February 29, 2004

My $114 tooth

Did I tell you I got my chipped tooth fixed? Yep, I did. No shots required, just drilling and blowdrying and bonding some white tooth like stuff onto the chipped part and VOILA--rough gnarled edge gone. Modern dentistry, what a thing.

When I was young we had a sadistic dentist. I know everyone thinks they had a sadistic dentist. But we did. He never used novocaine. Didn't believe in it. Too expensive. I was 22 before I ever had a dental procedure that didn't involve excruciating pain.

The thing is, when my dad was dying he needed a lot of dental work, as his illness destroyed him piece by piece. Dr. Sadist treated my dad for free, knowing that we were in trouble as a young family with a dying head of household. After my dad died, Dr. Sadist continued to work with my mom to see we got the dental care we needed.

May I remind you, there's no free lunch?

Dr. Sadist would walk into the room, I remember his smile and smell, and he would fast as lightning bop me over the head with what felt like a rubber mallet. It was some kind of dental tool with a big, black, rubber ball on the end of it. I'd always know the bop was coming, and the older I got, the swifter and sneakier he'd get in his quest to surprise me with the bop.

"BOP!" he'd exclaim. I'd giggle, a reflex not unlike Pavlov's dogs, me associating the coming pain with a mixture of familiarity and fear.

I think I had six or seven cavities filled from the age 6 to 22. Maybe more. Each drilling would begin with a bop in the head with his rubber mallet and a promise to stop if it hurt too-too much.

"Be brave--it won't take long," he'd say. "It will hurt, but it will be over fast. And if it hurts VERY VERY bad, tell me and I'll stop."

I was brave for 10 years. I never complained as my tooth pulp submitted to the metal drill. Just gripped the arms of the chair and "offered it up to God."

We offered a lot up in those days.

Around 16, during one particularly deep filling, I couldn't take it anymore. It hurt so badly I saw stars. No matter how deeply I dug my finger nails into the vinyl arm rests, I couldn't dissociate. There was no place to go.

"If it's hurting too bad, tell me and I'll stop," he offered above the noise of the drill.

I counted. 1-2-3-4, oh God, 5-6-7....

"Stogggrrp. Preaaassee Stoggglp!" I couldn't take it.

He didn't.


He wouldn't.

"I'm almost done," he offered with a smile.

I nearly lost consciousness--not from the pain, but from the violation. He'd promised for all of those years he would stop. And when I finally needed him to, after 10 years of mining in my mouth, he wouldn't.

I struggled, he got more firm in his drilling, and then I submitted.

When he was done, I was crying.

"You said you would stop!"

"I did? Well I was nearly done."

All I had wanted was a reprieve from the pain.

Isn't that all we ever want?

My favorite part of visiting Dr. Sadist was that his office was right next door to Doughnuts Delight, the best of all doughnut stores in Rochester. Even though I couldn't chew after a filling, my mom always took me next door after my ordeal so I could pick out my favorite, either a chocolate cruller, or a chocolate cream filled, to eat later.

Doesn't take a psychological genius to figure out where the numbing joy of sweets began for me.

And so it went. For 16 years, until I got "my own" dentist.

I still remember them asking me if I had ever had any reactions to novocaine.

"What's that?" I asked.

They looked at the fillings in my mouth.

"You've never had novocaine?"


We stared at one another, puzzled.

I got my first shot that day, and called everyone who would listen after my appointment to tell them how much it didn't hurt.

No one really got it.