I am going to look very different soon. Those of you who knew me in college, or anyone very knowledgeable regarding my personal history, will remember that a week before my twenty-first birthday I had my right-front tooth extracted. No dramatic fight, no colorful accident, just an abscess — a raging infection at the root of the tooth that could not be cured, only removed. That entire summer and the Fall semester of my senior year I wore a flipper, a single-tooth denture mounted on a piece very like a retainer which I affixed to the roof of my mouth with strawberry-flavored Fixodent®. Initially it was a demoralizing disaster to my self-image, but I got used to it in time; eventually I was comfortable enough to make light of it, to pop out my flipper in the campus cafeteria in order to eat more comfortably, to make jokes about my gap at seminary functions. (And I will say this for Fixodent®: it can stand up to some very intense make-out sessions…)
And then the ordeal was over. Thanks to the beneficence of two priest friends, I went to a new dentist over Christmas break and was fitted with a beautiful all-porcelain bridge, a piece of prosthetic dentistry that would win admiring comments from every subsequent dentist I went to over the next nine years. I could return to normal functioning, and I did.
Fast forward to Labor Day, 2008. After a long and recreation-filled holiday weekend my wife and I are snacking on leftovers as the evening begins to wind down. I have just spread some delicious Brie on a hunk of crusty bread torn from a loaf that is probably three days old. I bite down, and the horrifying crunch that follows brings my mellow-train to a grinding halt. I know instantly what has happened, for at some deep level of my subconscious I have been both dreading and expecting this day for a long time. My beautiful, functional bridge has shattered, shearing off one of the adjoining teeth at the gum line, leaving me with a jagged gap twice as wide as the one I had endured nearly a decade ago. I was not thrilled. And my poor dear wife, who had not known me back then, was suddenly confronted by a husband with a very different appearance than she was used to.
A couple weeks later I arrive at the dentist of my choice for my first post-shatter exam. I could have gotten in at any number of Twin Cities dental offices quickly, probably even first thing the next morning. But there was no pain, at least not physical, and after careful consideration I decided that at the age of thirty it was time I started to make some serious choices about my own life and well-being, and this was as good a time to start as any. Fifteen years ago my parents drove me four hours across two states to have my orthodontic work done by a dentist whose philosophy they subscribed to. After much careless peregrinations in my post-college care choices, I felt deeply that now was the time to return to what I could truly believe in, even if it meant delay, travel, and expense. It is time to grow up this year, and I am doing so one painful step at a time.
And then the bad news; news I hadn’t considered a possibility but was not the least bit surprised by. The X‑rays revealed clearly that the two front teeth on the left side of my upper jaw — corresponding to the two on the right that are so glaringly gone forever — are badly abscessed. There aren’t a lot of options. I could have root canals, but leaving a dead tooth to linger in my jaw, eventually to cause trouble down the road, seems a rotten sort of choice to be offered, which leaves the other option, the one I am going with: extraction. In a few days or weeks, whenever I can get in at the oral surgeon, I will have a symmetrical gap in my upper jaw where God once put four teeth, teeth I was unable to keep healthy and so, ultimately, was unable to keep.
I will never bite into an apple again, nor will I ever again enjoy corn on the cob. Big gourmet hamburgers will now be more trouble than they are worth, and I will be eating pizza with a knife and fork from here on out. Oh, I will eventually look presentable. My new flipper will hold four plastic teeth, and my wife will get her chance to put Fixodent® to the test. But it will be a façade, just for show. I will never get to forget that my head has a lot fewer teeth in it than I was originally issued.
Yes, I wanted to cry this afternoon after I left the dentist’s office. But I am not crying now. I am pretty okay, as okay as I think I could possibly be without crossing the line into creepy-calm. Yeah, life is going to be harder for me on a practical, day-to-day basis. I am going to have to get over my appearance yet again, in an exponentially-bigger way, and remember not to frighten children with my shockingly-incomplete smile. But I know that this is not my fault, not something I chose to do. And it reminds me strongly, forcibly, that there are things I can choose to do, that I want to do, that I can no longer leave for later. Now is the time to live deliberately, now is the time to passionately pursue the dreams I have scarcely dared to dream. There is no “later” to wait for, no “eventually” when these things will take place. I need to act now, and everyday henceforth, to achieve the life that I will find fulfilling, the life that I am called to live.
I told my wife that in the moment that my cosmetically-functional bridge audibly shattered, so too did my complacency. I can no longer sit back and wait for my life to happen. I am no longer content to coast along the path of least resistance. I am no longer satisfied with subsistence living for me and my family. I know well that, like my appearance, the road ahead will be rough, even ugly, but it will also be real, genuine, and ultimately this new path will lead me to a place where I can be truly proud to be who and what I am, where I can look into the mirror and say to my reflected self, “I am living fully a life that I am proud to live.” I can stand to lose a few teeth if I can make that happen.