A few weeks back, a student in my class, an eighth grader, lost a tooth in my class. “Aren’t you a little old to lose teeth?” one student asked, but I knew she wasn’t. I, too, was a late loser, when it came to teeth, and the unpleasant memory of of their departure from my mouth, I preferred not to wax nostalgic..
I was hoping to lose all my teeth naturally, without the unsolicited aid of floss and a slamming door, but that would hardly be worth sharing. To this day, the thought of losing a tooth brings back childhood nightmares lived while awake, a terrifying monster peeking out of the darkness of my past..
I was eight when my father instilled an illogical fear in me. It was a reason for hiding in corners, keeping my mouth clenched shut and eventually, cursing the very notion of the tooth fairy.
Most parents are inherently well-meaning and good to their children. Sure, we get those occasional, nationwide news blasts about those who lock their children in animal carriers for weeks, months even, or those who feed their young ones crickets and grass. Others do such hellacious things that I can’t imagine having done to me or doing as a parent. Just because my parents never put a cigarette out between my eyes in a fit of drunken rage doesn’t mean I don’t have some small scars from childhood – and because of this, I will try to avoid scarring my child. Naturally, it’s inevitable, but I can at least try not to maim him in the same ways. And I will never, never, pull his teeth.
Growing up, losing teeth in my house led to trauma after trauma: my father took strange, morbid pleasure in pulling teeth.
That sounds worse than it actually was. He isn’t some sociopath who stalks children, pliers in hand, waiting for that precise moment when their mouths open just enough to – YANK! He was, however, fond of extracting the shiny white pieces from my mouth. In hindsight, he is otherwise rather normal.
It wasn’t entirely his fault; loose teeth are gross. Mine were the worst of all. A late bloomer when it came to losing teeth, I should have been more aggressive about wanting them out of my mouth, but I was not the child to use my own fingers to pull or twist or wiggle, nor did I use my tongue to push the loose tooth until POP! It just came out. No, my loose teeth dangled by the smallest connectors of flesh imaginable, clinging to my gums like the last leaves in autumn. Eventually, I knew they would come out on their own, either because of a strong breeze or by destiny itself.
Squeamish me. I would do just about anything to avoid seeing – and especially tasting – blood. My fear was unfounded and irrational, but if I did experience the sight or taste, several potential outcomes could occur: instant nausea, dry heaving, or maybe even vomiting, intense sweating, loss of facial color, and most certainly, complete avoidance of the source contaminant. My disgust was absolute and unwavering. When shown even the slightest drop, my only thought was, “That better not have come from me!”
Good ol’ dad, on the other hand, lit up like a deranged Christmas tree whenever I had a loose tooth, potential for blood or not. My mouth became Sutter’s Mill, a site replete with gold nuggets, needing to be mined from their earthly soil. Except not every tooth is meant to be plucked.
Good old dad would preface each tooth pulling with, “It will only hurt a little,” or something like that. Precisely hearing what he said was difficult. Usually, by the time the floss or fishing line was in his hand, I had hightailed it from whatever room he was in. With his tools of the trade within his grasp, I had little interest in sticking around. Utterly assured that he was lying and that pulling my tooth would indeed hurt, regardless of its looseness, I defiantly hid from my father. If someone would have witnessed this exchange, they would have surely thought that he was an abusive man, one who repeatedly doled out brutal beatings. Quivering in some corner of the house, I awaiting the impending doom. Eventually, dad would win me over with some form of bribery: ice cream, money, or something else I wanted (but otherwise, he assured me, I would not get).
On a particular occasion, he used floss, otherwise thin and unthreatening. Begging and pleading, but not entirely fighting him, I mumbled plaintively as my pursuer would maneuver his fingers inside my mouth, inexpertly guiding the thread first between teeth, and then around the one to be hostilely severed from its brethren. That tooth, as the tooth before, as many teeth past, dad eyed like a hawk, stalking.
“Stop!” I begged, each iteration growing in desperation and volume.
“Hold still! This will only take a moment.” Dad, committed to the deed, was able to ignore my outcries, and persevere. Looking back now, it baffles me how my mother was always conspicuously absent on these occasions, nowhere to be seen or heard, while my father played resident dentist.
“No, really!” I’d beg, as he would begin the series of unsuccessful tugs.
“It isn’t budging,” he said as he tugged. To no avail, my tooth, like me, remained indignant and stubborn, refusing to be taken, a last holdout in a futile battle.
This petulance, the stubbornness, the lack of willingness to comply with my father’s cockamamie schemes only fueled his crazed, tooth-removing fire. I continued, imploring, “But dad, please!”
“Let’s go to the kitchen,” he commanded. “Stand by the door,” he directed, pointing to the garage. Because I was trying to figure out his thought process, I stopped protesting. There was no apparent reason why this new location would get the job done, I thought to myself, and yet I was helpless, following his lead. Dad approached me with a lurch, a twist, and then a stare. He quickly burst into a contortion arms and floss, out of which came a makeshift tether. “Ready to try again?” he asked with a look of complete disinterest in my answer.
This was about to get ugly, but with the floss already tied around the tooth, I knew I wasn’t going to get out of this, but I really should have spoken up if not more loudly, but more insistently. Dangled around an incisor was floss, but it lassoed the wrong tooth, and my father had determined that it was coming out.
While in the kitchen, I imagined dad finding some hardly-used gadget to pull, if not knock, my tooth, but he needed no additional tools to finish the job. A light of determination blazed in his eyes. Chest heaving, near panic, I submitted. His determination had overcome my will and self-preserving disobedience.
Before I understood what was happening, my father tied the loose end of the floss around the knob of the now-open door. As unnatural as this was, my initial reaction was confusion, yet here I was, half-slumped over, looking down at the gray flecks in the linoleum floor, tooth tethered to its knob.
With the quick thrust forward of his arm, the deed was done.
I’m pretty sure I screamed, and it probably curdled blood of my neighbors. Tears poured down my face when the last bit of tooth dislodged from my gum. I begin to taste blood and to gag on its metallic taste because someone just has to get his prize and I will no longer be able to chew on that side of my mouth. I won’t be able to chew on the other side, either, because that’s where the real loose tooth, still dangling precariously, sways back and forth as I gasp for air.
“There! It’s out,” my father proudly announced, poised with the upright posture of the victor.
“It’s out? You pulled my tooth out!” I wailed between sobs, my face painted with tears, mouth sputtering blood. I’m pretty sure that this qualifies as child abuse, I think to myself as he squats down, taking his prize between his fingers, holding it up to the light, a prospector admiring his haul.
“That was one stubborn tooth!” he continued, pinching his prize between his fingers. It was about that time my mother, likely hearing my panicked outcries, made her appearance, just in time to witness what I know see as the real climactic moment.
“It was so stubborn because it was not the right tooth!” I yelled.
“Not the right tooth? What do you mean, ‘not the right tooth?’”
“My loose tooth is this one,” I pointed, using my tongue, uncharacteristic of me, to move it around, thus demonstrating the errors of my father’s over-eager, tooth-savage ways. It wiggled back in forth, my bony, white flag, surrendering.
My dad’s pale face demonstrated his dismay, and my mother’s red face, only slightly lighter than the small dribble mixture of blood and saliva on my shirt, was horrified. I watched the blood gather for as long as I could stand, until it pooled on top of the slick linoleum, and it clicked my head – thick, crimson, and unfortunately mine.
The worst was over, but the irony was not. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe it was destiny. Maybe it was some sort of inexplicable dental sympathy, but in the chaos of the moment, Dad cupped two teeth in the palm of his hand. Near perfect copies of each other shone the one yanked by the slamming door, and its partner, the origin of the day’s disarray which had finally decided it was time to leave the nest of my mouth.
Mom ushered me away to the bathroom to clean me up while I silently expected the Tooth Fairy to be extremely generous in her offering tonight, and her usual letter, the one penned in my mother’s hand, better serve more as an apology for the violation of my gums than a thank you for my offerings.