One of the ‘gifts’ of my lineage is having bad teeth. Every person in my family has been plagued by excessive treatment, leaving us all a tad fearful of the chair. No pain killers or anesthetics were offered where I grew up. The drill ran hot and our tears the same way. My mother having horrible dental treatment herself, dutifully marched five children up six flights of stairs to be tortured by the dentist, until he had a bad day and let the drill slip inside my sister’s cheek. Then she found a different dentist.

White knuckles clasped firmly around the red leather padding of his chair, as I repeatedly gazed through four large-paned windows. Masonry walls of a downtown building lined with gargoyles stared back, a procession of half beast, half human figures with open mouths, their presence forever associated with anguish and bravery. I looked into their eyes and they into mine as we both opened wide.

A black tube held a supply of miniature paper cups, which were periodically filled with water for spitting pieces of silver and tooth into a tiny porcelain bowl, where they were instantly swirled down an ivory drain. I braced myself. Time stood still after each rinse, as the dentist’s large hand lowered the spinning drill away from its stand and into my mouth, then audibly pushed new mercury fillings into place with masculine force before whirling again to round the edges. This experience became easier to endure when water drills were invented, or at least our dentist became prosperous enough to invest in one.  

My mouth is currently an archeological dig of dental history both good and bad. As an adult, when offered anesthetic, I declined, seeing the pain of a needle as an unnecessary addition.  I didn’t see the point, finding it easier to meditate, breathe deep and go to the gargoyle place in myself that learned to open wide and surrender. “This will be over soon,” I tell myself. “You can do it.”  People conclude I have a high tolerance for pain, but the opposite is true. I’ve just learned to be with the pain in each moment, then let go immediately.

When it was time for my latest crown, my friend Susan referred me to her dentist, who works from an office in NE Portland in a building that looks like a time capsule from 1970. The dentist, Doctor Southworth, his receptionist, Carolyn, and most of the clientele appear to be my age. As usual, I was quietly and privately terrified as I walked through the door, his assistant ushering me to a treatment room before my butt hit the waiting room chair. “We’re all ready for you.” She smiled. “Oh, but am I ready for you?” I quipped.

Doctor Southworth was a gentle man who asked how I was. “Scared.” I replied. He sat next to me. “Have you always been scared to go to the dentist?” I shook my head. “Oh yeah.”

 For a moment, I feared he’d be like the unicorn doctor I had six months earlier, who decided he was really a superpower dental therapist in disguise. That guy sat on the edge of a stool with magnified bulging eyes and an incredibly long scope of light running down his face where his nose should be. He wanted to have theraputic discussion instead of properly fixing my teeth. When he sent his bill, I refused to pay because he was so inept, but he said I had to, so I did.

No, Doctor Southworth was not Dental Therapist Unicorn Man, or the dentist I had before that, who seemed to be in a contest with his assistant to see who could crawl the farthest down my throat. 

Doctor Southworth was in fact the best dentist I’ve ever seen, and trust me, I’m an authority. It was all the little things, like making a cast of my teeth and deftly freeing it in seconds from my mouth, instead of cheering me on to do it myself, which feels like drowning in taffy and pulling my bottom and top teeth out by the root. Then there was the satisfied moment when he held the impression to the light exclaiming, “Ah, a thing of beauty.” He and his staff were quick, efficient, professional in every regard and obviously enjoyed their work.  I was in and out in record time completely without trauma, possibly for the first time in my life. How could I not love a dentist like that?


One thought on “Open Wide

  1. Ahhh, Karen! This is great! We must be related! Teeth wise. I have had work done each and every visit. When I was little, my baby teeth had to be capped. Now, most of my adult teeth are capped and I am at the point of replacing all of them! I was at the dentist this morning at 7:00AM for 2 hours of my yearly deep scaling / scraping. Now I go next month for 2 new crowns! When I was little, Mother took us to a dentist in a nearby bigger town, he was a child specialist, Dr. Stucky, I am sure he is dead, not sure where he is spending his eternity, but perhaps he redeemed himself. Who knows. It was awful going to him, he and his red cheeked nurse with her nurse hat on, would slap me, on the arms, face, whereever, big slaps. Mother had finally had enough after they had slapped enough to make me pass out. Nothing was done or said, we just went to a different dentist. I was not afraid, I figured anyone would be better. Dr. Holcott went to our church, he had kids, he was so, so, so kind. I have really never been afraid sense. It is amazing to me that I am not.
    My dad had perfect teeth, Gaga died with most of hers, somehow I missed those genes. My dad would refuse shots too, I used to ask him if it hurt, he would say, “yes it hurts, but only for a minute”!
    Good story of yours!

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