3.14.2007

Excerpt from "Memoirs of Orthodontia: an Oral History"

I started developing headaches around age fifteen. Dull and senseless, there was no painreliever strong enough to quell them. At school I become known as the boy with the Costco-sized bottle of Tylenol, popping a few pills every couple of days to try to stave off the throbbing pain. A visit to the dentist—and yes, more x-rays—revealed that my wisdom teeth were creeping in. Like the rest of my teeth, they were growing in at an angle. “Impacted,” my dentist explained. “They’ll have to come out before he can get his braces on.”

It was for that reason I ended up in another mouth doctor’s consultation office—this one belonging to Dr. Joe, oral surgeon to the far suburbs of Milwaukee and parts unknown, where I was told that wisdom tooth extraction was simple, painless, and common. Dr. Joe was tall and a little rotund, the kind of guy whose weight makes him appear all the more jovial. He had a quick, perfect smile and a gentle laugh.

“We can give you a novocaine shot or general anaesthesia,” he explained.

“General,” I cut in. “I’d like to sleep through this if possible.”

Dr. Joe laughed. “That’s fine. Most patients opt for the shot, but there’s no reason you can’t be comfortable. Since your teeth are impacted, we will have to make some incisions in the back of your mouth to make sure we remove them completely. You’ll have rubber stitches in place for a bit, but they’ll dissolve and fall out on their own after a few weeks. And then there might be complications.”

The room darkened as a cloud passed over the sun. Dr. Joe’s voice took on a hushed urgency as he explained that impacted teeth can be challenging to extract, that some patients’ teeth must be crushed and then tweezed out bit by bit. “And then, even if we do get all of them, there’s still the chance you could develop a dry socket, which is very uncomfortable.” By this time, I knew any form of discomfort was doctor speak for “really fucking painful” and a I paid close attention. A dry socket was an unfortunate turn of events in which the empty space where the tooth was develops a kind of infection, usually brought on by sucking in the mouth, which prevents the wound from healing. “But let’s not get into that unless we have to, yes?” he added brightly. He handed my mother a prescription for Valium “for the ride in, it keeps the patients calm” and we were on our way.

Several weeks later, my mom and I hopped in the car and drove the 35 miles to Dr. Joe’s office for the procedure. “Here, take this,” my mom told me, handing me a small blue pill and a bottle of water. “It’s time.” I swallowed the pill, letting it drop into my empty, surgery-ready stomach. By the time we reached the office I’d forgotten where we were going.

This was how I learned that I am very, very sensitive to sedatives. We got in the elevator and I was no longer responding to my name, having forgotten that it belonged to me. My mom, nine inches shorter than me, struggled with my loose frame as we made the long trek from the elevator doors to Dr. Joe’s office down the hall, trying to avoid too much weaving as I struggled to put one foot in front of the either. “Watch where you’re going,” she snapped with frustration. “That’s a nurse, not a door.”

Once in the office, I sat on a comfortable cloud and floated over to the waiting area, where I swayed like a falling feather into an institutional waiting-room chair. To pass the time, I picked up the nearest copy of US magazine, flipping through the pictures. I tried to make sense of an article about Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, full of picture, but the text in the captions was dancing across the page and I couldn’t keep up. Finally, Dr. Joe emerged, large and bear-like, from the back office and placed a big paw on my shoulder. “It’s time for you to come with me,” he grumbled. Or so I heard.

Back on my cloud, slipping gracefully down the hallway, I let him lead me to a corner suite where a familiar-looking chaise lounge chair was already reclined and waiting. “You’re going to feel a little prick,” he explained as he fiddled with a device to my right.

Yes, there it was—only the smallest of pinches, which immediately cooled my whole arm. I felt even lighter, the cloud I rode in on enveloping me in its silky, quieting mist. I closed my eyes. Everything felt beautiful. I could feel myself becoming one with the earth, and then there was the sound of om—the beautiful humming of all things in creation vibrating in unison. I could feel every tremor in every fault line of our glorious world buzzing in my head.

I woke up hours later, at home in my bed, sleeping in a pool of my own blood.

It was like something you see in a horror film: teenaged boy who knows too much about the way of the world wakes up, can’t remember where he’s been, only to find—blood! in quantities too large for there to be a survivor, but then he realizes, no! it’s his blood! He’s the victim! What’s happened here?

I sat up in bed with a start. My head was throbbing and my face felt tight and swollen. I tried to speak, but just as in all films that make this genre great, no sound emerged. I was still dizzy and out of sorts. I remembered the pill…the blue pill…dear God, what had happened?

I climbed out of my bed and pinwheeled toward the door, only a few precious inches from my flailing hands. I could feel dried blood all over my mouth and cheek, caked onto my tongue. At least, I hoped it was my tongue and not the stub of meat left after some leatherfaced maniac clipped it out for his trophy wall. Finally, I made contact with the knob, opening the door, stumbling out into the sun-drenched hallway. I could see my mother so far away, chopping something in the kitchen (my tongue?!). I tried again to speak but nothing! Moving down the hall with the help of a guiding hand against the wall, I stopped in the kitchen doorway waiting to be greeted.

“You’re up,” my mom said. She glanced up from what she was doing. “Oh God,” she whispered. “You didn’t throw up, did you?”

Tears formed in the corners of my eyes. My tongue was missing, I kept thinking. Where was my tongue? Why couldn’t I speak. My mom eased me into a barstool in the dining nook and grabbed a wet washcloth, carefully wiping the bloody grime from my face. “You want some Gatorade?” she asked banally. I nodded. I didn’t know what I wanted. My tongue, the power of speech. Gatorade seemed like a good compromise by then.

I lifted the glass to my lips. “Whatever you do, don’t suck,” she reminded me. “Dry sockets.” The Gatorade lubricated my mouth, washed the dried blood down my throat, and I was finally able to say, “Okay?”

“You’re fine,” she said. “You should go back to bed. And don’t suck.”

The next day, feeling normal again, sure of my tongue’s place in the world and in my mouth, I was able to go back to school. I was still a little swollen, sore, and bruised, and after some brief reassurance with the school’s guidance counselor that I was not a victim of domestic violence, I went back to my classes.

The stitches in the back of my mouth felt rubbery and made squeaky noises when I chewed. I ate soft foods, pliable foods, foods that didn’t require sucking of any kind, and after a few weeks, the stitches began to unravel. The last stitch fell out in my Spanish class, after an especially gruesome lunch of taco salad. For an hour I chewed on what I thought was a large piece of ground beef that had been stuck in my back molar, only to realize, upon confused inspection, that it was, in fact, the last stitch. I spit it out. I was free.

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