while in the dentist's chair

I never much mind going to the dentist, which is a good thing since it is pretty much inevitable. That’s not to say it’s my favorite thing in the world, but I’m not afraid of the sinister, steely instruments and gritty hissing of rotary tools and suction hoses, and I’ve never suffered great pain in the chair.

When I was twelve or so I got my bicuspids pulled in preparation for braces. I remember the dentist placing a clear plastic mask over my face telling me to count backwards from 100. I got to ninety-eight before fading into oblivion. After the procedure my mom helped escort me through the back exit so as to spare the waiting room patients the gory sight of my swollen, gauze-packed mouth.

Once I had a root canal without any anesthesia. The dentist was certain the tooth’s nerve had died and that I wouldn’t feel any pain. Knowing that caused me little angst, and thankfully he was right. All I had to endure was the unnerving vibration of the drill and the faint, perhaps imaginary, smell of smoke.

During a visit to the dentist in my mid thirties I do remember crying. I’d been fitted with a putty mould meant to cast a cap for a brittle, dead tooth. I sat there silently with my mouth awkwardly stuffed, as if with an apple, and pondered anesthetics often used to numb pain, then thought of my father. When he was sixty-five he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that someone once described to me as leukemia for old folks. As part of his diagnosis he’d had a core of marrow extracted from his hipbone without the benefit of anesthesia, rendering him sickly pale and drenched in sweat. I’ve no doubt he endured the procedure with the utter stoicism of the Naval Academy graduate that he was. As I imagined that moment of my father’s absolute excruciation, while I sat comfortably reclined in a padded beige chair, I sobbed. The dentist and his assistant, oblivious to the nature of my misery because of my inability to explain through a mouthguard full of rubbery paste, simply, and compassionately, held my hands. I know my father had suffered terribly, yet he kept his feelings under lock and key and granted little to no access to those who might soothe him.

Michael and I take Calvin to the dentist twice a year for check-ups, cleanings and a fluoride varnish. In fact, we were there this morning. He does pretty well, particularly considering he likely has no idea why the heck his mouth is being invaded by a masked man under a strange bright light while we restrain him. We talk him through the entire ordeal hoping he might understand some of what we're saying, “Calvin, the doctor wants to look at your teeth, sweetie ... big open,” and then, “what a good boy!” I’ve heard stories about autistic children fighting tooth and nail only to be put under general anesthesia to tolerate such procedures.

After trips to the dentist I inevitably imagine moments when Calvin has felt his own pain, either from injury or illness. Often we’ve had no way of knowing the source of his misery because he can’t tell us, can’t point to the hurt. How do we—will we—ever know if he has a toothache, a sprained ankle or wrist, a headache, a tummy ache—or worse—appendicitis or a kidney stone?

My girlfriend whose child is also speechless, told me of a time her boy, not known for tantrums, cried and fussed and bawled and no one knew the source of his discomfort. His caregiver assumed it was simple fatigue. His mother got him home and began undressing him. When she pulled his shoe off she found that his toe had been inadvertently, though carelessly, bent backwards in the sock and his shoe had been put on over it. He couldn't tell anyone what was wrong. Thankfully, his sweet little toe bones and joints were pliable so no permanent damage was done. Hearing her recount this story made my heart break in two and bleed out.

I don’t even know how to end this story except to say that I hope someday Calvin will have the words to tell me when something hurts because—like going to the dentist—pain is inevitable.

photo by Michael Kolster

1 comment:

  1. You are such a strong, amazing mom. Calvin is lucky to have you to hug after such moments, b/c having you there to hug is much more important than speech.