Kirby Lee Davis
Tales from My Shelves: The Tooth
I have a friend who keeps his workspace filled with spare briefcases, bow ties, books, hats, plaques, trophies, sports keepsakes, and other things that gathered around him through the years. He called this collection his "office museum."
My bookshelves play that role in my life, which is a good thing, since my mother always encouraged me to collect books, on just about all subjects. My dad aided that by building the shelves – well, three of them. Not only do they harbor favorite tomes collected over six decades, but trinkets, props, and mementos from a lifetime spent testing the scope of God's love.
One shelf displays a tiny rabbit statue made by my youngest daughter. Like many creators humbled by their efforts, she ended up dissatisfied with that white clay nubbins, but I find it oh so precious… and far better crafted than most figurines sold in stores.
Another shelf offers my grandfather's worn harmonica. My mom wanted me to have it, but didn't want me to use it – she was afraid the reeds, dry and brittle with age, would disintegrate under my hot bellows. But it works and sounds fine… or at least it did the last time I put it to my lips – which demonstrates my obstinance reasonably well. My mom smiled at that, pleased the contraption still carried a tune.
She knew I would try it.
I'm sure this mouth organ held great meaning to her, and probably many stories, which I hope to hear when I join her in the next life. I was too stupid to ask her much about them when I had the chance here on earth.
Many such tales lie within the props on these shelves. Let's dive into one kept in a small, translucent plastic box. It holds a half-inch wisdom tooth, my last one, its roots intact, its enamel sides scrubbed by hydrogen peroxide, yet still colored by age and wear.
The winding story behind this offers some curious illustrations of deception, denial, persistence, pliers, and prayer. And it’s all true. Really.
This all-too-human epic started in 2003, when one of my wisdom teeth decided it wanted out. That backsliding biter made such a fuss that I caved in and endured one of those extremely rare visits to a gummy sawbones, all to get that rascally fang out of my life. The dentist injected me with multiple drugs – for lone painkillers rarely dent my nervous system – and eventually freed the fussy chewing utensil to its own affairs. This doctor then warned me not to drive or do anything mentally stressful with all those nerve-blinding chemicals deadening half my face. He also suggested rather strongly that it wasn't wise for someone pushing 45 to be walking around with his wisdom teeth still in use.
"But no one else will walk with me," I tried to say, though my tongue and lips were too inflated, and high, to annunciate such complicated words.
I contemplated the dentist's advice as I drove back to finish my deadline newspaper work. You see, I was rather attached to my wisdom teeth. I hadn't named them or anything like that, but I liked them in my skull more than outside of it. Yet there was no denying my age, as my father liked to tell me when he wasn't questioning my dating plans, so after about a year of careful thought and heartfelt chews, I decided it might indeed be wise to get the deed done. So I started looking for a dentist.
Now before you ask, I can't remember why I didn't go back to the jaw hacker who removed the first quarter of my wisdom. But it wouldn't surprise me if I resisted going to anyone who sought more of my business while he had his fingers in my mouth.
I drove around and around my Oklahoma City apartment, wondering who I dared trust with those ivory jewels basking within my saliva. No sawbones worked in walking distance, so I spread out the search parameters until I found a neighborhood drill pusher with an office that looked like a home. I always appreciated such spots – they just seem comforting – so I pulled in and made an appointment.
You might guess their first question: "Do you have insurance?" it's one of the most frequent and expensive inquiries you'll face in life, seemingly unavoidable these days. But with my first examination came a surprise – the attractive receptionist, who transformed into an dental nurse once you sat in their second-hand barber chair, wanted to charge my insurer for all three teeth before they would extract even one.
Now I had never encountered anything like that, but I figured if the insurer didn't mind, why should I? So they inquired, the insurer agreed, and I had my second wisdom tooth pulled at the close of a sunny Friday afternoon.
The feat took a great deal of time, much more than the first, and came off with enough painful pain-killing injections to numb half my body, or so it seemed when the fingers and toes on my left side started yawning. For some reason the dentist couldn't stop my new jaw hole from bleeding, so he sent me home with a fistful of cotton gauze, instructions on what mouth rinse to obtain, some pain pills he hoped would suffice, and strict orders to not drive until tomorrow. He vowed to remain open until someone could come and take me home, and then he went home, leaving his receptionist/nurse to enforce his directives. So I said "OK," went out to my car, and drove home, which was only three miles or so. By Monday, the bleeding stopped. The pain ended a few days later.
Then a funny thing happened. The dentist wanted to wait a few months before pulling my next tooth – his receptionist nurse said my surgery had drained him, which almost made me laugh, since I was the one wounded in this endeavor. During that downtime, my employer asked me to head a new office in Tulsa, about 90-some miles up the Turner Turnpike. I took the job, moved, successfully launched the office, and called my dentist to set up my appointment.
The receptionist sounded shocked. "We just assumed you'd get the rest of the work done there," she said.
"But my insurer's already paid you," I reminded them.
"Oh, yes," she agreed with some hesitation, "but you see, Dr. (name omitted for obvious reasons) doesn't like to do adult teeth. He's more of a pediatric dentist."
That was news to me. And unimportant, since this firm already had my money.
After some verbal swordplay over why I had not learned of this before now, I suggested we schedule the last two teeth come out in one visit, just to get it all over and done. When she resisted, we settled on one tooth, to be pulled the next month.
One month later, I girded myself for the task ahead, drove down to the dentist, chatted with the receptionist, settled into the chair, endured her cleaning my teeth… and was sent home. The dentist came in to say he'd been sick all day and didn't feel up to it.
Somewhat put out, I asked why no one had called me to reschedule this before I traveled down that hectic turnpike. He apologized and said we'd reschedule this for two months later. Seeing few other options, I agreed, but I insisted the nurse set that date for both remaining tasks. She accepted this.
To no one's surprise, two months passed, leading to my day of destiny. Girding myself once again for the onslaught, I drove down to Oklahoma City, chatted with the receptionist, settled into the chair, had my pearly whites cleaned… and found the drillmaster geared for battle. After a first round of shots, then a second, and a third, he worked all his doo-dads, mastered his potential, and came away with a tooth. Pleased, he set it down, took off his gloves, and said how happy he'd be to see me next month.
"Oh, no," I told him. "You're supposed to remove both teeth today. We scheduled it."
He froze at that, then looked in annoyance to his receptionist. I couldn't see her response, but she must have agreed with me, for it spurred one of the darkest scowls I've ever witnessed.
"Well, OK then," he growled.
Now on his dental tray lay all sorts of shiny stainless-steel contraptions. I'd never thought much about them because, quite frankly, I don’t know what they do, except for the drill, and that miniature vacuum that makes all sorts of noises my aunts used to scold me for in my youth. But there was one device there I knew well: a standard set of long-necked pliers, the kind you can pick up at any Home Depot or Lowe's, though I doubt they'd ever match the sheen these grippers possessed. Unfortunately, I didn't see those essential home tools until my mad oral contractor set one foot to my seat, leaned onto his raised knee, and lifted the pliers to his eye.
"Now," he spat, "let's get this done."
As he took hold of my jaw, all the while extending the pliers toward my nose, I made urgent prayers for God's grace and mercy.
Help him do this! I asked again and again as those metal teeth clamped onto one of my own.
With one hand, this dentist pushed my head down. The other hand shoved his pliers left.
"One!" he shouted. At least I think it was him, though it might just have been me thinking that.
The pliers jammed right.
The dentist tightened his hold on my jaw, even as his right hand yanked back.
The pliers surged out of my mouth. With them came my last wisdom tooth.
My dentist looked flabbergasted. So was I. All his other targets had put up such a fuss, hissing and scratching to stay put, but this tooth came out with no fight, no blood, no shots, and no pain.
"Wow!" I blurted out.
I felt the nurse's hands grip my shoulders. She seemed relieved. Perhaps my exclamation broke the dentist's tension. He looked at the tooth, then me, then the nurse, before releasing a slow smile.
"How do you feel?" he asked, showing the first genuine concern I'd heard from his lips in all my visits. I just assumed it was for me, but he still eyed the nurse.
"Wonderful!" I said, elated at answered prayer. "May I see it?"
Again I managed to stump the dentist. He looked to me, then his nurse, before lowering the pliers to my eye level. He shook his head when I reached out for what had been a part of me, so I asked if I could have the tooth... I recognized a good tale when I lived through it. This mad driller pondered that but a moment before allowing the nurse to wrap my prize in cotton snugged within a small resealable plastic bag. Wary of possible lingering germs, they instructed me to soak the tooth in peroxide before handling it, which I must have overdone, for some of the enamel disappeared by the time I was done. But the tooth survived, as did I.
Take my word for it.