Dental Care

I wonder if anyone truly remembers when the first teeth crawl through the surface of the gums, pushing their way up with inevitable slowness, unobserved yet impressive, like the growing of redwoods or formation of glaciers. Sometimes I think I do, though I cannot tell if the memories are fabricated. Certainly I remember the homemade brown teething bars my mother baked for me, and I imagine I remember gnawing on them, wearing down the pink tissues of my gums to make way for the tiny white immigrants. I am sure I did not realize then how miraculous and important this oral transformation was, how much I would rely on those teeth to speak, to eat, to chew the ragged edges off my fingernails. When I look back at photographs and see the diminutive pearly chips in my smile, I cannot remember those ever being my teeth. They are too straight and too little. So maybe I do not remember at all. We rarely do remember how important things begin. So much happens slowly beneath the surface. But afterward, we would like to remember how it started, or when, or why, and so we search even when we don’t know what to search for. Sometimes there is no difference between searching and inventing.

*   *   *

I have always been bizarrely fascinated by my own teeth. When I look at myself in the mirror, it is almost always to inspect my smile; the rest of my face is secondary. I am not overly fastidious about them (no more so than I imagine most people probably are). I am simply fascinated by these, our only bones that grow outside of our bodies.

*   *   *

In an age of advanced dental care, it is easy to forget that human teeth are not designed to last much past our 30s. However, if one’s teeth outlast the rest of the body, they can last thousands of years and tell a lot about a person, long after the body’s cells and tissues have disintegrated. Archaeologists can examine the teeth of an ancient skeleton and determine a person’s age at death, diet, and various medical conditions. Even after the soul departs, teeth continue to tell stories.

*   *   *

Dream interpreters say that it is common to dream about one’s teeth rotting out and that this often signifies a problem or part of your life you’d like to ignore but are unable to. I’ve never had this dream. I think I must have too much trouble ignoring.

*   *   *

I dread the dentist similarly to how a Catholic dreads going to confession. There is an unsettling vulnerability to it, worse than stripping down for a doctor. My body I am well aware of; I can see it when I dress myself in the mirror. My teeth I am less aware of, yet somehow they feel more intimate than my skin. They are inside me. There is something uncomfortably critical about the way the dentist probes my teeth with cold metal hooks, searching for cavities, hidden flaws in the crevices. And yet, sitting in the chair with my head tilted back, I wish I could see what the dentist sees. I've eavesdropped eagerly as periodontists grafted gum to my teeth, trying to visualize what must be going on beneath the many layers of novocaine, and I always ask to see my dental X-rays, as though I could make sense of them. I think it is something about the interior invisibility of it. It’s been said that the eyes are the window to the soul. What about teeth?

*   *   *

Strangely, I do not remember losing my first tooth. In fact, I remember more the process of losing my teeth more than the actual extractions. The prodding of the tongue, the alien contours of the underside of a molar, the taste of blood and spongy fraying of the gums. Sometimes the teeth seemed to hang on with impossible resilience. I remember one tooth that was so loose I could twist it all the way around, another that would flap in and out from the suction caused by breathing. My tongue probed the loose teeth obsessively; sometimes I would become irritated by how distracting they could be. Yet I could never willfully remove them. I’m not sure if I was just squeamish or if I was unable to relinquish such a curiosity.

The End

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