Last year my young daughter decided that she wanted to have her teeth checked over. I didn’t think it necessary but her mother Irem, who is always losing bits from her teeth, thought a check-up would be wise so we got a recommendation and went off to see a local dentist.
He was a rather feeble looking old chap, quite benign but the sort who revels in reading bad news in serious newspapers and then complaining about it.
I was feeling rather proud of my teeth because I rarely visit dentists, the previous time was around twenty years ago when someone almost succeeded in knocking my front teeth out, but that is another story. Anyway in the spirit of family camaraderie we all had our teeth inspected. Naturally I was pretty confident in the result so you can imagine my surprise when the score came out:
- Irem: “One filling”
- Amazon: “Three fillings”
- Me: “You need to see a proper dentist, possibly in a hospital”
Yes, you read that correctly. My teeth were so bad that Dr. Death refused to consider treating me, which was somewhat a relief because I didn’t fancy the great depressive’s pork sausage-like fingers in my gob anyway!
Time passed, and a few of my teeth started to wobble. My father lost his bottom four front teeth at about my age. He had a plate that always chaffed his mouth so he would take it out into his workshop and grind bits off with a Black and Decker drill. From time to time the denture would collapse under his care and he would have to return it politely exclaiming:
“These bloody teeth you sold me are no good.”
To which his long suffering dentist would reply: “What the hell have you been doing with them?”
After a few months of attempting to ram my front teeth back into their sockets by biting on a plank of wood, Sarah Arrow asked me to appear on a Google Hangout and discuss web site illustration. In the run up to the show Sarah and her co-presenter Ola Agbaimoni commented upon the gap between my two top front teeth. This gap has always been something of a matter of pride because as a boy it meant that I could spit further than most other children because I could squirt saliva through it like a water jet.
Ola thought it made me look like Terry Thomas, but then she was dressed like Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek, so I could easily find it in my heart to forgive her. On the other hand looking at my face up close on the screen did make me wonder about my teeth. They looked strangely crooked, and frankly dead!
Then at the opening of an exhibition of photographs I hosted earlier this year a young dentist had taken the trouble to drive a couple of hours to view my work. My wife introduced us and I instantly fell in love with her, and as you know love conquers all. Of course being of sound ego I knew at once that my love was reciprocated.
She had come with her brother, who proudly told me that his mother was a dentist too. “Oooh, I’m not interested in your mother”, I retorted, perhaps a little too impulsively for his liking.
Eagerly I grabbed her by the arm and introduced her to relatives, friends, and colleagues as ‘my dentist’. I meant it too, because I knew that, even if I had to endure the kinds of physical pain that ‘Babe’ the central character in Marathon Man played by Dustin Hoffman, unlike him, I could just lay back relaxed secure in the knowledge that whatever pain is love is a greater force. Think of the pain of childbirth chaps and you will understand instantly.
I arranged for a lengthy course of dental treatment so I could see my beloved frequently. The surgery was so far from where I lived that I brought my wife, not as chaperone but in order to share the driving. The whole experience was divine.
Upon arrival, for my first appointment, my lovely dentist made me a delicious cup of Turkish coffee, with a little lokum through which to suck it.
“We are friends”, she said in a way that made my heart pitter pat, and then smiled, which made it pitter pat even more.
“Let me take your photograph.”
She clamped my head in a kind of plastic box and a few moments later a dreadful picture of a skull appeared upon her computer screen. It was like something from a horror movie.
“Very good”, she said. “Steve, I will need to remove all of these teeth”. She pointed at the four teeth at the bottom and front of my jaw. “And these”, she added, indicating three teeth opposite at the top, and this one pointing to one further back.
Her enthusiasm was so infectious that I couldn’t wait to get down to it.
“We will be spending some time together”, she smiled. My heart went pitter pat again, and she invited me to take a seat in the dental chair.
“Open up, so I can take a look. Don’t be shy”, she smiled at me lovingly. My heart went pitter pat again, as I looked into the pupil of her hazel eyes.
“First I’m going to ask you to bite on this”, she said, proffering a horseshoe shaped implement covered with pink, and slightly malodorous goo. She shoved it into my chops and I bit as instructed. “Oooh”, she squealed in apparent delight, “One of your teeth has already come out – look!”
And it had. It stood proud and erect in the pink stuff.
Upon seeing this I immediately started to feel faint. It was not that I was scared, but merely that all the blood had deserted my brain.
“Are you O.K.?”, my dentist inquired with some concern. “What did you have for breakfast?”
The trouble was that in my infatuation I had forgotten if I was supposed to eat, or not, prior to undergoing a local anaesthetic. And what if she wished to use laughing gas?
I hadn’t eaten, or drunk, anything at all and now, mysteriously, the sight of my bloody tooth stuck on a horseshoe covered in what appeared to be ‘Bubble Yum‘ had caused my blood sugar to fall in an instant.
Suddenly we were not alone.
Within thirty seconds the dentist’s mother, a dental nurse, and a doctor from across the road were in attendance and urging me to drink a carton of orange juice, which proved to be a very welcome relief.
Everyone looked in my mouth and said how wonderful it would be. They were very keen, rather like architects when calculating how much money will need spending in order to renovate an old building.
“Ooooh, you look better Steve”, my dentist purred and I was relieved to find that my heart could still pitter pat despite having minutes before nearly collapsed completely.
“I am just going to give you some anaesthetic – here – and here – and here – here – here – here – a little here – and here – here – and some more here. Can you feel anything?”
My brain had difficulty in focusing, but I could still feel my mouth.
“Yeppsth”, I repled, “I can sppifth fill ewefinink”.
“Good”, she said pulling out the first tooth with what looked like a chromium plated plumbing wrench.
“Am I hurting you?”
What could I say?
“Nophth at all”, I curled my mouth in what I imagined to be a smile, but probably looked more like Bell’s Palsy.
A third tooth dropped into a surgical tray. She was really getting into her stride now. I studied the area around her eyes. She looked incredibly focused but there was still a softness both in the muscles to the left and right of her eye lids, and in the iris itself, which appeared to jump when she realized that I was reaching into her with my gaze.
I heard the fourth tooth drop. It sounded like a wheel nut being dropped into a hub cap. Love and anaesthesia, a good combination I mused.
“You may wash your mouth out now”, she said. The spittoon filled with blood. I rinsed my mouth again, and more blood bled. More blood later I lay back for the second half, expecting that now she would pull the top teeth, but instead first another horseshoe filled with gloop was forced between my jaws. Fortunately, no teeth came away so I was not obliged to faint again.
I washed my mouth to try to get rid of the taste of gloop, but failed to do so.
And then something remarkable happened. It was to become a regular feature of my dental treatment. The mother appeared, and started to treat me.
From that moment on my mouth became a battle ground by which mother and daughter would negotiate and fight for control. Imagine trench warfare with my bleeding gums as the lines and my open mouth as no man’s land and you will get the picture. Every few minutes one of the pair would work on their side of my mouth, but as they did so each could not resist a foray into the territory of the other.
It seemed at times as if they were spraying the inside of my mouth with fire hoses, that is when not chizzling away at remaining teeth with angle grinders.
After a while the mother’s own patient arrived and my Dentist and I were alone together once more. “You look very handsome”, she said. I smiled at her forgetting that my mouth was full of rinse, and anyway my lips no longer functioned properly. Blood and water dribbled from my chin soaking my gown, penetrating through to the shirt underneath. I must have looked pathetic, but believed myself to be both brave and resolute. A warm smile was returned because of this.
I was a little concerned because I was due to appear on local television a few days after my appointment, and imagined that I would have to do so without any teeth that would be visible. Imagine my surprise when during the next hour mother and daughter manufactured a set of temporary bridges, which I would wear for the following six weeks.
All too soon it was time to leave. Nearly four hours had passed in the chair. Half of my mouth had even started to function again, and normal speech was restored.
There was blood everywhere. It was on the floor, around the spittoon, on the operating lamp above my head, and of course all over me. But there was something primeval about the experience too. I felt as if I had been involved in a shamanic journey in which, at least for a while, my dentist and I bonded at a deep fundamental level. The blood was part of that, and so perhaps the fact that the mouth is perhaps the second most intimate part of the human body. I could never have felt the same with Dr. Death.
And now, thanks to the loving spirit of my young dentist and the wonderful support of her mother who over the weeks was thrilled to put her fingers into my mouth, I was able to face my fears and overcome them. I count the experience I describe here as a transformation, it has helped me in ways that I cannot fully describe and many of which I’m sure I have yet to discover.
- Abridged from ‘Painless Dentistry: A Shamanic Journey’, first published on ‘Blokes Om The Blog’, November 6, 2014