Opening Too Wide

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By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, April 15, 2007

This is my favorite dentist because she doesn't speak. Well, she's capable of speaking, I know, because once I heard her say, "Hello," and just a few moments ago, she whispered, "Bite down on this for me?" while offering me a wad of gauze. Finally, I think, sitting here with my blubbery-numb mouth. Finally, I have found you. She knows nothing about me, and I know nothing about her, and neither of us pretends to be interested in anything but, for today, one of my upper right bicuspids.

I know: A lot of patients hope for more in the way of people skills when it comes to their dental practitioners. I know this because I've been to a lot of those dental practitioners, and I have to assume they are responding to a need. My last long-term dental relationship fizzled unpleasantly. He was nice. He was handsome. When his first kid was born, he showed me pictures. He knew all about my mother's health problems, seemed genuinely concerned. I referred him to friends, and we shared concerns about the friends' boyfriends and hairdo decisions. We wove a web of connections, as folks in small towns did in the old days. It was great. And my genetically inferior teeth got a lot of needed attention: crowns, root canals, the whole bit.

Then, he got a new office manager. She had software. She started a newsletter. He told me things would be changing, that his practice was growing. I said, "Great!" I said, "I'm on your team!" One day, his office manager invited me out to lunch. I have no idea why I went. She had a notebook. She wanted names. People who needed a dentist. She wanted marketing ideas. "Anything you can think of!" she said. "This is just brainstorming!" My friends who were also patients got similar invitations. Was this, we wondered, creepy? Should we really be this involved? My teeth didn't need much anymore beyond the basics. The dentist decided I might have gum disease. He decided I might need braces. He referred me to specialists.

"So," said the periodontist, who sat me in a softly lighted room and offered me tea. "Let's discuss your goals."

My goals? Um. "Healthy gums," I said.

"Ah!" he said, and he wrote it on a little tooth-shaped piece of paper: "healthy gums." He said I was already on the way to discovering something or other about something or other that ended with, "the mind-body connection."

I did not have gum disease but learned some excellent flossing tips. Then, I got letters inviting me back to the periodontist. When I did not respond to the letters, I got harsher ones. All sorts of warnings about gum maintenance and my responsibility to the future of my mouth.

The orthodontist had an even slicker setup. I was greeted by a large sign in the lobby with my name on it and "Welcome!!" and a team of pretty, blond-haired women inviting me into the conference room overlooking a waterfall. They were there to "chat." They handed me a brochure about the practice that could have been advertising a Lexus.

"I don't even know if I need braces," I said. "I'm just here for a consult." They showed me pictures of people whom they felt they had made significantly more beautiful, thanks to braces, and asked me what I felt, really felt, about people with overbites. At the time, I had a TV crush on Aaron Brown, then a CNN news anchor, specifically because of his overbite, which I told them about, and we got into a fairly good gossip session about men on TV who probably don't know how cute they are. By the time I left, I felt bonded to those women and rude for not accepting the orthodontist's offer to spend something like $5,000 on my overbite.

I wondered: Should my teeth really be taking up this much of my emotional life? Eventually, I wiped the slate clean.

I've been seeing my current dentist for about a year. Her name begins with an "H," I think. I broke the crown on an upper right bicuspid, and I have no idea what she intends to do about it. She has given me two shots of Novocain, or whatever they use these days, and she is coming at me with the drill. My guess is she's going to prep for a new crown. Whatever. She has the gentlest touch I've ever felt from any dentist. A steady, calm focus. But the main thing is that we are not talking about why the crown broke or what it all means. I don't have to tell her about how I chew on my pen when I'm nervous or when I'm thinking, and apparently I always land on that tooth, and one day in class I just chomped down on that pen, and that tooth cracked in half. I don't have to tell her what I was all worked up about to make me chomp that hard, and she is not going on and on about my mind-body anything, and she is not suggesting I wear a night guard.

I am a tooth. She is a tooth fixer. Sometimes in this world, that is plenty enough content for a solid, lasting relationship.

"You doing okay?" she asks, while the drill whirs. Well, wow, that was big. That was so personal. I grunt. She says nothing. Life is good.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.


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