Hitting bottom, ready to soar

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.

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