My daughter floats into the living room, cheeks flushed, hair rumpled. A hopeful smile flutters across her face. Her tongue wiggles something.
“Could I have a loose tooth?” she asks, eyes wide. I peer in. Bottom front. Indisputable.
Dora Lee is almost 5. She has spent most of the past year preparing for this moment. At some point, she discovered a 30-year-old children’s book about a young aardvark named Arthur who is desperate to lose his first tooth. Since then, she has taken every opportunity to quote her favorite line: “Between the ages of 4 and 7 … everyone begins to lose their deciduous, or baby teeth.”
Having heard the book 500 times, she is ready.
Having read the book 500 times, I am not.
I am surprised by the intense twinge of melancholy I feel watching her race to relay the good news to her dad and little brother, then to the bathroom mirror.
I have never been gracious about accepting time’s passage. And yet it hurries forward, impervious to my longing. Each milestone — first birthday cake, first time using the potty, first time sleeping through the night — is 20 parts gratitude and wonder and one part regret. Each crossed threshold relegates something that felt permanent to memory.
Dora Lee starts kindergarten soon. I will blink and she will be a teenager. With another blink, she will be visiting me from her home in some far flung corner of the country, perhaps with my grandkids in tow. At least, I hope we will be so lucky.
So much of parenting young children is exhausting. In theory, I want to pause and appreciate each moment, but there are tantrums to manage and baths to give and diapers to change and laundry to fold and dishes to wash. (Mysteriously, my children use three or more plates at each meal.)
Between all of that — and the paid work I do — time often slips past, unnoticed until a first tooth starts to wiggle.
Dora Lee wasn’t yet 6 months old when the tooth first appeared, a tiny white nub poking through a pink gum. We were new parents, at once entranced by our first child’s amazingness and zombie-like from lack of sleep. The tooth exacerbated both states. Oh, the wishful dependence on teething rings and homeopathic remedies. Oh, the sore nipples.
We fought for those teeth! Now they’re leaving already?
Wasn’t it just a few years ago I was a child losing my first tooth, sliding it carefully under my pillow, fighting to stay awake to catch one of my parents retrieving it? For years, my inability to do so was all the evidence I needed to know the Tooth Fairy existed. And now she comes for my daughter.
Unlike her mother, Dora Lee won’t be fooled for long. At 4, she is a 21st-century skeptic, already unafraid to ask hard questions about the mythic winged being planning to leave cash under her pillow. Once Dora Lee learns to Google, we’re toast.
Even now, she walks up to me, wiggling, wiggling, and informs me that the Tooth Fairy probably doesn’t exist. The parents take the teeth, she surmises, then leave money in its place.
I suspect she does not want me to agree with this hypothesis. So I feign outrage, arguing that her explanation makes no sense. Why would parents want to pay money for a baby tooth? We already have teeth, after all.
She nods gravely. She hadn’t considered that.
She wiggles again. The tooth tilts at a dramatic angle.
Soon, it will fall out, and she will run to place it lovingly under her pillow.
Soon after that, her father will make her bed, there will be a frantic realization that the tooth is no longer there, her father will locate the tooth on the floor, and Dora Lee will stop crying.
And then, the next morning, Dora Lee will wake to find confirmation of the Tooth Fairy’s existence. She will enter the living room waving two one-dollar bills and a signed note congratulating her for brushing well. Certain grown-ups will inform her — in a disapproving tone she won’t notice — that the Tooth Fairy appears to abide by inflation.
Someday, when I ask what the Tooth Fairy does with all those teeth, Dora Lee will gravely explain that said Fairy eats baby teeth ground into soup.
Someday. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps the day after that.
But for now, the tooth remains in place, wiggling its way toward oblivion. I gaze at my daughter’s perfect face. For a brief moment, time slows down.
Jocelyn Wiener is an Oakland-based journalist who writes about health, mental health, poverty and social issues.