Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Something To Chew On

I find it ironic that the most valuable asset I have is my mouth.

Before I drove Mom to the dentist's office yesterday, I paused to consider how much money I had, over the years, invested in my own dental work. On one side alone I had dropped more than ten grand on fillings, root canals, crowns, a bridge, and -- when that bridge finally broke -- a longer bridge (too bad I couldn't use stimulus money for all this roadwork). Over on the other side, I was looking at three fillings (one of them gold) and an overlay that probably amounted to another couple of thousand ... and this was all in my lower jaw. I'm not even counting the medical bills spawned by the extraction of two wisdom teeth and a painful "dry socket" episode following one of the surgeries.

This wouldn't be so terrible if there were a finish line I could cross, knowing I was finally done with all this maintenance. But, as I'm sure you know, a set of teeth in an adult over 35 becomes a ticking time bomb. Just like old car parts, teeth have a tendency to decay, rust, crack, fall off and suck the money right out of your past, present and future.

Furthermore, my upper jaw -- mostly untouched -- taunts my dentist with delightful possibilities every time I have my X-rays retaken. 

"See these?," he says, trying not to smile, as he points to two railroad spikes lying sideways in my jaw, embedded up above my two baby canines. "The only way these will ever come in is if I pull the baby teeth and put braces on the rest ... even then, there's only a fifty-fifty shot at success because YOU'RE SO OLD to be having this done. The only other thing you can do is have me pull the baby teeth, extract the impacted teeth and put in implants, but then you'll still need braces to help the other teeth reposition themselves properly."

These are the words he is saying, but what I'm hearing in my head is a series of loud "cha-chings" followed by unearthly screams coming from my credit cards. I hear the word "braces" and wonder if so little added beauty in my middle age is worth mortgaging the house.  I glare at these X-rays, resenting the two baby teeth that have caused all this chaos. How can it be that I have adult teeth blowing gaskets all over the place... yet these two white nubbins, hold-overs from babyhood, stubbornly sit there, ruining countless photographs my friends and family have taken of me over the years? Yet... strangely ...I can't help admiring their sheer willingness to survive. They're like two ugly little pimple-faced, nose-picking friends who refuse to stop hanging out with me. I'm embarrassed to be seen with them, yet can't cast them off.  With all their faults, at least they're loyal and they apparently enjoy my company.  

So, I politely smile my crooked smile at Dr. Wantsanewbmw and try to soothe his disappointment by offering to replace yet another sad little filling in the back of my mouth. He sighs, takes the crumbs I'm throwing him and revs up the drill. 

Of course, much of my dental angst could have been avoided if my parents had believed that teeth were important enough to bother with. Too busy paying for my brother's countless medical bills (Bill routinely sprained, broke or shattered some body part at least once every six months), my folks considered trips to the dentist a luxury. I can remember exactly ONE visit to the dentist up until the time I was 18, and that likely involved Dad finally dragging me there because he couldn't stand my wimpy sobbing any longer (plus, I'm sure my swollen jaw wasn't a pleasure to look at either). I brushed my teeth, but had no clue what dental floss was until I was in my twenties. But, let me assure you, this didn't mean I had bad parents. Both of them grew up during the Depression, which meant they had learned to be frugal with money. Why, my Dad reasoned, would anyone invest hundreds of dollars into their teeth when they would all be pulled and replaced with dentures by the age of 40?

My sister Barbara vividly recalls a time when my mother - still in her thirties - was bent over a bowl of soup when one of her teeth fell out.  Barb sat there in fixated horror while Mom casually explained, "Well, that's just what happens when you get old." 

So, when Mom and Dad made it into their fourth decades of life, they both went to the dentist and had ALL their teeth pulled and replaced with dentures they then decided not to wear. But, given that Dad expected to die by the time he was 55 (he lived to 86), he figured toothlessness was only a temporary inconvenience.

Well, okay...maybe they weren't entirely toothless.  They both wore their uppers ... but whoever built their lower dentures must have accidentally mixed up their orders with Mr. Ed's. Their bottom dentures were HUGE and, frankly, frightened people. Dad, of course, thought this was great ... he'd put in his full set on national holidays and, using his tongue, would thrust them out past his lips while we were at the dinner table.

"Oh, yuck, Dad, STOP THAT." 

He'd just laugh at me.  What can I say ... there was a 13-year-old punk inside my Dad that thrived until the day he died.  He was definitely cut from that mold of old men who was forever trying to get me to pull his finger. His belches were almost musical and he thought public farts were hilarious.

Mom, on the other hand, was unaware that a defective product could be taken back and exchanged  for one not so defective. Her bottom dentures never fit her properly, so she simply stopped wearing them and, over time, forgot about them. Most people were unaware that she didn't wear them because she quickly learned to mask their absence with her lower lip. However, the omission of half her teeth became painfully evident in old age. The list of foods Mom could and couldn't successfully gum began to look something like this:

Okay to eat:

Vegetables, But Only If Really Mushy
Citrus Fruit, But Only If Packed In Syrup
Greasy Chicken*
Soft Candy
Middling Candy
Hard Candy**

Not Okay To Eat:

Most Protein Sources (Steak, Pork, Fish)
Vegetables That Still Had Vitamins Not Boiled Out Of Them
Fruits With Peels
And Anything Else Even Remotely Healthy

When she was younger, Mom would instinctively avoid foods she couldn't be bothered chewing with only half her mouth, but as she got older she sort of forgot what worked and what didn't and would re-visit this list through trial-and-error.  I would sit across from her at lunch and try to eat my hamburger without looking at her, knowing she was wadding up napkins with half-chewed broccoli or a carrot that required more chew action than it could possibly be worth.

When I moved in with Mom, I started a crusade to get her bottom dentures replaced, knowing the quality of life for both of us would improve substantially. It took me a long time to convince her that a woman in her eighties was worth the investment; after all, my Dad had taught her to believe she wasn't worth it at 40. But yesterday, after a series of visits, Mom came home with a full set of teeth. She's still not used to talking or eating with them, but it's a joy to see her smile. 

Now ... if I could just persuade my idiot brother to have his few remaining (and thoroughly rotten) molars pulled and replaced with dentures, my happiness would be complete.  Bill used to brag he could open beer bottles with his teeth. Now in his fifties, he sits in windows and frightens children on Halloween. Sadly, Bill could have had all of his needed dental work paid for with public aid, but he obstinately refuses to go to the dentist because it cuts into valuable drinking time. 

So, this Thanksgiving, I still won't be looking at him much while I eat, but at least I can look at my mother. And... this Thanksgiving, when most of you are giving thanks for your health, family, friends, and that huge $5.99 pumpkin pie from Costco... I hope you'll stop and say an extra thank-you for your choppers.  Sink your teeth into the knowledge of how much richer your life has been because you can eat well, speak well, and light up a stranger's day just by beaming a great big glorious (and even imperfect) smile his way. 

*There is a direct correlation between the fat content in a morsel of food and the effort needed to successfully inhale it.

**Maybe Mom couldn't chew a string bean, but she could somehow gum down a piece of granite if it was covered in chocolate.

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