Elegy for a Tooth

We have in our family what I consider to be bad luck when it comes to teeth. Of the five of us, four have lost teeth we should in theory still possess either through accident, decay, or a combination of the two. Add that to the baby teeth that my daughter has lost in the normal legitimate way, and I am amassing quite a tooth collection. The teeth are scattered in a few places throughout the house, and I don’t quite know what to do with them. When, a decade ago, I found an envelope of my own baby teeth in a box of photos at my mom’s house, I was appalled, but now here I am forming a collection of my own. I certainly can’t throw them away; I understand that now. I have this idea of a miniature graveyard for teeth– I don’t guess headstones are necessary, but I might like an itty-bitty wrought iron fence. And maybe a tiny tooth fairy statue, I don’t know. I have a spot all picked out under an oak tree in the backyard, if only I can get my husband on board with the plan.

There is one beloved tooth I will not be able to put in the tooth cemetery, however. My second bottom right molar—number thirty-one, I think— which, after years of being valiantly patched up by various dentists, finally crumbled shortly after my first pregnancy, and was extracted. I guess they don’t think grown-ups want their teeth back, because they did not offer to give it to me in a little plastic treasure chest box, but instead whisked it away, I assume to be incinerated. I didn’t think much of it at first, but as my tongue got used to feeling the hole in the back of my mouth over the next few days, I realized I would have liked the opportunity to say goodbye, to have a little closure. I mean, it was a good tooth. Had I been given the chance to honor it, my speech would probably have contained all of the lukewarm tropes of a goldfish eulogy, but still. Number Thirty-One was a trooper; up until this this point in life, I had enjoyed hard candies and caramel with abandon and had enthusiastically crunched mixed nuts and ice with youthful disregard. I experienced little pain from it and never would have guessed it needed to be removed until the dentist showed me an x-ray in which it was obviously in two pieces.  

Teeth are not the only things I wouldn’t mind laying to rest in a dignified place of my choosing; there are other items that I’d like to keep as well. For example, our placentas (no idea what became of my daughter’s, but the hospital doctors were very, very excited about taking the placenta the twins shared for research. So in that respect I am pleased—I like to imagine our weird-ass twin placenta being shown off to suitably impressed medical students), the children’s’ umbilical cord stumps (I’m just going to confess here that at least one of these went unaccounted for and may be in some dark recess of the house), and hair (I can do without the stopping-the-drain kind, but I think the sweet curl my daughter cut from her own head at age four deserves a small memorial). Perhaps I could have a sort of little mausoleum for these sorts of items, or make it all into some creepy Victorian-style jewelry.

I don’t think about this sort of thing too much on a regular basis, or at least I wouldn’t if people would stop losing teeth at our house. Placentas and umbilical cord stumps only rarely make appearances, and I try to monitor the children’s scissors use in an effort to minimize the number of angelic curls I find lying around, but those teeth—they just keep falling out. I really don’t like the continued reminder that they don’t stick around. That I must bravely chew almonds without my molar. That my children’s mouths are full of wobbly symbols of life’s constant instability. That even “permanent” teeth are in fact anything but.  Teeth, I’ve found, are soft lessons in mortality. The first set falls out alarmingly, but then a supernatural entity spirits them away and the new set comes in bigger and stronger—so it’s all sort of okay in the end. But when that second set starts to give, and there’s no fairy in sight, I find myself reluctantly in the midst of a whole different lesson. It’s one that calls for a different brand of faith than what the tooth fairy demands, a faith that accepts that my perception of what it means to be whole, what it means to be myself, can at any time be cast to the winds.

Here’s to you, Number Thirty-One. Wherever you are.

One thought on “Elegy for a Tooth

  1. There are several of your husband’s teeth here at the house enclosed in a very small plastic box if you want to add those to the grave(tooth)yard. Loved reading this!


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