I didn’t expect to meet you in the dentist’s chair.
“Oh, you’re such a pretty girl,” the fifth, maybe sixth, dentist said. “But those teeth…”
Smiles poke my attention now, hitting a nerve with every passing 80-year-old woman with pearly whites. Are they real? Dentures? Crowns? Did it hurt?
You wait for me, every day, at my alarm clock. It buzzes and I snooze it, but you demand to be noticed and felt in every ticking second, every smack of my gum. So I scuff my slippered feet to the bathroom, where the floss and toothbrush wait, every day, to stare me down. What’s the point? I flash a grin in the mirror and run my tongue over every one like the grand unveiling as I pull back the red curtain. They’re still there. For now. It was just a dream.
I try to escape the anxious noise that plays like a scratched record in my head, Say goodbye. There’s nothing left to save. Say goodbye. There’s nothing left to save. But that’s the only song in the cue. I didn’t expect to face you so soon, while clutching the dentist’s chair and exposed under the bright light, blinding my vision and jolting me out of the darkness of denial. I thought we would meet after I blew out 80 candles. Not 26.
The next canine thief—The Thief—wore a mask, perhaps to cover his own perfect smile. “They’re wearing down to nothing because of your Sjögren’s and lack of saliva,” he muttered from behind the mask, as he poked and scraped and drilled. “Soon you will have no other choice.”
He touched my shoulder when a tear escaped. Come out from behind the mask if you really mean it, Thief.
“We will have to grind all of them down to a stub,” The Thief explained. “It’s the only way…”
The Thief finally showed his face from behind the mask. “I’m very sorry.”
I thought I met you with the death of my grandmother, lulled into a trance of disbelief. I learned about the numbness and the endless expectation that she would come back, any day now, to leave a lipstick kiss on my cheek. She would stretch her quivering red lips from her wheelchair, as I crouched down to meet in the middle for her warm whisper. “You are such a pretty girl,” she always said.
But now you aren’t found in a person. You are found in a smile.
How do I mourn the loss of a smile? I hoped and dreamed, no expected, to keep this smile for years to come, to use these teeth for chomping and indulging and grinning and laughing, to see these teeth in photo albums of my wedding day and my children’s graduations and even the birth of my grandchildren. If The Thief grinds them down to stubs, there won’t be any chance that they’ll come back, any day then or now or ever.
The thing I’m learning about you, Grief: You are very expensive.
It costs everything we have to say goodbye. The bills pile in to give them the proper burial. We dig and we lift and we lower and we cover with dirt to say goodbye to the gone and invite a new normal. The price of the burial and the adorned tombstone—it doesn’t matter, for they deserve the utmost respect. We grind and we lift and we lower and we cover with new teeth to say goodbye to the rotting and withered and lifeless. We invite a new normal, a new smile. The price of the grinding and the covering—it shouldn’t matter, for they deserve the utmost respect with a proper burial. Maybe that’s why we call them crowns.
I sit in the coffee shop now, watching the white smiles walk by all day. Sometimes there isn’t anything playing in my earbuds. Do they know the music isn’t playing anymore? You stopped the melody and I don’t know how to play it again. Do they know it would be so much easier if they didn’t smile at me?
There are other tasks I need to be checking off, instead of meeting you, Grief, in the dentist’s chair and carrying you here to take a seat across from me and my latte. Hands mounted on the table, I lunge forward and crane across the wobbly wooden carpentry to look you square in the eye. You are very expensive, do you know that?, robbing my joy and my security and my comfort. But you won’t budge.
“Can I get that out of your way?” the barista asks.
Yes, please do…the empty coffee cup, she’s talking about the empty coffee cup.
“What happens in five years, or ten years?” I asked The Thief.
“We will have to see,” said The Thief. “But this is our only option. We can only keep filling and refilling every tooth for so long.”
Patchwork. That’s all we’re doing while I wait to meet you full on, Grief. It’s like life support. Someday, I’ll have to make the choice to shut it off, to say goodbye. Nothing but a vegetable, my teeth will be useless.
The Thief was hopeful about the outlook in five years or ten years. But I read a different story online in a support group chat room. I can’t wear dentures, I have no teeth, I can’t eat anything. I am just waiting to die.
This old woman—with my same autoimmune disorder—met you full on, Grief. Sinking her soul, all of her hope, deeper and deeper into the pit—you are so expensive, Grief.
“Smile,” they say. “Why don’t you smile? You are such a pretty girl.”
When I was little, the loss of a wiggly tooth didn’t bring you, Grief. It brought hope of a grown-up tooth budding at the gum, and a dollar bill tucked under my pillow. But this time, the Tooth Fairy isn’t fluttering for a fly-by.
You, Grief, have grown wings and become the Grief Fairy that has flown into my life.
But let’s get one thing straight: I will carry you around for just a little while. Then you must move on, fly to someone else’s house, poke and scrape and drill and grind someone else down to nothing.
He will turn my mourning into joyful dancing. He will clothe me with joy and gladness.
There is a time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.
I didn’t expect to meet you in the dentist’s chair. I didn’t expect to carry you to the coffee shop and to let you close the curtain and stop the music. I definitely didn’t invite you to sit and to stay and to linger and to be so chatty. I didn’t expect to meet you at this young age. I must learn a new smile.
And I can’t afford to keep you around. You are way too expensive.
A Pretty Girl