Sense and Responsibility

Another trip to the dentist as a fifty-six year old.  This is one of many in a long line of appointments associated with proper oral care and a continuing effort to retain as many of my diminishing numbers of original teeth as is possible.  This time I am here to have the two caps on my front teeth replaced as the current ones have “done their due” as my grandmother used to say.  During the course of my life, I’ve had the typical amount of dental work done in addition to the periodic replacement of these caps.  Like most people, I’m not ecstatic about going to the dentist, but I learned from an early age to bear up to whatever was necessary while reclining in that chair with that same glaring light that Saul must have received on the road to Damascus.  (Except that I’ve never had a conversion experience in that supposedly comfortable recliner.)

When I was a young boy, an unfortunate event happened that would add to my familiarity with that dreaded environment for the rest of my life.  However, I am getting a little ahead of myself.

Before having a crown done a couple of years ago, I decided to take advantage of the nitrous oxide my dentist’s office offers.  I was curious as much as anything.  Numbing of any areas to be worked on had proven adequate in past procedures.  Numbing in addition, of course, to imagining myself in more pleasant circumstances, a skill I honed early on at funerals.  But this particular time, I discovered that having ‘laughing gas’ lowered my anxiety to the point where I didn’t much care what was being done to me.   I decided that I was ready to trade teeth and enamel for nirvana.

So, this trip, knowing that I am going to have those front teeth worked on, I look forward to the nitrous oxide.  Draping the hose around my shoulder that delivers the glorious intoxicant, the assistant fits plugs into my nostrils.  She reminds me that in order for the gas to be effective, I must breathe in solely through my nose.  With a combination of obedience and anticipation, I carefully follow her instruction.  Soon I begin to feel the effects, my feet tingling slightly, my brain giddy with a light buzz.  After a few minutes, the assistant returns.

“Feeling anything,” she asks, “any tingling or anything?”

“Not yet”, I lie as sincerely as possible.  Because I am a big guy, I am hoping that she will buy my fib and increase the octane.  And she does.  Or maybe she’s just being accommodating.  As long as I get the juice, I don’t really care what her motivations are.

“I’ll turn it up a bit.”  She does so and leaves the room.  I continue to inhale deeply and completely through my nostrils, encouraging every molecule of gas to rush into my bloodstream and add to the developing party atmosphere inside my head.

Lightheaded and carefree seconds add up to fast minutes as my eyelids drift closed.  Suddenly, I am disturbed from my reverie by the dentist who is now leaning over me and explaining what she is going to do.  Hoping I appear lucid, my eyes blink open in response to some long distance call from my foggy brain.  I nod my head.  I’ve heard it all before anyway, and I want to seem like I am fine and not headed towards the moon.  Cautious, I want to avoid any behavior that would betray my mind’s ongoing request for oblivion.

“How’s the gas?  Do you need a little more?” she asks.  In the most piteous, non-eager manner I can muster, I nod my head affirmatively.  I hear her adjusting the dial behind me.  Disguising any external bliss, my internal cells revel in their neuron pathways experiencing a celebration worthy of Mardi Gras.

After what seems like a few more minutes of restrained gaiety, I am feeling most fine.  In acknowledgment, perhaps, of my wasted state, both the assistant and dentist return to begin the formerly dreaded procedure.  As they collaborate in my gaping mouth, I wonder if they are curious about why my two front teeth were knocked out and wouldn’t they like to know?  I feel like blathering away.  The sensible side of my high is still in control (albeit barely) though, and I promptly realize that it would not be professional of them to ask what happened.

But the inane side of my brain persists.  They must be interested . . . . football injury, car wreck, blow to the head from an angry ostrich?  I am dancing my way through an ethereal fog as the relay switches try to make once familiar connections.  I realize that any event that would result in the loss of one’s front teeth would likely not have been pleasurable and polite folks might be curious but not inquisitive.

Encouraged by the loss of brain cells, the thought of acknowledgment persists and takes root in the few remaining coherent parts of my mind.  Maybe I’ll go ahead and tell them!  I struggle with the idea while they wrestle inside my mouth.  I don’t want to appear overly loaded and have them turn down the juice.  Giddiness interbreeding with raw excitement, I am feeling the rush that downhill skiers get when racing just on the edge of control.

Because of my inebriated state, the pathway for glabbing has been lubricated to the point I feel as if I could take on the entire MIT debate team single handed.

I can’t recall the circumstances preceding the loss of my teeth, but I know it had to be my fault.  I am nine or ten years old and the incident itself is yet very clear in my memory.  My mother is standing in the kitchen in our house and for some forgotten reason I have made her very mad.  Turning from the sink, she throws (my mother was a thrower from way back) a fork and I feel the tines as they embed themselves in my left forearm, the odd circumstance of spinning metal biting my skin at just the right angle.  I don’t think the utensil stuck in my flesh very long, but I clearly remember watching the four jagged lightning streaks of blood trickling down my arm before they merge and drip off my wrist.

I don’t recall fear or pain, but there must have been some interest in self-preservation as I remember turning to run away.  Retreating, I get no more than one or two steps before my traction fails on the throw rug covering the hardwood floor.  I hit the unforgiving surface face first and my upper teeth absorb most of the impact.  The two front break with an inverted ‘V’ between them leaving me with the appearance of a molting vampire.  Staring in disbelief, I pick up the broken pieces and look at them in my hand.

My next memory of this specific event is of being at the dentist’s office.  I am trembling with fright, my hands shaking leaves on quivering limbs.  I have caused my parents unneeded financial expense with my mistake.  I cannot escape the continual admonitions of my father of being an error prone, worthless son and will receive further physical retributions from him as affirmation on this and countless other matters.

Noticing my anxiety, the dentist likely realizes that I will not make a very compliant patient.  Saying it will calm my nerves, he gives me a strange-looking green liquid to drink.  I manage to get it down even though my hands feel as though electric current is running through them.  I can’t recall how much it helped, but I did get my first of many sets of caps on those fractured teeth.

However, I am now an adult and have dealt with these sorts of procedures many times.  Of course I don’t need the gas and I really would like to tell the women plying their trade in my wide-open mouth about how I got to be here.  My inhibitions lowered, reckless speech engendered, I give strong consideration to a confession.

“It was really my fault you see . . . .”

But I never tell on myself.

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8 thoughts on “Sense and Responsibility

  1. What an absolute gas (no pun intended). I must share this with my son, a prosthodontist. I don’t know if he uses nitrous oxide, but I’ll urge him to do so. I’ve got a procedure coming up pretty soon, and based on your adventure, I wouldn’t mind a little controlled oblivion. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I’m reminded of a quote you once told me. “Writing is easy; You just cut a vein and bleed.” I admire you for being able to share such personal experiences. I had an idyllic childhood. I’m sorry yours was tumultuous. For you as a writer though, these events are helping you create some rich (although sometimes hard to read) stories. And now I must take a deep breath and wipe my eyes…

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