teeth (part two)
14 January 2003

Well, that’s over. Only the emotional scars remain. Mine, that is. Damian is just fine. As far as he’s concerned, his teeth no longer hurt and life is good. Me? Well, I’ll be okay. Especially now that he is.

The night before the procedure was the worst part. Waiting. Wondering how much work the dentist would have to do. Wondering how Damian’s body would handle the anesthesia. General anesthesia, knocked out cold. There’s always a risk. Dan told me his father (a retired anesthesiologist) hadn’t seemed worried. That helped to know.

No, that wasn’t the worst part. Worse was when we sat in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. Seven thirty Saturday morning. The anesthesiologist, an attractive Asian woman with a smile that seemed almost genuine, pulled a stethoscope out of her Tigger backpack and listened to Damian’s heartbeat. She had him blow on a ladybug pinwheel. She stood him on a bathroom scale and double checked his weight. That wasn’t the bad bit. That came when she stood across from us and talked about what to expect when he woke up. Sleep so deep and oblivious, he wouldn’t realize it if his chin dropped to his chest and cut off his air supply. A stomach so troubled he might not be able to hold down water, so unpredictable he might vomit in his sleep and choke himself. Never mind the rare but possible severe complications leading to emergency rooms and intensive care. Medication that makes you suddenly, scarily ill. An oxymoron. A necessary evil.

Worse still was a few moments later. When she had Damian sit on my lap facing me. I had to grip his arm so she could guide the shot in. He didn’t like it, was complaining, saying he didn’t want to do it, wasn’t happy with the whole thing, and then he fell silent. He looked around the room, suddenly stoned, his eyes darting everywhere. Seeing ghostly trails? Rainbows? Special effects out of a cheesy seventies TV show? I don’t know and he doesn’t remember. Then his eyelids fluttered – once, twice, a few times more. I thought that despite her prediction, he was going to close his eyes, but he didn’t. His eyes stopped their flirtation with sleep and stilled. Open but asleep.

No, not asleep. I’ve seen him in sleep, there’s a peace to his soft breaths, the way his hands curl up near his head. You can almost see the dreams begin their dance. This was a more profound unconsciousness. Not like death either; not that ultimate absence of self, that disconnect between body and being. I’ve been in the room with death. Twice. I can see the difference, and it goes beyond breath and its lack. Death is an absence, the soul perhaps hovering nearby but no longer inhabiting the flesh. This was a dormancy. Damian’s self still present, but no longer in control. No longer dominant. Pushed down, cocooned in layers of blankets, a forced non-sleep.

We only had a few minutes before he woke. The drug was temporary, designed to make his transition to the IV drip more efficient and less traumatic. So I carried him to the examining room in my arms. His body was stiff, taut. Splayed back in my arms. This, too, so different from sleep. His breathing, though, that was gentle, easy. Reassuring.

I set him down in the dental chair. The chair he’d wondered about a few days earlier: does it go up and down? And he’ll get to find out, but not in that moment. He was in the very chair and never knew.

They kicked me out the moment he left my arms. I wanted to linger, to observe as much as I could of the setting-up process, as if I could somehow protect him that way, keep everything on track with the simple fact of my presence. Mom in the room: everyone take special care of this little person. But it doesn’t work that way. Mom in the room means another person to worry about, another person to get in the way, another person who doesn’t understand, who winces and worries.

I got out to the waiting room and grabbed the bathroom key. A delayed reaction? Visceral, my body reacting. I started to cry walking down the empty hallway. Was mostly done crying by the time I got back. I kept seeing Damian in my arms, so still. A quick-freeze human being.

Maybe that was the worst part. Not yet knowing. Damian out of our hands, mysterious things happening to him, drugs dripping into his veins, instruments invading his mouth.

I’ve been to the dentist plenty of times. Had nasty work done. Even been under general anesthesia to get my wisdom teeth out. Nothing felt like this. This wasn’t fear of pain. This was a deeper ache altogether.

It’s not rational, I know that. A dental procedure, a light anesthetic, what’s the big deal? We’re not talking invasive surgery here, not talking kidney removal or radiation poisoning. It’s almost routine, what Damian went through. He’s already put it behind him. It still haunts me, though, the memory of that feeling. It’s the vulnerability, I think, his and ours both. I’m not used to feeling so helpless.

Dan and I sat in the waiting room for two and a half hours. I fiddled with iPhoto on my laptop, he tried to read a dark and strange novel. Neither of us could concentrate worth a damn. The hygienist came in with periodic updates. “He’s doing well, he’s doing fine, she just did the extractions.” All we could really do was nod and say thanks. I kept forgetting to ask her to turn off the sappy radio station. Around the two hour mark, Dan commented, “Hey, they’re finally playing a decent song.” (Elton John, I think.) That’s my main memory of that morning: an empty waiting room, a magazine rack filled with the oddest assortment: Working Mother alongside Modern Maturity tucked in front of a travel brochure. And the music jangling down my spine, overlaying everything like a thin coat of sticky sap.

And then it was over. That was the best part. Though hearing him start to cry and running in to find him unconscious and still connected to the IV, well, that wasn’t. Crying in his stoned sleep as the medication began to leave his body. The anesthesiologist gave me the heave-ho again.

I rejoined Dan and the stocky, serious dentist in mid-colloquy. She’d done an awful lot of work in those two hours. She yanked two molars (the back lower molar on each side), performed root canal and put crowns on two more (the ones next to the evacuated teeth), and filled a handful of cavities, to boot. Later I asked her if this was one of the worst cases she’d seen. She shrugged and nodded. “It’s up there, yes.” I’m trying not to think about that too much, though of course I can’t help myself. It’s embarrassing, even humiliating. But we can’t turn back time and even if it were possible to relive and change the moments leading up to this, I’m not sure we could have sped Damian’s oral desensitizing up all that much. And what then? Still the conundrum.

It doesn’t matter. It is what it is. This is what happened, this is what we did to deal with that fact. The dentist originally said she couldn’t work this Saturday, scheduled us for Monday. Saturday she was going to her father’s eightieth birthday party. But she said that back on Wednesday. By Thursday, when I told her that Damian’s cheek was hugely swollen and starting to redden, she told us to come in on Saturday. I feel amazingly lucky in this. All that last minute scrambling I did, searching for a dentist to trust, and I found one who cared enough to switch her life around to make this little boy’s mouth better, a child she’d never met.

We watched Damian wake up, tried to comfort him. He was a little irritable, but he complained in complete sentences. To the anesthesiologist, this was a plus. She took his blood pressure; he tried to push the cuff off his arm. This wasn’t such a plus. He wasn’t terribly responsive to me when I tried to stop him. It felt like he was working at a simpler level, his brain not fully engaged.

Once she gave the all clear on his blood pressure, Dan gathered Damian in his arms and we left. I cradled Damian on my lap during the short car ride home; Dan kept reminding me to check his breathing. We were both scared of this next part. It felt so good to have him back, have this warm gangly bundle of child in my arms again, but the next part was a big question mark. Would we spend the afternoon somewhere between dry heaves and tears?

We didn’t. Damian settled on Dan’s shoulder for a nap. The rocking chair creaked as Dan gently rocked his sleepy son. Shades of days gone by, rocking an infant to sleep. Maybe an hour passed like this. Then Dan needed to stretch his legs (okay, pee) and I took over. Settled Damian on my lap on the couch. After a short silence, Damian turned in my arms. “I’m a little bit hungry, Mommy.”

“How about some water first?”

“I don’t want water. I’m hungry!”

We explained that his stomach might be wobbly and that he had to try the water first, see if his stomach could handle it. Then and only then maybe he could have something to eat.

He took a sip of water. “My stomach can handle it.”

After a few more sips, we got him some food. The anesthesiologist had told us to wait an hour between water and the next step, but Damian was awfully convincing. He was ready.

In the next two hours he had: a watermelon pop, an entire container of pudding (“Yum, yum, yummy! This is good!” with every bite, laughing as he said it), and two – no, three – small bowls of vanilla ice cream. It all stayed down.

Somewhere between pudding and ice cream, Damian decided he should go for a stroll. He stood up, bent to straighten his sock, and fell forward. Splat, like a cartoon character.

“Mommy, I forgot how to walk.”

But he didn’t sound upset. Just curved back into my arms to watch TV. After a while, tired of Bear and his colorful abode, Harold and his powerful purple crayon and Blue and her ubiquitous clues, he decided to try this walking thing again. This time he was successful.

Soon thereafter, I heard excited frog noises from his room. His rubber frogs were excavating ancient ruins with a bulldozer, or maybe they were building a school, I’m not sure. You’d never guess what he’d undergone that very morning. Root canals, extractions, anesthesia. And everything was good again.

That was definitely, without question, the very best part.

A few hours earlier, as we left the dentist’s office, the anesthesiologist nodded at us. Her demeanor different now. Neither business-like nor cheery-to-the-kid. Serious. “You did the right thing, getting him in here.”

“I just wish we’d done it sooner.”

The hygienist smiled sadly and spoke in a soft Russian accent. “He has a second chance.”

That simple, almost cliché phrase has stayed with me for days. Because it’s true. These are his baby teeth. Now we have ammunition for him and for ourselves: we can teach him how to take care of his teeth so this never happens to his adult teeth, the ones he’ll keep the rest of his life.

I hate looking in his mouth and seeing the glint of silver, those two crowns. Worse, the space behind them where two molars used to be. But new teeth will grow in seven or eight years from now. New, strong teeth. A fresh start for all of us.

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copyright 2003 Tamar