This column is the first of two titled: “Life lessons from my orthodontists”
All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth. When the snaggletooth among us as kids smiled with toothless grins — tongue showing between spaces — that was a common tease. A lifetime later, it has become my true longing.
Two front teeth …
I learned early on the importance of teeth for whistling. When attempting to form the “T” sound. For cracking sweet jawbreakers or tearing open the hard-to-peel plastic of a sweaty freeze pop. Still, I do not know that I cherished my baby whites.
I remember placing my fallen Chiclets underneath my pillow with expectations from the tooth fairy by morning light: 50 cents. Eureka! It was enough to buy a boatload of candy — the enemy of the state of cavity-free teeth.
My sister Net and I were candy-holics of sorts — Red Hots, Lemonheads, Jolly Ranchers …
Regular brushing and visits to the dentist with Mama kept all of our teeth from falling out, I figured. At least they kept our healthy smiles intact.
I was never an overly smiley kid. Never had a Dentyne smile. But my off-white teeth were straight and strong.
I was a big teaser, flashing a mischievous boyish grin while vexing my cousins Doris and Cheryl with my playfulness, even after they finally protested, “Stop, John! You play too much, ole big head boy.”
Their frustration — and laughter — cracked me up. I liked to stir the pot. I couldn’t help myself.
Laughter is good for the soul. And a good smile, I have come to believe, the reflection of a sweet soul.
A good smile is one of the first things you notice about someone. A dude can’t be trying to holler at a female with a jacked-up smile and halitosis to boot. A good smile punctuates a résumé during an interview. It was always the icing on the cake whenever I got dressed up and spit-shined.
Our smiles were important to Mama. She guarded them, growing up in a place where innocent smiles are too soon dissolved by the elements of life, like Alka-Seltzer tablets in a clear jar of water.
I have witnessed the rotten or decaying smiles of crack addicts or the homeless, life having fizzled away their teeth, having dimmed the light of their smiles that became marred by pus and unsightly gums, sometimes a rainbow of guck caked to the teeth that remain.
As an adult, I sit in the dentist’s chair fully conscious of how blessed I am to have a dental plan. Sometimes I fight survivor’s guilt. But mostly I am grateful as my hygienist sprays and scrapes — reflecting on my time on welfare when I could not see a dentist because being on the dole included medical benefits, but not dental.
As an adult, I have guarded my smile. Except a smile is not immune from time and life that — like bacteria — can infect and displace.
Somewhere between my mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s in 2010 and her death in 2014, I lost my smile. My left front tooth jutted out and made my smile crooked. It was only an outward reflection of the internal toll.
In May 2016, I was lost somewhere between time, space and grief. And yet, hearing my mother’s whisper from heaven: “Son, smile again,” I decided to go ahead and get braces, though uncertain of how to find healing for my soul.
Nearly three years later, I have collected lessons along my orthodontic journey with Doctors Eric and Ashley Barnes at their South Side practice. Lessons for teeth, for my life and for my soul.
But all I wanted this Christmas was my two front teeth.
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