Past, present, future,
Tomorrow, a dentist is going to pull the remaining two wisdom teeth out of my head. I’m in England, which means I’ll only get novocaine and a smile. I’m not afraid, exactly, but I am humming a little with nerves. While my teeth are generally okay and they look good for a Brit’s, the run-ins I’ve had with dental intervention have changed the way I think. In memory of teeth past and to psych myself up for tomorrow, here is their story.
The first tooth was the worst. I was nine and it was 1996. On Christmas morning the previous year, I had bitten down and felt a fang of pain move from a tooth up towards my eyeball. I ignored the pain for a long time and often forgot about the tooth. Some months later, I began to feel a bump swelling the outside of my upper gum, on the left side. I would idly poke it with one of my fingers while reading. The gum hurt vaguely to touch, a deep ache rather than tenderness exactly. It was an abscess and the dentist said that she had to take the tooth out.
The first time with the first tooth did not work. The dentist was a little weak, I think, or she couldn’t bear it. She kept pulling, but the tooth did not come out. So, I went to the hospital. At the hospital I received injections for the pain, but they didn’t take well. In retrospect, my generalized hysteria must have made my claims of pain seem less legitimate. Anyway I felt it all.
The white plastic fingers going in and out of my mouth were enormous, hundreds of times the size of my own hands. The fingers were daubed in blood. People held me by the shoulders and forehead (gently, firmly, by the palm) and eventually the tooth left me.
A few years ago, I asked my mother why I didn’t remember the abscess breaking, how strange that I did not notice it. She looked at me very steadily and hard, and I didn’t press the issue.
Tooth Two happened in my second year in New York. This one didn’t have to come out, exactly, but it taught me a strange lesson. I had been experiencing some mild toothache and gone to the university dental center. This is the place where they teach people how to become dentists. I was living in student accommodation on 14th street, so I walked the ten blocks up to the hospital. I had some X-rays taken. The radiographer pointed and said, “Look, you were born without your lower right wisdom tooth.”
I went upstairs to meet my student dentist in his little cubicle in a room filled with a hundred other student dentists. The sound rising from that room could have been coming from a nest of wasps celebrating some kind of colonial victory. The student dentist said I needed a filling, so he gave me a filling. It took forever, he was nervous. His supervisor came and looked over his shoulder and told him off for doing a bad job. It hurt and continued to hurt. I went back a few days later, saying that it still hurt but he said it was fine.
About ten days afterward, I was pacing around my room and groaning. The pain was a completely new experience. I had experienced bad feelings before: dislocated elbow, falls down steps, concussions. But this was completely new. The pain wasn’t hot or cold or sharp. It was metallic, and it glowed, but it glowed with a blackness of incredible negative force. Perhaps the right idea is that it was magnetic. A black hole feels right also: immense gravitation force. I envisioned my face as the face of a toothless old woman, collapsed inward. The pain wanted to suck my existence into it. I wanted to cancel the context of the pain, which was being alive.
I found an emergency dentist who would see me. In a stroke of incredible luck, my mother was visiting me from my home country, and could pay for it. He asked me about the pain, then he gave me some novocaine shots. The injections were the opposite of the injections from the first tooth. I cried a little with relief. The dentist was a teacher at the university dental center, and he was very alarmed at what had been done to me. He gave me an opiate prescription and another shot, then he told me he was sorry.
That afternoon, I felt well enough to take a walk on The High Line. The absence of the pain was a miracle. But it came back. I paced. I moaned. The mental adage, I will kill myself if this doesn’t go away started going around my head again. The dentist got me an appointment with a friend of his who was also a teacher at the university dental center, who was also very alarmed.
Compared to any dentistry I’d ever had before, this root canal was radical and bloody. But from the second he gave me the shot, that endodontic specialist with the Polish name was an angel to me. I could have knelt at his feet. His bald head glowed with benevolence and skill. I thanked history for developing dental medicine. I guess the lesson Tooth Two taught me is that pain can be very literally unbearable and also how to feel pure gratitude, which I had never known before.
The third tooth was quick. It was last year, I had no money, no insurance of any kind. A wisdom tooth was growing sideways into my cheek. I got a fever. On the internet, I found a dentist whose office was on the top floor of a building in downtown Brooklyn. The dental nurse who checked me in was the same nurse who assisted the dentist with the extraction. The dentist took a look and said, “The good news is that I can take it out, right now. You need to have it taken out, right now, so I’m only going to charge you one hundred dollars. The bad news is that I can’t sedate you.”
The nurse gave me a sympathetic look and put her hand on my shoulder. I don’t know why they were so sorry. You are angels, I thought to myself. As U2’s “With or Without You” played in the background and the buses squawked in the street below, the dentist reached in and pulled.
Tomorrow, I’m getting my two remaining wisdom teeth taken out. This dentist doesn’t do sedation either, but I’m not too worried. I’ll get some novocaine shots and then they’ll cut into my gum and yank. I have a bit of a cold, so I can picture myself asphyxiating on a combination of blood and mucus. But it will be done.
But will it be done? I expect that after these three wisdom teeth (I was born magically without the fourth, as you now know) future dental disasters await. Every time I get sick and then get well again, I think well, that’s it. As if getting a root canal or the flu were like getting the mumps (which I have also had), and that I will develop antibodies after going through one grotesque bout of suffering so that it’ll never happen again.
But really the body just goes round and around. It can’t be completely fixed, only patched up and taken out of pain. But whenever things get really bad I think about pacing round my bedroom like a goaded bull, visualizing my head turning inside out. That first shot, that baldheaded dentist, the gratitude. Tomorrow I’ll be two teeth lighter, and thankful all over again.
Josephine Livingstone is a writer in New York.