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.


Unknown said…
This is such a beautiful post… I stumbled across your blog because of a banana, believe it or not. I was trying to ID my impulse purchase (a burro banana) and then understand how to eat/cook it, and I stumbled upon your great post from years ago about your banana plants and your efforts to successfully get them to fruit! Enchanted to learn you are in the Bay (such a seemingly unlikely location for a banana garden) I read more, because I’m in the East Bay, and could use all the tips I can find on how to grow edible plants in this climate!

So that’s the backstory. This post is such a beautiful, perfect snapshot of a strange moment in time– personal and specific, yet universal too. Plus, you included dates which was fantastic, because it meant that as I read about your fateful bite, I knew that was the same day I was having my first day at my new job after moving across the country - how excited, nervous and exhausted I was. And on the day everything closed, and you couldn’t get your tooth mended (yet again - oof! So invested in that awful saga btw), I was negotiating how on earth to work from home when I had nothing but a mattress on the floor because the bed I ordered would take months to finally arrive. It was poignant to see how another stranger in the same city (I was in SF then) was experiencing the same historic moment in such impactful ways. It’s the kind of first-hand account I think history books, if they’ve got any half-decent editors, should surely seek out, to give people in the decades to come, a true sense of the unreality of it all, in the early days. You’re right in that hundreds (and soon, hundreds of thousands of Americans - and over a million worldwide) would die in the months to come, but the day to day still had to go on, in awkward, make-shift, non-ideal ways, as we stood in long serpentine lines that snaked entire parking garages of Costco and Trader Joe’s.

So, just wanted to thank you for sharing your snapshot with us. It’s two years later of course, and still not over, something I never could have even fathomed at the time. Sometimes, I joke that in 2020 we were just hoping for a sign of light at the end of the tunnel. In 2021, we saw the light but as we got closer, it only seemed to get farther away, and at this point in 2022, “I guess we just live in the tunnel now. Might as well hang up some pictures!”

One stranger to another - thank you for sharing with us and I still want to know what finally happened with your tooth. ;)

-Lorrie Guess
Christina said…
Hi Lorrie. So nice to meet you!

In my world, the tunnel is much brighter. I work in a school. We are now fully vaccinated and mask free, regular events are happening, and kids and adults have accepted the risk of a mild illness after vaccination and decided the natural interactions within a community are worth that risk. Life is better.

I did finally get a tooth! It's beatiful and strong.

Regarding bananas: I wrote my posts about my banana grove when I lived in a semi-rural area of southern California. I miss that banana grove. It was beautiful and productive and home to a gorgeous snake. That said, I have neighbors who grow bananas here in the southeast corner of SF, and though they get pretty beaten up looking in the winter, they do produce. And, in the warmer East Bay, you've got a great chance for a productive banana grove. I hope your burro banana grows well for you!

I can tell by your comment that you are an excellent writer as well. Is there a place I can read more of your writing?

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