Losing Teeth

mouthing off

No. 15

Will a pulled tooth return as a phantom? Like a leg or an arm is said to do? Will there be a ghost in my mouth? Will it bite the hygienist’s finger next time she goes in to probe. “Gotcha!” She’ll pull away holding up a sore finger wondering what happened. I’ll feel bad for a minute, and then I’ll think, put that damn probe down now, once and for all.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of phantom limbs. That the brain does not forget the appendage lost, although the owner no longer has it. The arm or foot or leg is in a dump somewhere, but the pain or pleasure the limb experienced when attached still resounds through the owner’s days or dreams. Where do they put castaway body parts anyway? I might keep my tooth.

For a while I thought of my marriage this way: like a lost limb. The phantom called out to me — not memories so much as sensations both of pain and uproarious laughter, echoing in the fiber of who I am. As if the marriage, the family nights, or the Sunday breakfasts, were all still there. A graveyard for dead marriages. That’s haunting.

Interestingly, the girls and I are all approaching the removal of teeth, all facing potential phantoms.

I still have many of the baby teeth that they lost when they were wee little ones — you know, tooth fairy and all. They think I am macabre to keep them, but I save lots of mementos of their childhoods. It’s not like the teeth are limbs. Is it?

The Smart Ones: Nos. 1 and 16, 17 and 32.

Bridget has a natural ability to save good things. It’s in her personality. Her effervescence and social grace draw people to her, that easy smile and eager attitude, thus she has a lot of friends. Likewise, when it comes to money, even as a child, she just seems to have it. We’d tell the girls when packing for a vacation, “Be sure to empty your piggy banks for spending money.” Bridget would have hundreds of dollars.

Perhaps her ability to collect and emanate goodness comes from having a sweet tooth like no other. She could eat gummy worms or bears or fish by the handful. Then she’d still climb out of the dentist chair with an absolute clean bill of dental health. No cavities. No worries.

My cravings while pregnant with her were red licorice twists and potato chips. So it’s my fault I suppose.

Now, as her wisdom teeth are erupting, it follows suit that they are good solid teeth all coming in perfectly aligned. Sweet teeth, so to speak. Who gets that lucky? Bridget does.

Granted, these whole straight teeth are in the wee and far reaches of her mouth and her  genetically predisposed small jaw. We are women of small jaws, like espresso cups. Tough rounds of enamel that can tote a powerful punch when necessary. But don’t go trying to put a latte in there. No room.

The forecast is rarely positive for these prehistoric molars even when there may be enough space for them, but when they are so far back and out of the way, there is simply no room to clean the damn things.

Thus their vulnerability to a life of things that live in dark corners — dust bunnies, spider webs, chocolate, duck burgers, ghosts — has convinced both she, and two dentists, that these smarty pants have to go. Into some dental dump, I guess.

Goodbye sweet little teeth. Happy haunting!

Baby Teeth Can Last Forever

Riana has no sympathy for either of us. She was born with an extraordinary long list of amazing traits and characteristics, but when it came to divvying out teeth, she came up short. Nine short to be exact. Only 23 adult teeth to claim. Where did those nine go? Never born, not even phantoms. Maybe I didn’t eat enough calcium while pregnant?

When I boo-hooed the idea of losing one adult tooth, I could hear her rolling her eyes as she said, “Really, mom?” I was humbled.

She has a gap in her mouth awaiting an implant. “It is not as bad as you think,” she says. “Missing a tooth.” She has several implants on her dental horizon. For her, the analytic brain steps in. Problem? Solution. Take care of it. No metaphor, no special meaning. Solve it.

With her jaw finally, and reliably, adult, albeit small, it’s time to get those babies, literally, yanked out and replaced with brand new ones designed in a lab.  I think of the poor overworked baby teeth, and I want to congratulate each of them on doing a stupendous job and lasting two or three times as long as they were ever designed to do. She doesn’t see the metpahor. “It’s easy to lose a tooth,” she says.

But losing a tooth at my age is a metaphor for aging, I explain. It’s my body failing. This tooth loss is losing two battles. Age and the years I have fought to keep this three-rooted monster in the back top of my mouth; I moan.

“And you’re still left with 27, Mother.” May phantom teeth bite her tongue, I think.

Ah, but she will, as the three of us all do, turn our experiences into some type of artistic exploration. Like the dozen tooth paintings that adorn a wall in her house (and this post). “Mouthing Off,” she calls the collection. She may not think metaphorically, and she simply will not read my poetry, but she’ll find art.


Even the professionals, when they have me upside down and don glasses with tremendous magnification still can’t see or get to No. 15 very well. There was a point in its long life that deep pockets surrounded it, seriously deep, 13 deep when probed.

The surgeon was proud to bring them down to a manageable level: fives. “You can keep fives clean,” he said. Fifteen years ago.

No. 15 sits back in that tight corner of my mouth and hoards debris like a Catholic nun fingering rosary beads. As if praying for release from a long life of working hard in the dark, it has every right to complain.

Pockets they call them. No wonder I am the pocket poet.

I’m equally drawn to secrets. Secrets kept in the most interesting of places. Backs of drawers or bodies. Underneath houses or armpits. Bank boxes or deep holes around a tooth. I am horrified and charmed. “Pssssst,” I hear in the back of my mouth.

Or is the three-fingered molar done with all the secrets, or dirt as you will, with which I have charged it. It wants out. Do I oblige it?

Number Fifteen

The tooth wants out
as if I’d jailed it
in that dark corner
in a cell of pronged roots
only fed the finest of nut skins
almonds and peanut
tiny shards to dig and dig
as it was seeking escape

stores a life of flavors
biting down hard on bitters
when I sleep or grind
away at the most sour
of moments long after
my tongue has adjusted
to the scrape

Like a gerbil always hopeful
the tooth chomps all night
afraid that if I let go
the squeaky wheel
will stop revolving

It has finished with my
bidding. It demands that I
find other ways to savor
and drill through
this existential crisis
I call daybreak.

The dentist thinks I fear
pain, but no, that’s a skill
I boast in my reverie, on my
resume, dear doctor,
it is the imaginary ache
the chewing of vacant space
clenching the stale air
of a long ago digested meal
that I fear.

Will the phantom tooth
take over my abandoned gums
haunting them with howls
in the middle of the night?
Will the goblin dance
wrecking havoc when I brush
pulling at the bristles
and not letting go
trapping floss to tickle
on down my throat?

What about No. 14?
Will it be lonely
without its noisy neighbor
that crotchety old crone
who complains day and night
and hoards the most gross
of mouth debris
hiding it all
in her many
deep and secret

Quiet, please
can we teach the phantom
to croon softly
I’ll just nibble
my way
back to sleep.

Artwork: “Mouthing Off” by Riana Johnson

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