Those of you on facebook will know that I went to the dentist yesterday to have my teeth scaled. The good news is that I am here, a day later, still alive (although I wished very much, as I was reclining in agony, that I had been a terrorist and that I had some kind of interesting information to offer up to make the horror stop. Why, I asked myself, do we waterboard? Why don't we scale teeth? Later I learned that other chosen people get to go through this horror with pain medication, but I, apparently, was outside of God's mercy). The bad news is that she didn't actually scale my teeth because I "couldn't take it" and that she was referring me to a specialist. A helpful friend informs me that a "specialist" is just someone who can't send me away. Being a specialist, they have to scale my teeth, one way or another. Anyway, as part of this ongoing series, I give you the detailed and horrific experiences of my mother. I encourage you, really, to read the whole post, long though it is, because it will not only tell you a lot about her and about dentistry in remote parts of the world (like France) but will give you a brief glimpse into my past. For example, I remember vividly the motorcycle incident, and the summer in France is one about which I could write whole volumes. Enjoy!
From the Dentist’s Office: the News in detail
Bob and I have been delivered over to the dentist and her minions, like sinners for torment and woe, until we resolve to live a new life of flossing and brushing.
If ever a message creeping out of some dark hole in my past has a chance to repeat itself, it gets the chance while I'm gripping the sides of the dentist's chair, mouth open in an unrelenting gag. And unlike the ever-popular message for an age where therapy is practically synonymous with salvation -- (the message saying, “You need to feel good about yourself since God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,”) -- the message I’m hearing today says, “YOU ARE A BAD PERSON AND GOD IS VERY ANGRY!”
I have failed. I have done those things which I ought not to have done (twist off bottle caps with my teeth). I have not done those things which I ought to have done (floss daily -- at the five times of prayer perhaps?). Oh miserable offender!
Of course no one in this office actually says anything in the way of condemnation. But the hygienist, ferreting around in my mouth like a squirrel, keeps referring to the significant number of “issues” going on among my teeth.
Like the molar tucked away back there, not causing me any trouble at the moment but harboring a rotten core. “Why not just pull it,” I wonder. “Half the population of the world has gaps in their teeth, so why should I not take the cheap, ugly way out and join the throng?” “Oh no,” she says. “The rest of your teeth will shift around and your bite will deteriorate.” “Great,” I think to myself. “If I don’t get a root canal and a crown on this one for the insignificant sum of $700, the world is going to worry that my bite is worse than my bark.”
“Hmmm....” murmurs the dentist, poring over an X-ray. “Was there ever a trauma to these two front teeth?”
An old memory floats to the surface. If I could reply through this numb, dumb, lopsided leer, I could tell her a thing or two about those teeth.
“I fell off a motorcycle,” I whisper.
“I thought so,” she says. “These two teeth are dead and brittle, and could snap off at any time.”
“Wonderful,” I groan, remembering a long stretch of road in southeastern Mali, at the end of a hot day sometime back in the 1980s. Bob, four-year-old Anne and I were precariously flying along, dodging potholes on a moped (the universal Malian family “car” on two wheels). Bob was in front steering. I was dangerously balanced on the back clutching an unexpected gift of three pineapples and a jug of drinking water. Anne was sandwiched in between us in a child’s backpack. We were an accident waiting to happen, when a flock of sheep heading away from the road suddenly turned and made a leisurely crossing in front of us. Bob pulled steadily on the brakes, and we were nearly at a dead stop when the sheep, having safely reached the other side of the road now turned back with the apparent intention of leading us into town. One of them clipped the front wheel and over we went. So there we were, rolling about among smashed pineapples, bounding bleating sheep, and a crowd of sympathetic bystanders all rushing to the rescue.
My face was the first part of me to meet the road. I came up with a mouthful of blood and a new angle to consider. My front teeth were bent back like strange, wobbly fangs, and there was no way to do anything about it until morning. I wasn’t even sure if there was a dentist in the local town.
Next morning however, Bob took me to the hospital in Sikasso, where someone claiming to be a dentist ushered me into his lair. He wore a lab coat that might once have been white. The room itself might once have been properly equipped with dental furniture. There was the chair. Ribbons of black vinyl indicated that once it had been well upholstered. There was even the metal arm-thing that used to hold instruments of dental torture, but they had gone the way of vandals. Flies rose and resettled on little piles of excrement in the corners of the room. This wasn’t just a has-been dentist’s office. It was somebody’s latrine.*
“Bonjour, Madame,” the man in the coat said politely. “What can I do for you?” I pointed to my mouth. “Ah, oui,” he said. “But as you see, although I studied dentistry in Paris, I have no equipment. It has all been spoiled.” I could see that, and was about to beat a retreat and think of a new plan when he inserted me into the chair, gripped the back of my teeth with his thumbs, and snicked them into something like their former place. I staggered around, said thank you, that would be fine, and what did I owe him. “O Madame, rien (nothing) except what occurs to you as a gift.” I searched my pockets, bestowed the contents on him, and fled.
That was a long time ago. True I went around with a jagged grin, but the years passed by, and all was quiet. Until the summer of 1993, when Bob and I were teaching linguistics and anthropology in Lamorlaye, France, just north of Paris.
For three months we lived in what had formerly been the stables of a chateau (now a college), and summer school was proceeding at a stately, untroubled pace when I woke up one morning to a searing headache and a shaft of pain in my mouth. The August sun, fingering its way through a crack in the window, stabbed me in the eyes just exactly at the moment when my two front teeth went into serious decline.
France. August. What could possibly be wrong with this picture? I called the dentist, and got the messagerie which said in essence, “We can’t come to the phone right now. Please call back in September” (meaning: when we get back from our holidays on the Riviera).
Of course. How stupid of me. In the middle of summer school I forgot that all of France goes on holiday during August. Everyone, in every town, except one pharmacist, one baker, and possibly one doctor goes to the sea or the mountains. But by September we were expected back in Africa. I couldn’t stand it!
After a few days the intense pain disappeared to be replaced by no feeling at all, so when September came and we went back to Africa, I figured that dead teeth just stood in place like marble tombstones marking the spot.
This view is not shared by dentists.
“You are going to loose these two front teeth,” my dentist says. “The only question is when. They could snap off at the gum anytime. There are, however, some possible ways to save your smile. One solution would be a bone graft and implants, a procedure which takes a year to complete.”
“And probably $10,000,” I think wretchedly to myself. “There is no way I can sit around in America for another year and spend sums I don’t have.”
“A second approach would be to pull these teeth, do root canals on either side, and cement in a fixed bridge, which could look very nice.”
“It would HAVE to look nice to the tune of $4,000.” I am full of despair and woe.
“Or,” continues the dentist, “we could fit you with a flipper” (a thingamyjig with two fake teeth and some sort of hardware to grab the roof of the mouth). The thought fills me with horror. “Flipper” is such an unfortunate word, suggesting that it regularly flaps and flies out of the mouth when one is in polite company.
In the end I’ve opted to do nothing for now about these two front teeth except PRAY -- and take the path of Gideon with his fleece. If you remember Gideon, he wasn’t quite sure if he’d heard correctly when God told him to go smite down the Midianites. He was a timid man and kept saying, “Could you repeat that, please?” hoping that he’d heard wrong. Eventually, just to be sure, he put a piece of wool on the ground overnight, and told God that if the wool was sopping wet in the morning and the ground was dry, this would help him figure out if God was serious or not. And having come up the next morning with wet wool and dry ground, he begged God not to loose his temper but just once more give him a sign: if after another night in the open air the wool was totally dry and the ground was wet, then he Gideon would know that there was no way to avoid the whole Midianite debacle.
Me – I’ve decided that if my two front teeth start to chip and break up in the next couple of weeks, then clearly something has got to be done at once. But if not, then surely I can trust God to preserve them from all evil -- or at least all breakage -- for another couple of years.
So for now, the dentist has got to be content getting away with thousands of dollars on deep cleaning, fillings, and that root canal way in the back.
The key thought – “surely I can trust God” -- is not unreasonable. Where else can we go but to God when life becomes impossible, or when we tumble into ridiculous and even dangerous situations?
We can trust God because -- well -- because Goodness and Mercy keep following us day after day, and our cups keep on running over with gifts and prayers, love and laughter.