WARNING: do not read if details about tooth problems give you collywobbles.
When I turned 21, my father took me out to dinner and gave me a piece of Fatherly Advice: take care of your teeth. This was more heartfelt even than it might have been, since Dad had, for about 20 years, neglected his teeth, and the bill, in every imaginable sense, had recently come due.
I inherited many sterling qualities from my parents. I don’t know which one gifted me with my teeth (I suspect my father, but he never copped to it) but they are the gift that keeps on giving me grief and taking my money. I am sitting in a Starbucks right now, weighing in on the chances that I can get an appointment with my dentist tomorrow morning. It says something about the state of my mouth that I cannot remember which root canal this will be (if that is, indeed, what I’m looking at) because I lost count after twelve, and that was a few ago.
I am not neglectful of my teeth. I brush and rinse and Do All The Things (okay, I’m weak on flossing because floss gets caught in all my crowns). But every dentist I’ve had in the last thirty years more or less looks in my mouth, shakes her head, and says “I’m so sorry.” One went so far as to tell me that, tooth-wise, I had gotten the fuzzy end of the genetic lollipop. Two sets of braces, mumble-ty root canals (the first when I was twelve and facing down my first set of braces), three implants (one because a tooth that had been root-canaled a couple of decades earlier developed an abscess which I did not feel because there was no nerve…). And a double-handful of dentists, orthodontists, and occasional dental surgeons. I am a well-trained patient, as you can imagine, and can keep my mouth open for an astonishingly long time.
My first dentist, Elias Karnoff, had an office on Washington Square North, and played WQXR in the waiting room. This is how I learned to love classical music. I got very familiar with the sound of the drill, the stab of needles bearing novocaine, the sight of Dr. Karnoff’s very hairy forearms. When you’re seven and a grown man’s forearms are two inches from your nose, it leaves an impression. I can’t remember the name of my first orthodontist, a round, bustling woman; I do remember that her receptionist was named Hanne. When we moved to Massachusetts from New York City, I couldn’t have braces long distance, so off they came.
I got my second sent of braces in college, which involved surgery to find and put a lasso around a tooth lodged in the roof of my mouth, to slowly tug it into place. My orthodontist was fascinated by the fact that I was a theatre major, and therefore gave me clear brackets for a while–in time for my star turn as Mrs. Peachum in Threepenny Opera; he even came to see the show, but apparently spent the whole evening looking at my mouth (“Sarah Bernhardt!” he exclaimed on my next visit. “You were great! The brackets didn’t show!”). This second set of braces led, accidentally, to another root canal: in order to put the bands on they had sawed through a double crown at the back of my mouth. “Won’t that cause a problem”, I asked. “Nah,” they said. They were wrong.
At this point I am pretty zen about my teeth. I get checkups, follow instructions, and mostly am okay (I did faint once and break off an upper incisor–the left hand partner to the one which is giving me grief today, but that could happen to anyone). We are fortunate to have dental insurance, which moves these things from catastrophic to merely horrible. So I will go in to see the dentist tomorrow morning (yes! they made a space for me!) and follow directions. In the meantime, there’s always Ibuprofen.