I was trying to remember when I first started clenching my teeth.
I couldn’t remember. You can’t remember. You only find out at your six-month checkup, when the hygienist – a lovely velvety soft-faced girl, who’d apologized for being late, as she’d used her lunch hour for an acupuncture appointment to treat her migraines – is able to wiggle your two front incisors. Numbers 8 and 9 to be exact.
“Hmm. A little loose.”
Panic gripped me as it can these days, even when my six year old goes to pour his own juice from a freshly opened gallon jug into a tiny plastic cup. “What do you mean? What do you mean my teeth are loose?”
“You can discuss it further with Dr. Williams,” she said, sounding a bit annoyed, and I wondered if she felt a migraine coming on. I sensed that her velvety look, no doubt mineral-based foundation, was a mask for deeper-rooted anxieties than my own. All the same, she kept a calm veneer, taking her time to scrape the crap out from between my teeth.
I’m not six or seven, like my children, when it is normal to have wiggly front teeth. And I’m not elderly, like my mother who had a tooth just crumble and fall out, that she put aside in an antique silver salt dish to show her dentist at a later date.
With the spit-suction tube hooked under my tongue, wide-mouthed and wide-eyed, I stared in horror at a watercolor reproduction on the wall, of a tropical paradise of palm trees and lush orange blossoms.
I like my dentist, and was relieve when she finally appeared. Yet, she never seems to remember me, even though I’ve crossed paths with her at our gym, where she plays tennis. I am usually in baggy sweatpants and a T-shirt, heading on or off the treadmill. She is usually with a gaggle of female tennis friends, wearing some sweet white pleated tennis skirt, even though her legs are fiftyish chunky. It’s embarrassing to run into your doctors out of context, the most embarrassing, when I ran into my male gynecologist at a resort; how do you small talk on a lake beach with a bare-chested man in a ball cap and swimming trunks, who has spread open your privates with a speculum?
Dr. Williams confirmed that I had teeth that wiggle.
She also confirmed that they wiggle, are loosening, because I clench my teeth.
I was offended. Not sure why. “I don’t do that.”
“You do, Dear,” she said in her mothering way. Who wouldn’t prefer, yearn for, a dentist who is mothering?
“If you were a grinder, your teeth would be wearing down a bit.” She peered around my mouth with her little mirror. “No, I do believe you’re a clencher.”
In the warmth of this mothering, I was a child, shrinking to the size of my little boys in their pediatric dentist chairs, where Spiderman or Pooh balloons hang from the ceilings. I turned my feet inward, curled my hands in my lap and lamented, “They’re going to fall out….?”
She laughed, twittered really, like a chickadee, surprising somehow, for such a robust woman. “No, Dear. Your teeth aren’t going to fall out. Some of us are clenchers all our lives, but at a certain point it catches up to us.”
A certain point. Middle age. I wanted to ask if she clenched her teeth, but that seemed all too personal.
She went on to explain that most teeth clenching is done in our sleep, so I would have to wear a night guard. I would have to make an appointment to have my mouth filled with something like Play-Doh to make a mold of my teeth. The mold, in turn, would be sent out to some place where they make “soft and flexible” guards, and I pictured a single studio where one little old man sat bent over the mold, using great precision to shape the flexible plastic over my natural ridges and less natural ones, of my molar implant.
She told me not to bite into bagels and to try to reduce my stress levels.
“Stress is most often a factor in clenching.”
“But I sleep like a rock.” I’m out in ten minutes every night, after the boys’ nightly ritual game of “poisonous pajamas,” when they fight and scratch to “save” themselves from having me force them into their jammies.
She twittered again. Though she didn’t say anything.
This was back last March, and I went home to stress over my stress levels, to examine them up close as I do my children’s splinters. That winter, I had been driving back and forth to my mother’s twice a week through blizzards, as she was recuperating froma fractured pelvis. I’d get home in time to pick up the boys from school, to concoct some tasteless pasta dinner; to insist on homework before I’d play audience to Kenny’s magic tricks of taking off his thumb or vanishing quarters; to pacify Ryan in his latest fixation, usually something he wanted but knew he couldn’t have, like an Ipad or a $200 life-size stuffed dragon. When Daddy finally came home, I’d disappear upstairs to take a Benadryl so that I could sleep like a rock.
Ok, so maybe I was a little stressed. But by March my mother was up and mobile. I was only going out once a week, and at worst, in freezing rain.
“Your teeth are loose?” My husband gasped. We were standing across from each other at the kitchen counter, where he was sorting through the mail, just having come home from work.
I don’t know why I’d chosen to announce my dental news as soon as he walked in the door. Why I hadn’t saved it for an email, an electronic discussion, often more productive than one in the kitchen, with Kenny already having climbed up his back.
“Which ones?” Kenny asked, his arms wrapped around Daddy’s neck. “Is it this one?” he asked, proudly pointing to the space where one of his own front baby teeth had been extracted due to an infection.
Ryan had been opening the freezer for a dessert. Now he looked at me, the freezer door open, cold air wafting out, through the tips of his hair, and he looked as stricken has he had when he realized one day we were all going to actually die. “Are they going to fall out?”
My husband was looking at me, too. Kenny, always the least easily traumatized in the family, looked bored with the whole thing, is head now propped on top of Daddy’s bald one.
“Yes, it is the two front teeth. And yes, they’re a bit wiggly. But they’re not going to fall out.”
Ryan went back to the freezer, standing on tiptoe to pull out a pop. I hadn’t decided yet how I felt about him being old enough to just go in and pick out his own dessert.
Kenny slumped on Daddy’s back, and Daddy went back to sorting through the mail.
I broke the news then, that I was a clencher. And that it could be from stress.
Daddy looked up from the mail. “Stress?”
“What’s stress mean?” Kenny asked, as he’d taken lately to asking the meaning of big words, usually ones he’d ruminate over only days later, while taking a bath.
“You should go for a massage,” my husband said. “Or take back up your yoga. You liked yoga.” This was true generosity of spirit, as my husband himself would make a terrible yogi, unable to even unwind in a lounge chair for longer than ten minutes.
I knew then why I’d told them all. I wanted everyone to worry about me for a change. I wanted to be able to tap them all on the shoulder, interrupt whatever they were doing, be it trying to find ten minutes to enjoy a morning’s coffee, and demand they examine my splinters.
Flash forward to now, six month later: My once pristine night guard is yellowed, and smells like spoiled raw chicken. I was supposed to be cleaning it with peroxide, but I’m no more disciplined at cleaning night guards than I am at cleaning my own house.
Luckily, my dentist’s office has something like a dishwasher but just for night guards!
It never made it as far as the night guard washer.
Dr. Williams held it up to her dental light with a latex-gloved hand. “Looks like we’re ready for a new one. That can happen over a couple of years or so…”
“Years? I only got it in March.”
She looked stymied – she wasn’t remembering me again. She peered at my chart. “March?” She examined the guard more closely now, holding it up to the light like a rare fossil.
She couldn’t contain her shock. “That’s extraordinary.”
“I mean, I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said, forgetting herself. “Holly mackerel,” she said, shedding her professional persona, and I saw her cooling off with her tennis friends over iced teas.
I began to shrink again, to the size of a child in a dentist’s chair that was beginning to feel too big. “Never?”
“Well, not never, I guess” she said, trying to recover herself, placing the guard on a clean cloth, to write some notes. “Though, well, usually the least amount of time to show some wear is a year. But it’s only been what, six months?” She can’t resist referring back to the chart again, “Yes, last March. March indeed. It’s September. Just six months.” She held the guard up to the light again. Her twittery laugh was louder this time. A guffaw, and I re-imagined the ice teas as strong Bloody Marys.
She shook and shook her head. “And by golly, you’ve, well, you’ve actually chewed right through it.” She craned the light toward me so I could see how it shone through actual holes.
I thought of our gerbils. How such incessant gnawing was normal for them. Just put me in a cage with wooden chew toys and toilet paper tubes.
I will be the topic at her next dental annual clenching meeting. You will be able to Google clenched teeth and my name will come up at the top of the page. I will be in the Guinness book of Tooth Records.
As Dr. Williams poked at my teeth, she counted out how many more now had actually loosened, while the migraine-prone hygienist jotted the numbers down in my file: “ 4 and 3, 10, 12, 13, oh, and 15…”
When she withdrew from my mouth, I was free to lament again. “Why? Why is this happening to me?”
“The guard can actually work against you if it wears down this fast…” Her eyes, I saw then, the green of aquariums, sparkled. The rest of her amused face was hidden behind her mask.
But then she gently put a latex hand on my shoulder. “You’re not the only clencher, Dear. Some of us just clench, I suppose…a bit harder than others.”
She couldn’t resist holding the fossil up one last time to the brilliant white light, to turn it this way and that. “We just have to order a new…more durable one. It just won’t be as flexible. A harder plastic one. See how that goes.”
“And what if I chew through that?”
“Then maybe you need a vacation.”
We just got back from one. Cut short by Irene, thank you very much.
They made a new mold. They’ll have a collection of my molds, along with my chewed-through night guards in a dental school display for future dentists to site in their research papers.
So my new guard is a hard, clear sparkling piece of plastic. It’s actually a thing of beauty, could be mistaken for an ice sculpture, just in the shape of teeth rather than a swan:
I still love my dentist. But I no longer want to run into her at the gym; I’m afraid that she actually will remember me, as I am now unforgettable.
On the other hand, I no longer mind running into my gynecologist, as I do now, on weekends, when he seems to have become the family designated shopper at Stop & Shop, with his two near-sighted children in thick glasses fighting over who gets to push their cart. I appreciate that, though he may know me intimately, I am no more memorable than his other intimate examining-room encounters, and we can freely chat about how many Stop & Shop points we have each racked for gasoline discounts at our local Shell station.