it to ascertain that it was the segment I sought, but I couldn’t bear to sit through the whole thing.

For it was during this bit that Jenny and I began to jump around the living room boisterously, as kids of six and four need little encouragement to do. Before the end of the two minute, 20 second clip, there was an accident that left me face first in the living room radiator. Quite immediately, I lost several teeth. There was a lot of blood. There was crying. But mostly, there was pain and shock.

At the time of the incident, I had but one adult tooth and it was spared. However, several baby teeth were gone and the impact of the fall dislodged many others in the ensuing months. Most of the adult teeth that were to replace them were a long time coming, and when they arrived, they often did so unanchored by neighbors. The result was a irregular mess that followed me throughout grade school, high school, college and most of my 20s.

I’ve not-so-subtly written about the neglectful parentage experienced by Jenny and I, and so it was at the age of 25, I found myself with four impacted, rotting wisdom teeth, a wildly disjointed set of chompers and a huge dearth of self-esteem. By that point, my teeth had been a subject of peer torture and private shame for nearly two decades. I ran from cameras. I covered my mouth when I laughed. I avoided any situation, even ones in which I very much wanted to participate, where I would be judged by my appearance. I knew how I looked.

Now an adult with my own job, and more importantly, my own dental and orthodontic insurance, the wisdom teeth, a general health ticking time bomb, were removed. For the next two years, I had cavities filled, deep cleanings and started paying more attention to my oral health in general. Finally at the age of 29, I broke down in tears as another transformative event occurred: braces. I was de-bonded in January on 2010 at the age of 31, literally a new woman. One who could stand to look in the mirror for the first time in 25 years.

Throughout the long-running oral health misery that consumed my youth, I had but one variable of pride: those adult teeth may have grown in askew, but they were all mine. I’d never had one pulled (many who receive orthodontic care lose a tooth or two to make space for the others), a root canal, a bridge, crown – you get the idea. Before the braces were put on, my long-time dentist was fond of saying, “Honey, you have beautiful teeth. They’re just so crowded.”

It took a couple years to break old habits. Reflexively a hand would fly to my mouth when I laughed or smiled, though it was no longer necessary. I had to retrain my brain to comprehend that it was quite alright to show my pearly whites at picture time. It was a new world and I was loving it. I was me again, a grown version of the self-confident little girl I’d left planted in a radiator.

Early last week on a quiet Tuesday night, I was sitting upright in my bed, watching TV and snacking on some frozen almonds. I bit into one awkwardly and heard a sickening crack that, although painless, could not have been the crunching of the nut. I spit into my hand and alongside the shards of almond that emerged lay a big old piece of tooth, rear molar to be more precise.

I made an immediate call to my dentist and am in possession of solid insurance coverage. While certainly foolish and annoying (Whose idea was it to freeze those almonds anyway?), anyone else might have been cool. As I said, there was no physical pain. Instead however, a palpable physical dread set in. There were tears and the first words that came to mind, “Here we go again.”

The splintered molar of 2014 had very little in common with the dental debacle of 30 years prior. I’m an adult now, capable of arranging care and figuring out how to pay for it. $350 and two hours later, I’m wearing a temporary crown. The permanent porcelain one will be placed next week. Not a huge deal in the grand scheme. Yet there I was in Dr. Shahin’s chair, reading the loss of that tooth as both a personal failing and a harbinger of things to come. I’m only going to get older. More teeth may be replaced. The brief four-year run with perfectly straight, original adult ivories was over. I was angry and sad to an unexpected degree.

Then I realized that it was not 35 year-old Becky for whom I mourned. The delayed grief was for that helpless six year-old who experienced a quarter century’s worth of humiliation and torture because of one arbitrary, avoidable event. With a mouth half-dead from the effects of Novocaine, I said aloud, “A cracked almond is not a radiator.” I repeated it again, and again and again.

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