Teeth and the Journey of Grief

Teeth and the Journey of Grief

“Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” C.S. Lewis

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Through good genes, much fastidious parenting, and a healthy dose of good luck, I managed to carry out the first 24 years of my life without a single cavity. I was told that my great-great-grandmother, Nonnie, (who had immigrated from Tuscany in the early 20th century) lived her entire life without a single cavity, though this claim is impossible to substantiate. Nevertheless, knowing this tidbit of my dental genealogical history always made me feel smug. So smug that I actually stopped going to the dentist. While I continued to brush and floss (often carelessly, as I had always done with no apparent consequence), I simply felt that visiting the dentist was both a waste of time and energy for someone who clearly had genes that would enable her to live a lifetime without cavities. Six years later, sitting in my sympathetic dentist’s chair and experiencing for the first time the exquisitely distressing experience of having six teeth drilled and filled, I concluded that forgoing the dentist for so long wasn’t the most prudent thing I had ever done.

My teeth ached for months afterwards. My dentist, a profoundly gentle and supremely over-qualified woman of national dental renown (that is a thing, really!), regrettably informed me that some people’s teeth just hurt for a really, really long time after fillings. Even after the edges of the fillings are smoothed, and carefully reshaped again and again to perfect the bite. Even after desensitizing varnish is applied, and Sensodyne toothpaste employed. While all of my co-workers remarked that they never felt a bit of pain after a tooth was properly filled, I ached. For weeks I couldn’t bite down on anything more solid than cooked pasta, and it took months to crunch a firm vegetable. Eventually the nerves in my teeth settled down some from their trauma and I’ve been able to eat more normally, favoring my right side that has fewer molars filled, and always feeling twinges of discomfort with my meals.

The most surprising realization during this strange and new experience, was the realization that I had known my teeth for 30 years. For 30 years, I had run my tongue over their grooves, their ridges. I knew what they felt like, I knew who they were, and what they were capable of. But now, after their time under the drill, I realized that these old friends will never be the same teeth again. I can never get the old ones back. Now they are covered in strange, smooth porcelain that interferes with my ability to really chew (too smooth in some places), and they shock me with their on-again-off-again fussiness— sensitive today, perfectly unbothered by anything the next. My teeth are healed, mind you, but my life with them is different. It’s uncomfortable, and it will always be lesser than when I had my original, uncavitied pearly whites.

About a month after I sat in my dentist’s chair and received six unwelcome, surprise fillings, my grandmother died. She was ninety-four years old. It’s no tragedy when a woman of ninety-four dies in God’s time, and without undue or prolonged suffering. But she and I shared what can only be described as a very special bond. She was perhaps my dearest friend, certainly my greatest champion in all things whether I deserved it or not, and perhaps a true soulmate.

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It has been almost four months to the day since she passed. I had experienced death before, with acquaintances, friends, and family. I believed I was as prepared for this grief as I could be— indeed, I was as prepared as I ever could have been. But entering into my grief for her was a totally and completely unexpected journey that I could never have anticipated. It has challenged everything I thought I knew and expected about death, about my faith, and about God. Many aspects of this experience have been profoundly painful, and some have been beset with graces I can hardly deserve.

I quickly realized, though, that I’m on a journey of healing, this road called grief, and that when I emerge on the other side I’ll probably feel a lot like my teeth did. New and unfamiliar, never again to be as I was, perhaps even (morbidly) still in pain, never functioning as well as I did before her death. It is too soon to tell. I hope to be able to share some of my thoughts about grief, healing, and my life with this blog as a way of helping myself move forward. I don’t intend this blog to be morbid, depressing, or solely focused on the death of my grandma, but to be a place where I can share thoughts, memories, and many other tidbits from my life, with the understanding that this profound experience will inform much of what I share. I appreciate your reading any of what I have to say, and all of the thoughts you care to share.

Incidentally, my next dentist appointment is penciled in for next month. A cleaning. Every six months feels too soon, but I know everyone will agree it’s a vast improvement to every six years. It’ll be better this time, I know it. Despite all the twinges, they really do feel so much better these days.

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