My five-year-old, Poppy, had a tooth extracted by the dentist today. The tooth, a molar, had had a cavity filled some time ago. And then the filling broke, and then there was a repair, and an infection, and an abscess, and a cheek that swelled until it looked like half an orange, and a late-night trip to the emergency room, and a shot of penicillin, and it was finally time to yank that puppy out.
The procedure this morning was complete with baby Valium and bubble-gum-scented laughing gas. I was surprised by how difficult I found it to watch the events go down. I’ve never been one of those parents who “cried more than the baby did” when my kids got shots. But I have had my share of dental work. I know how it feels when that crank pries your mouth open and that Lidocaine needle slides into your jaw. The difference is that when you have your own dental work done, you don’t really see the almost comically large, metal syringe or the sinister, tooth-pulling pliers. From my vantage point in the dentist’s office today, I could see all of that as six pairs of hands passed the implements into my vulnerable child’s mouth. I could see Poppy’s little Crocs-clad feet twitch in reaction. I did a little sympathy twitching, too.
But the procedure didn’t take too long, and Poppy was presented with the coolest trophy: her tooth in a plastic box shaped like a tooth.
She’d been waiting for this moment since our consultation last week. She clutched her tooth-within-a-tooth all the way home, her still-numb mouth filled with bloody gauze, the slobbery dental bib still stuffed into her shirt collar.
Poppy was so excited about her tooth, she named it Toothy (which she pronounces “Toofy”). She got to skip the rest of school today, and she spent much of her time examining, brushing, and playing with her Toofy. I’ll admit, it was pretty cool in a kind of gross way. The tooth looked bigger out than it did in, and because the tooth wasn’t ready to come out, it still had nearly complete roots. Then there was the huge hole in the top of it where the broken cap had filled the cavity. And in spite of the dentist’s assistant’s cleaning the tooth off before presenting it to Poppy, the tooth still had some residual, bloody goo in spots.
Like I said. Pretty cool, but also gross.
Then this evening, tragedy struck. Poppy and her younger brother, Ace, were playing outside when she suddenly started screaming and crying. My husband, Lou, went out to check on them and soon called me to come help.
I went out and found the three of them on the back deck. Poppy was wailing, and Lou explained that Poppy had allowed Ace to throw the tooth-box. When it landed, the tooth fell out of the tooth-box, and nobody could find it.
My stomach sank. Take a look at this deck in the 7 o’clock twilight:
It quickly became apparent that Toofy had probably fallen between two of the boards. But there’s no way to get under the deck without demolishing part of it. And I’m pretty sure rats live under there. I’ve never seen one, but I hear things shuffling around under there at night. The rats and I agree not to acknowledge each other’s presence. It’s easy to keep up my end of the bargain, because there really is no way for me even to look under this deck. It’s only a few inches off the ground and boarded off all the way around.
We began a hopeless search for Toofy. Maybe the tooth had managed to miss the gaps and was just resting unnoticed on the deck. Maybe it had bounced off the side of the deck into the leaves. I crawled around, dodging small piles of chicken shit and noticing for the first time that the ground in my back yard kind of smells bad up close. I went inside for a flashlight and shined it between the boards, where my vision was limited to only a few leaf-covered inches at a time. Nothing.
I definitely sent up a mental prayer for help and sealed it with a petition to St. Anthony–though quite frankly, St. Anthony has failed me pretty seriously lately, most memorably when I begged for his assistance to help me find Poppy’s Girl Scout cookie order form, which I lost after it was filled with orders and after those orders had been filled but before we had collected any money. I still don’t know where that thing is. Any time you’re ready, St. Anthony.
Lou told Poppy gently that we weren’t going to find Toofy, that there was just no way to figure out where “he” was. There were just too many possible nooks and crannies. And she couldn’t point out exactly where the tooth-box had hit the deck. We had no frame of reference to even try to find the tooth. Poppy was inconsolable.
And then damn if I didn’t spot that tooth. I glanced down between two boards for the tenth time, not even with a flashlight, and I saw it.
I asked Lou for the flashlight. “I see it,” I said quietly.
So then there we all were, the four of us on our hands and knees on the deck, peering down into the dirt between the boards at a bloody baby tooth.
The next trick was to get it out of there. Lou whipped up an ingenious but suspicious-looking tool out of a thin pipe, a bent baby spoon, some tape, and a pair of tweezers. It took several tries, but as Lou said, we extracted the tooth for the second time today.
I placed Toofy, now with ratty deck-dirt embedded in his cavities, firmly in Poppy’s hand. “Do not take this into any bathrooms,” I told her. “And do not take it outside again.”
She nodded solemnly.
And I know this is cheesy and saccharine, so much so that I cringe just thinking it–but the whole thing seemed almost Biblical. As I lowered the tape-tool into the crevasse, I thought about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go in search of the 1. I know it’s not a direct comparison. I didn’t leave anyone, with the possible exception of my sanity and my dignity.
Maybe it’s what the shepherd parable would be if Flannery O’Connor had been the messiah. “Does not a mother, whose child has dropped her cavity-riddled tooth into a den of rats, abandon all sense of shame and comb through leaves and crawl on her knees until she finds the blood-caked tooth? And then when she finds it, truly I tell you, she is happier to have found the diseased tooth than she is about any of the marginally healthy teeth left in her child’s mouth.”
So now the tooth is in the tooth-box under Poppy’s pillow, with a note asking the Tooth Fairy to let Poppy keep it because she likes it. I know the Tooth Fairy is really into teeth, but I hope she realizes what we’ve all been through for this tooth. In this way, a place has been prepared for Toofy in Poppy’s father’s (and mother’s) house.
Or something. It’s a stretch.