“Man, it’s cold in here. Can we turn the air off?”
“Where should I put my stuff? I suppose you won’t let me read a book while we do this . . . ?
On the counter is fine. And, no.
“I’m never going to finish that book anyway. I’ve been reading it for weeks and I just can’t seem to find the last page.”
I’ve read books like that.
I’ll turn on the Cubs then . . . listen along.”
Whatever makes you comfortable.
Small talk makes me comfortable. When I’m nervous as hell, about to tear down some scabrous pathway with no clear end in sight, I talk. So I chat up Courtney. Colorful Courtney. Today she’s wearing scrubs of a color nestled somewhere between the petals of a late-Summer sunflower and an orange sherbet Push Up. She’s a dental assistant from the area who went to school in the same town where I spent my freshman year in high school. She was a toddler back then. She lives where I used to work . . . before I was laid off. She’s sad to hear about that. She marvels at how small the world is. And she’s probably tired of talking. But she keeps smiling – preparing all the tools and suction hoses and gauze pads and syringes and vial after vial after vial of Novocain, all the shade of urine and resembling those little glass tubes of free cologne I used to get at J. C. Penney – and never lets on.
Eventually Dr. E. comes in to numb up my lower jaw. He prods deep with his long Q-Tips and then goes for the nerves, moving the needle around, stopping to reload several times. I can’t help thinking of Bill Cosby’s bit about dentists. How they dig around as your mouth is gaping wide and try to engage in their own small talk. “Ever do any fishing?” I’m spared the humor; Dr. E. is all business. After a few minutes he leaves me to my Cubs game. I go numb while he is next door making impressions of another patient’s smile.
So this is it. Yet another point of no return. I haven’t let it hit me that way just yet but the thought is festering in the back of my mind, clawing its way to the front with an agitated determination that will defeat my denial eventually. It always does. Meanwhile the Cubs break it open in the 5th scoring six runs. It’s exciting to watch. Even pitching phenom Carlos Zambrano gets a hit, a double to right that almost goes over the wall. I miss Harry Carey. I get bummed when I realize I’m watching a rebroadcast of last night’s game. This is yesterday’s excitement for millions and here I am cheering. The belated fanboy. Like the outcome of the game depends on my fist pumping and mumbled rally chants. Figures.
Dr. E. is back and he and Courtney have donned their masks, wheeled up their stools, tilted me back, pointed their strobe light and limbered up. Let’s do this! I think to myself, a weak attempt at bravado, and I open my mouth and close my eyes. Find a happy place. He pokes. “Can you feel that?” I shake my head, very gently, side to side . . . Nope. “How about that.” Nope. So he goes to work. I hear the scraping. Feel the pressure in my jaw but feel no pain. Even as he grabs a tooth and starts wrenching my head side to side. I strain my neck to keep my head buried on the sturdy blue pillow and try not to give in and move with each tug. I hear a tiny crack, like a lone, distant firecracker. My neglected tooth offers little resistance, giving easily to implements made of steel. A little suction, some gauze, a stitch. And then on the next tooth.
A prescription for Vicodin and Amoxicillin and an instruction sheet basically telling me to get some rest.
I pause at the mirror mounted on the wall next to the receptionist’s desk as I head out to meet my wife and youngest daughter. I smile weakly. My temporary dentures are already stained with blood and make my mouth feel way too small. I gag slightly at all the gauze. Then I slam my mouth shut, cover it all up with a cheap and reeking paper towel and head to the van for the unbearably long drive to Walgreens.
I catch a few glimpses of myself in the visor mirror as we drive. I’m at a loss for words. The sun has gone down, I’m freezing cold and I feel like shit. And I cry. Not gentle sobs but the kind of crying that rocks the van. The hopelessness that I imagined would come once I welcomed and walked past that point of no return is here, and it is brutal. I am not strong. I pity myself and hate myself and take no comfort in the fact that it’s over. I let my anger and bitterness embrace me and shake me.
And eventually it passes. My pity party comes to an end when my daughter places her hand on my shoulder and tells me it’ll be alright. Even as she betrays her fear and uncertainty with her pouty eyes, I sense a strength in her that is almost physical. I let it in and hug her, accepting her cute little offering of hope and fanning it with what small amount of my own I can muster. At the end of this day, even a little hope is a good thing.
(Photo credit: I found the picture used above here and include it in lieu of my own, alarmingly similar x-rays, which remain sequestered away in a folder deep in the bowels of Aspen Dental. The photo is credited to davescunningplan. Some rights reserved.)