My mind raced. I accelerated my car, a pair of Suicide Awareness ribbon magnets on the rear. My son bought the car and owned it for only a month before he passed away. I sped like a champion racehorse determined to arrive at the dental surgeon’s office on time. I was scheduled for dental work on one side of my mouth. Now, suddenly, another tooth on the opposite side of my mouth flared up. I reasoned, after the dentist examined it, he would prescribe an antibiotic before any further work could be done. The visit would amount to a thirty-minute span, maybe less.
On my usual route, I whipped past a strip mall, then Armory Road and St. John’s Cemetery, one of the preferred burying grounds of many deceased parishioners at the Ukrainian church where I grew up, and which I still occasionally attend.
From the roster of people who were buried there, without fail since my grief journey, I pictured dear, sweet Anne Marie. About fifteen years younger than I, she died very suddenly about ten years ago from a heart ailment. I saw her over-sized body, weightless and free, float like dandelion fluff carried by the wind as she drifted above St. John’s knoll that shoots to the sky like an ethereal rocket eager to launch.
“You’re free, Ann Marie. Free!” I sang in my mind, at the same time imagined her airy body breaking into somersaults as I zipped past.
Two blocks away from the cemetery is a tidy brick schoolhouse that you’d see pictured in a 1950s children’s book, a good book to curl up with. The first time I encountered it was a year into my grief journey on the way to the same oral surgeon’s office. Tears streamed down my face like dozens of icicles melted in a flash when I recalled how we gathered sometime in 2008 for a high school wrestling tournament there. My then 14-year-old son resembled a mustard-covered pretzel on the mat, competing against his opponent. The sheen of my son’s white teeth still apparent behind his mouth guard in sharp contrast to his moist, crimson, overly ripe tomato-toned face. He vocalized his final groan of defeat, a pulverized pancake pinned to the mat.
Over the last year, when I pass by now, I typically save my tears for other hours in the day but cannot escape hearing his groan that pierces me like one meat hook caught between my two ears. No reprieve in sight, this is my grief journey long after I came upon the stark realization that I had mistaken the elementary school for the high school where I thought the match had once been held.
My arrival at the oral surgeon’s office was marked with my mind’s general grief and trauma-related brouhaha, so much so that this time I nearly fell back when the woman at the receptionist’s desk took my temperature to ensure I did not carry any virus. Fortunately, she was multitasking, and she would not have noticed if I had collapsed, deep in conversation on the phone, apparently reassuring a patient while scheduling his or her wisdom tooth extraction.
Overhearing the conversation, I visualized the buried body of my 26-year-old son, his skeleton, his teeth, wisdom teeth intact. My final trip I made to see him in Bowling Green, Kentucky, when he was alive, was to accompany him to an oral surgeon to extract his wisdom teeth. He bailed out the last minute. It was my last trip with him in that state. We planned to visit some kangaroo sanctuary the next time. Before I left, I had to force him to accept the clothes I purchased for him at Target, because he did not want me to spend my money and also prided himself on his minimalist lifestyle.
At this point, the dentist’s assistant greeted me.
“I am pleased to meet you. My name is Kerwina.”
I tried to shake the dandelion dust out of my head, acting as if it were just a normal day in a normal life. “How’s your day so far?”
“It’s a grateful day,” she exclaimed, her eyes twinkled above her mask.
In my former life, my tone of voice would have spooled noisily, magnified her optimism. Chattered and affirmed life’s joys without restraint, back in the day when I worked a program for a straight 35 years, a program that helped pioneer the topic of gratitude into universal conversation. Now, I mirrored my son and fell silent. I was desperate to obtain my prescription and call it a day.
“Which tooth?” my dentist asked after he was brought up to speed on my latest dental dilemma. “Left or right?”
There was a fat pause. I pointed to the right. I pointed to the left. My mind contorted beyond pretzel proportions.
“I think someone has to go back to second grade,” he rudely blurted out.
Fortunate for him how, unlike my internalized son, he could slap out his feelings at will on non-threatening bystanders, so his insides didn’t boil up inside him, expand in him like a decaying cavity in a tooth. Without rebuttal, I managed to get my left and right sides straight. After he examined my left side, I was nearly shocked to discover I would lose my tooth then and there. After discussing the matter, I knew there was no other way to escape it, and his assistant prepped me for the inevitable.
Kerwina’s compassionate nature reminded me of Ann Marie, who had spent an honorable run working as a registered nurse prior to her death. When the dentist injected me with Novocain, Kerwina held my hand tightly, her face above her mask soft and fluffy like a dandelion. Once the dentist started working on my anesthetized mouth, I felt the pliers around the culprit tooth. This would be the third tooth I would lose in a six-year span. Suddenly when he pulled, I wanted to swipe the instruments out from his powder-blue gloved hands. Stop! My mind shouted in horror. I don’t want to lose my tooth. I have to hold onto what I have. Don’t you understand? So much has been pried from me. I’m barely holding onto faith. I have to keep everything around me. My son needed his wisdom teeth pulled out, but I need the rest of the teeth I have to stay in. Please stop. I closed my eyes tightly until they hurt. I pictured myself wrestling with the dentist, engaging in a tug of war over my tooth, holding back tears in the process.
After it was done, I yearned for Kerwina to hurry and clean me up, so I could request to take my tooth home. Where did they put it? Did it go into a designated disposal along with other fallen teeth? I thought of my son’s umbilical cord, the one I swiped out of the hospital shortly after I delivered him, and how I let it go after 26 years, allowed it to return to its rightful owner in his coffin, along with a collection of other forked-over mementos. Then I visualized the tooth, flushed down an imaginary toilet.
A few minutes later, that gentle-natured dental assistant helped me rise until I achieved my balance. I felt my swollen mouth along with my swollen heart. I could not utter a word. Kerwina hugged me in an uncannily knowing way. Her compassion almost forced the words out of me: “It was a grateful day for me too.”
Instead, I murmured a good-bye, afraid to face the mirror and the vast space in my bloody gum and empty heart and drifted slowly to my car in the parking lot.
Quite coincidentally, that night, reckoning with the powerlessness of lost teeth, as well as a lost grip on life, I read a book review on the NPR Public Radio website written by Kristen Martin about Kathryn Schulz’s recently published memoir “Lost & Found.”
Suddenly, after I finished reading, I understood that I was angry at existence, at her tricky kleptomaniac, sticky fingers. Taking what she felt was rightfully hers, as I bowed down to her, my how-dare-you phrases spitting in retaliation to no avail. I share the gutting loss that Ms. Martin explains in the review:
…. Schulz unravels universal truths about why loss guts us, and how it forces us to grapple with our place in the world and its workings. When we cannot locate what we have lost — whether it be a sweater in a small apartment, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean, or a dead loved one on this plane of existence — we often react with “a powerful feeling of disbelief” because it seems that “the world is not obeying its customary rules.” Surely it cannot be possible that these losses are irretrievable. In fact, Schulz reminds us, the rules of our world dictate that we will lose our belongings and lose our lives:
“To lose something…forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish. Over and over, loss calls us to reckon with this universal impermanence — with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, gone.”
In the same manner, too, like my tooth, my grief journey has plunged me into an abysmal burrow. In this place, there is nothing sacred, because I am too afraid to hold onto anything, seeing it for what it is: passing vapor. Ms. Martin writes:
Here, Schulz forces us to sit with that which we ignore in our quotidian lives, so that we may go on living them — the impermanence of everything we love. The death of someone you’ve shared your life with is paralyzing, because it plunges you into stark awareness of that impermanence. And yet if we want to keep living, we must make peace with the knowledge that nothing in this world is forever.
After rereading Ms. Martin’s review, I hankered down under my bedcovers to protect myself from the sudden chill. My gum aching, medicine worn off, pain awakened. For years, I did not relinquish faith and tried to save the tooth that amounted to a failed root canal. Despite all my efforts, it was gone, pulled, discarded, gone.
The wind howled as I pictured all the dead matter, cells, atoms, tooth chips purged out of the earth and landfills of brokenness, making room for the new, whole flower buds in the spring about 90 days away. I could see Ann Marie swaying around, wearing a crown of dandelions, whispering as smoothly as a silky velvet ribbon: “It was a grateful day. Now, a grateful night. There is nothing to cement it with, only stuff it into the cavity of memory, there will you find permanence, a level floor on which to dance peacefully.”