Yesterday I went to the dentist, a common experience for me, because as a four month old infant I suffered a wicked bout of rheumatic fever which basically destroyed the enamel on my teeth. My teeth are angry and troublesome. When I was a small child my mother would regularly drive me from our rural home to the big city for treatment because in the nearest metropolis there was –tah dah!-a Pediatric Dentist, a rarity in those days. The trip took an hour each way and my mother
a) didn’t like to drive and wasn’t good at it,
b) had absolutely no sense of direction and
c) had to be excused from work for the day to drive me, which was not always easy for her.
One time she handed the duty off to a babysitter who drove me around for hours before she realized that we had long passed the city all together. Happily, we never made it to my appointment. Anyway, the trip was a routine task for us, and this particular pediatric dentist was not exactly Marcus Welby, MD. His office was dark and foreboding to begin with. It smelled like a cocktail of rubbing alcohol and bleach. The only book in the entire waiting room was a tattered children’s bible and, believe me, the children who came through that door needed it. He did not permit my mother or a nurse (yes, they used to have nurses) to be present in the room as he drilled and filled my teeth using no anesthesia at all. Once I cried so much that he made me stand behind the curtain that covered the window until I stopped. As I sobbed and begged for my mother, he assured me that she had deserted me. She had left me there because I cried too much. Nice huh? Then, after I finally let Dr. Sadist complete the latest torturous procedure, he presented me with a little plastic ring… “for being such a good girl.” My mother, nervously pacing and wringing her hands in the waiting room, was assured of some Freudian logic that validated why children behaved like this in his presence. He reminded her that he was a highly accredited specialist. This man emoted condescension without even saying a word, so my mother acquiesced. Anyway, until I was about twenty years old, this was my point of reference for the word, dentist.
Good news though. Since then, my teeth and I have been born again. As a young adult I discovered that dentists could use medicine to numb your mouth before they drill, pick, spray, ect, When I lived in New York, my dentist, Dr. Levine, hung framed black and white headshots of his patients on the walls of his office. Dr. Levine loved his patients. He was like Santa Claus and I loved him too. My current dentist, Dr. Beilman, is gentle as a lamb; a tough order to fill when you are constantly replacing crowns or rooting them out or ….well, you get the idea. She sends me birthday cards too. Yesterday I was in her office for hours as she lovingly replaced a tired old crown. After she prepped me, my mouth looked like a construction site in Dubai. Metal scaffolding protruding, little hoses of water and air hanging everywhere. Clamp thingies propping my jaw, “a tiny little little mouth,” stretched as wide as it would go. Every once in a while she would pat my shoulder and sigh as though she were nursing a sick child and say, “Awww. OK? You OK? Awww.” Her TLC is soothing enough to make you want to crack a tooth or something. I wasn’t even alarmed when I saw smoke coming out of my mouth (yes you read that correctly) as a result of some laser thing she used. Didn’t hurt a bit, I swear.
It is nice to know that our perceptions of people, places and things can change with experience. Experiences can turn a scary thing into a warm fuzzy thing. Today I do not have that old sense of dread accompanied by a twisted stomach when an appointment approaches. I suppose this phenomenon can go the other way too, but for now my memories of a dark place behind a curtain followed by a sharp drilling whirrrrr have been replaced with images of gentle hands, faces and sounds. My teeth and I are peaceful. It is all good. Yesterday was good, even though I didn’t get a ring.