When I woke up Tuesday morning, little did I know I would end the day one tooth lighter.
This story begins a couple of months ago. Actually, it begins in 1989.
That was the year I lost a filling and decided I should go to the dentist for the first time in a decade. If you are a Bliss, you know that we don't believe in all that new fangled medicine. If you are married to a Bliss, you know how set we are in our beliefs. Passing out on the front lawn is sometimes enough to get us to go to the doctor. Sometimes.
In fact, I think I lost that filling before 1989. But in 1989 I discovered I would not be teaching at Loyola in 1990, so I had better take advantage of my dental insurance and get that filling replaced. A friend recommended a dentist, and though I never actually saw that dentist, I did see his associate. Replacing the filling was no big deal. As it turned out, the associate told me he saw no sign of decay in that tooth, and the filling had probably not been necessary in the first place. He filled the hole with bonding compound (or some such thing; it's been 16 years), cleaned my teeth and took some X-rays, probably not in that order.
Then he told me a version of that old joke: "Your teeth are fine, but your gums have to come out."
This was not the first time I had been told I had periodontal problems. As a small child, I went to a dentist who told me I had gingivitis. On the other hand, he told everyone they had gingivitis. He "treated" me for it, and no dentist ever mentioned it again. But as I saw perilously few dentists in my adult life, I had little opportunity to receive another such diagnosis.
Anyway, my new dentist sent me to a periodontist, which led to a long and unpleasant procedure, the details of which I won't go into at this time. (Said procedure was also terribly expensive, at least for Loyola's insurance company.) In order to avoid going through such an experience again, I've continued going to this periodontist. Three times a year.
I had my last cleaning and checkup in July, so when my tooth starting bothering me, I didn't think much of it. At first it was just some sensitivity in the last molar on the upper right side of my mouth. Because of my periodontal problems, I will occasionally experience some discomfort in my gums. Generally, that means I need to pay some attention to that area when I brush and floss, and in a day or two it clears up. So I paid some attention to that area when I brushed and flossed. It didn't clear up.
It didn't get worse, but it didn't get better. It was very sensitive to cold. And increasingly sensitive to heat. I couldn't chew on that side, because pressure hurt. But I had not yet passed out on the lawn.
Then another tooth started acting up.
Let me tell you something about my teeth. They're heroic. I can count the number of cavities I've had in my life on one hand. While crossing my fingers. And sucking my thumb. Despite my periodontal issues -- which, by the way, never caused me any pain, at least not until after I had them fixed -- I've never had any real trouble with my teeth. Then, a month or so before my appointment last July, I started having problems with the last molar on the lower left side of my jaw. (If you're keeping score, this is exactly opposite the tooth which just started bothering me.) It didn't hurt, but it felt odd. Out of alignment. At first I thought it was a result of how I had been sleeping. Or god knows what. But I cleaned it and flossed it (and marked it with a B), and after a few days it took care of itself.
However -- and this may be a cause of some surprise at this point in the narrative -- I mentioned it to the dentist on my last visit. (We don't like going in, but once we're there we take care of things.) The thing is, it wasn't bothering me any more. So he poked it and prodded it (and marked it with a B), and said there may have been some infection in the gum which had caused some swelling, and that had affected the tooth, but it looked okay now. If it bothered me again, he said I should call him and he'd prescribe some antibiotics.
As should be obvious by now, the other tooth that started acting up was that lower molar. So now I couldn't chew on my right side because of the painful tooth and couldn't chew on my left side because of the misaligned tooth. I finally called the dentist.
Okay, here's another thing. It's not easy to get in to see my dentist. He's only in his office on Tuesdays and Thursdays (periodontal work pays well), and is usually pretty booked up. I go in for cleanings and checkups every four months, and sometimes we're scrambling for an appointment. (The hygienist is only there on Thursdays -- for your convenience -- but she works elsewhere. Hygiene work doesn't pay as well.) And I have an appointment in two weeks. So at first I didn't call because I had just been to the dentist, and figured it couldn't be anything that serious, because someone would have spotted it. Then I didn't call because I figured I'd be going back in a few weeks anyway. So when I called on Tuesday, it was only to arrange to have him look at my tooth on December 1, when I had an appointment.
It didn't turn out that way.
As it turned out, the dentist had to be out of the office by 1 pm on Tuesday. Because of this, he hadn't scheduled any appointments after 11 am. So when I called at 9:30 and told his assistant what was going on, she said, "What are you doing right now?"
I wasn't doing anything I couldn't put off.
The dentist was in surgery, but would be done by 11. Could I come in by 11:30?
I was there at 10:50.
My dentist works in a "professional building" on Sheffield Avenue. I generally end up in one of the little windowless examining rooms, where the cleaning takes place. This time I was shown into the big examining room, where the X-ray machine lives. The chair faces a row of windows which look out on Sheffield. Across the street is a condo building where yuppies live. (Are there still yuppies?) Location, location, location. These fools have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for an apartment with a view of a dentist's office. Compete with X-ray, drill, the whole magilla. With the big ass chair looking right at 'em. Suckers.
Not that this affects them. As the dentist told me while he was prepping me for X-rays, one of his neighbors practices yoga with his blinds up. In his underwear. I'll let you figure that out.
It's been a while since I've had dental X-rays. The dentist hands me a piece of equipment the size and shape of canning tongs and says, "Can you bite down on this?" My first response is, "I don't think so." But I do. He shoots both teeth, the upper right and the lower left. Then goes to develop them.
Before he shoots the X-rays, he puts the lead apron over my chest and soft parts. I can't remember the last time I've felt so comforted. Really. You're in the big La-Z-Boy with the headrest to begin with, then he lays this shield on you that's not too heavy, but has just enough heft. It's padded and it's fitted and it covers you like a big lead security blanket. I want one for my couch.
Anyway, he comes back in a few minutes and says, "This doesn't look good." Which is something you never want to hear from a doctor. It has to do with impacted wisdom teeth -- are there any other kind? Apparently one is pressing against my upper tooth. It is, he tells me, "wrapped around it." Which I believe is an exaggeration. He shows me the X-ray, and sure enough ... oh, who the hell am I kidding. He does show me the X-ray, and he explains what's going on, which is why I like this dentist, but I don't have my reading glasses and it's a one- by two-inch piece of film, and all I see is teeth. Apparently the problem on the lower left is also due to an impacted wisdom tooth, so I'm two for two on that score. There is indeed a pocket between the teeth which has become infected, so he prescribes some antibiotics to take care of the problem "for now." When I ask him when we might have to actually deal with that problem, he says, I kid you not, "The crystal ball is fuzzy." As for the other tooth, the one on top, the best thing to do is pull it. "You want to do it right now?"
Here's another thing about the Blisses. When you ask us, "You want to do it right now?" our immediate response is generally "No." If you ask us, "Do you want to ...?" our response is generally "No." Once we think about it, we come around. But we're not cliff jumpers.
I said yes. Hell, I'm in the office, the tooth has to come out, let's do it! Truth be told, I had a sense the tooth might be coming out. It was not feeling very secure, and neither was I. So I had already gotten past no on my own.
Fortunately for the neighbors, we relocated to another windowless room for the extraction. I'm sure you don't want to hear all about it. The highlights: He thinks he can pull it out with his bare (well, gloved) hands. I did too. The tooth did not. So he goes after it with the forceps. No dice. Finally... You remember Mary Poppins' umbrella? The one with the handle shaped like a parrot's head? He eventually resorts to some tool roughly the same size and shape to yank out this tooth which is already being pushed out of my head by an aggressive wisdom tooth. "You may feel some pressure," he understates. Victory.
So now I am one tooth light. And you know what? It makes me feel old. The good thing is that it's the very last molar on the top, so it's not visible. And he checked my old X-rays, and the other upper wisdom tooth is far enough away from its molar that it shouldn't cause any problems. And for now, the tooth on the bottom seems to be under control.
But this is the first "permanent" tooth I've lost. There's a gaping hole in my mouth. And while its nice that the pain is gone, it's still going to be a while before I'm comfortable chewing on that side. And I'm already rinsing dinner out of the Gum Canyon.
This is the way the world ends, I suppose. Not with a bang but a whimper.