I’m speaking of the gap between upper left canine and bicuspid that first appeared after dental work on a back molar several years ago. Flossing, which had before then had been tricky on account of too close contact, suddenly posed a new problem: the floss flew through this gap, catching on nothing. I coped as best I could, relying heavily on dental picks. Recently my dentist proposed a more thorough cleaning with anesthesia. After this “good” cleaning, he would build up the gap, restoring favorable relations between those once sympathetic neighbors. I practically leapt at the prospect.
While waiting to grow numb, I studied a photograph mounted on the wall of a school-age boy climbing a hill in front of a stucco building. It could have been an Edward Hopper painting with the many apertures created by open doors and windows, and the melancholy play of shadow and light. The boy’s own shadow, projected on the wall behind him by the angle of light, appeared as a fairy-tale ogre hot on his heels.
I asked my dentist if he had taken the photo. I knew he’d participated in humanitarian dental missions in far-flung regions, places that would feature this kind of schoolboy and architecture. But his friend had taken the photo in Cuba. My dentist, owing to dangerous conditions in Honduras, hadn’t participated in a relief mission for several years.
Soon he was at work on my rotten bicuspid. Whenever I sit in the dentist chair I think of Doctor De Soto, a favorite children’s book by William Steig. De Soto is a mouse-dentist who, with the help of his wife assistant, agrees to treat a fox with a rotten bicuspid and unusually bad breath. He’s a clever and nimble hero, especially popular with the big animals because he’s able to work inside their mouths, wearing rubbers to keep his feet dry; and his fingers were so delicate, and his drill so dainty, they could hardly feel any pain.
Although the sign outside De Soto’s office clearly states animals dangerous to mice are not accepted for treatment, he’s not immune to suffering. When the fox appears under his window, in horrible pain and begging for mercy, the mouse-dentist is thrown into a conundrum. “Let’s risk it,” his wife says. De Soto gives the fox gas and pulls the tooth. When the fox wakes, the dentist tells him that the worst is over, but that he will have to return the next day for his new tooth.
My dentist was going after the trouble spot with something called a curette, which I’ve since learned from Dr. Pulp’s Blog removes chronically inflamed granulation tissue, dislodged calculus, and bacterial colonies. After strenuous scraping and other maneuvers, he told me to spit in the little sink and there was a good deal of blood. Moreover, I’d have to return in two day’s time to give the gum a chance to recover. The bonding agents might fail if there was blood in the equation.
With the worst behind me, I left feeling celebratory. Driving home I thought of the two young women from Kenya who had recently stayed with me, yoga teachers on a fundraising tour for a Nairobi-based non-profit. One of them had arrived holding her jaw in her hand and complaining of a sore tooth. A dentist friend of mine took a quick look and said she’d need to be seen as soon as possible.
This dentist, too, had participated in humanitarian medical missions. He made room in his schedule the next morning for both of my houseguests. While only one had an urgent complaint, neither of them had ever been to a dentist before. He thought it might be a good idea if they both had cleanings and x-rays.
Magdaline’s teeth were in pretty good shape, but Irene would need a root canal. Immediately. My friend the dentist called his friend the endodontist and within no time we were speeding our way from one office to the other to take advantage of a cancellation that had freed a spot in the schedule. We were in high spirits, my Kenyan friends apparently game for anything. Irene had suffered for months—no, years with her bad tooth. Both of them seemed to enjoy being fussed over by hygienists, receptionists, and dentists.
Our day of dental adventuring, right down to the root canal, was accomplished at no cost to the patients or their host family. Phew. Later in the day, I heard that Irene had left a comment on her Facebook page: “Best day ever! I had a root canal!” Not a trace of irony, I assure you.
At a follow-up visit to the dentist’s office later that week, Magdaline and I sat together in the waiting room. She told me about her life as a school age girl in Kenya. She would get up at 6 to do chores–haul water, sweep, and clean, and had to be at school by 7. Often, because of the chores, she was late, an offense punishable by caning. When I asked her where she was caned, she held her hands out as if to receive a package.
Her mother went to the school saying, please don’t do this to my daughter, she’s a good girl and only late because of me. She explained that she had a son with cerebral palsy and needed Magdaline’s help in the morning. Even so, the canings continued. Her mother began to wake her at 5 so that she could get to school on time.
Now Magdaline lived alone. Every Sunday she carried her week’s supply of water from the public water source to her apartment in 5-litre jugs, on her head. She used 10 jugs a week for drinking and washing and was able to carry 20 kg on her head. When the wheels of her enormous roller suitcase had broken in New York City, she went to hoist it on her head and Irene, who had been to the United States before, said, “No, Magda, you can’t carry it on your head here!” We laughed together about this.
As we talked, we looked through a portfolio of before and after cosmetically enhanced smiles. When we got to the end she seemed perplexed. “Why would people want their smiles to be different?” she wondered.
As we were leaving the office, my friend the dentist told me that I had an assignment. I was to get dental floss and teach them how to use it. Somehow the week slid by and I only remembered while we were standing in Penn Station, waiting for the train that would whisk them back to New York and then on to Nairobi. I ran to the newsstand and bought the last two packages of dental floss in stock. In our final moments together, I showed them how to wrap it around index fingers and clamp down with thumbs. I didn’t want to floss in public, but I knew from long experience that there was a learning curve. Make sure you use enough floss, I explained. You have to wrap it around a couple of times, get the right tension and distance. And you have to do it every day, I cried after them as they dragged their enormous suitcases to the gate. Promise!
Another line from Doctor De Soto has just popped into my head. The fox, after leaving his first dental treatment, wonders if it would be shabby of him to eat the De Sotos when the job was done. He is, after all, a fox, and already feeling so much more like himself.
That line has always tickled me, as does the newly restored contact between my eyetooth and bicuspid. Three cheers for gap closers and risk-takers, for medical and dental professionals the world over. We do not want to eat you; we do, however, want to thank you.