Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Short in the Tooth

Head thrown back in deep laughter, I careened through the playground. A fireman's pole stopped me and knocked me on my butt. "Your tooth!" my friend gasped. When she looked at me in horror, I stopped laughing. My right front tooth had broken in half. I was ten.

My childhood dentist attached a wonky bottom half that lasted for years and years, but the tooth eventually died, and after college, I had to have a root canal and a crown. My young adulthood dentist was a few months from retiring and felt his experience qualified him to perform the surgery himself. He was wrong. About six months after the root canal, the front of my mouth ached, and pain crackeled up my face each time I bit down. The root canal had abcessed and I needed another one.

This time in an oral surgeon's chair, my head thrown back in discomfort, I sat through his exclamations. "Oh my god, there's so much drainage. That's a horrible infection." He brought in other staff members to raise their eyebrows over the puss that dripped from my tunneled tooth while I watched their faces react to my own pain. After the show, he packed up the canal and stuck on a crown. I lived with that crown for almost twenty years.

By 2017, age had lengthened my teeth or shortened my gums, whichever way you want to look at it, and the blackened stump of my root canaled tooth began to be visible, so it was time for a new crown. My current dentist sent me to a lab downtown behind a dingy door that opened to Italian marble and wide skylights. The lab technicians had already made a model of my tooth, and they fitted it in my mouth to double check the shade; when they weren't satisfied, they murmered to each other and painted on glaze, firing and fitting it several times, until I ended up with a lovely crown, as pearly and fitted physically and aesthetically to my mouth as one born to me. Finally, my front teeth gave me the smile I had missed for decades.

On Monday, February 24th, I treated myself to a dried peach for dessert. I bit down. I bit neither pit nor a particularly tough piece of dried peach. No matter, my tooth broke completely off anyway. I howled. Scott turned to check on me and visibly recoiled at my short black stump. That beautiful crown had snapped off, taking most of what was left of my root canaled tooth with it.

The next day, I met with my dentist. She told me the original tooth wasn't salvageable, and I needed a dental implant. She connected me with an oral surgeon specializing in dental implants, and we set a date for the surgery. In the meantime, she put together a makeshift stump on which to attach the old crown, warning me that I couldn't bite down on anything with the front of my mouth, but instead, I could only chew with the sides of my mouth. She told me I would be lucky if it held together until my surgery date, March 17th.

On March 16th, Mayor London Breed declared a Shelter-in-Place order for San Francisco. The dental surgeon called that afternoon and canceled the appointment until the order was lifted.

So far, the crown has held on. I eat everything with a knife and fork. PB&Js? Knife and fork. Celery? Knife and fork. Gorgeous homemade chewy-centered, crunchy-crusted bagels? Forget about 'em—too hard on my tooth even with a knife and fork. Pizza is less pleasant, salads make me nervous, and I don't even bother with chips.

My 12th grade students have watched their longed-for spring semester evaporate: no prom, spring break travel, last minute bonding, graduation trips. My neighborhood restaurants, bars, and shops may lose this battle against the virus and time. My husband sets his jaw each time he drives to work at the psych hospital; each day, more hospital staff tests positive. Members of my friend and family circle have filed for unemployment for the first time in their lives. Students and colleagues have lost family members to the disease. And in the larger community of those unknown to me, thousands of people are losing their closest family members without holding their hands through last breaths, unable to provide the comfort of love. The virus has snatched away what solace the communal grief of a funeral can provide. The economy no longer knows its ass from its pinky.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting in a blue adirondack chair in sunshine and birdsong, writing away part of my day, fretting about whether or not I will still have a front tooth by the time this is all over. Pretty small for a pandemic.

The impossibility to forget the minute concerns of one's life while being swallowed by a worldwide event, the psychological seesaw of petty and profound, that's the Poloroid of this moment that will end up in my album of memory.

What may also end up in a memory album but never an actual one: a picture of my mouth short a front tooth.

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