I was in the chair, the one we all hate. The one that sits in the cold little room where you go to see the dentist, everyone’s favorite person.
There was a picture on the wall directly in front of me, showing boats in a marina. I wondered if a picture with water was purposely placed to soothe the almost-always-nervous souls who fidgeted in this chair.
It was my third visit in an ongoing quest to complete a difficult root canal. I have learned quite a bit on this latest series of appointments, mostly because my dentist is one of my father-in-law’s best friends, and we do a lot of chatting. We will call him Dr. P.
Dr. P loves to teach me about his field because he knows I work for a doctor. Often, I will stay longer than necessary while he shows x-rays, sketches teeth and answers my endless questions. I learned lower molars often have extra nerves (oh goody), which was why it took two trips just to remove them all. Then there is an impression, then filling in the tooth, the little poles that anchor everything, the temporary crown, the filing down of the tooth, and then finally, the permanent crown and the end to my troubles.
Well, my troubles with that tooth, anyway.
I tried to focus on the boats. The water. I thought of the beach, my wedding on the Chesapeake Bay, swimming in the crisp, salty ocean. I willed my body to un-clench and told myself repeatedly, “You’re fine. You’re at the dentist, not a prison camp. You’re not going to die at the dentist.”
During most of the procedures, I have the extreme fortune of rocking a rubber dam. They look something like this:
The rubber dam is a good thing. It prevents anything gross from leaking down my throat. For this, I am grateful.
However, it completely limits your speech to “Yes” or “No.” Any conversation beyond that is literally impossible. We’ve all heard the jokes, how dentists love to engage while their entire fist is in your mouth, but the rubber dam stays the whole time. Any questions/responses/cries for help will have to wait until the end.
Dr. P said, “Do you know what a bunsen burner is?”
I responded with “Mrmps,” aka “Yes.”
My brain responded with “Why, dear God, is he asking me if I know what a bunsen burner is?” Usually our conversations are teeth-related when the rubber dam is in place.
And then, lo and behold, a mini bunsen burner appeared on the tray beside his stool. Apparently, it was going to have an active role in my visit.
I’ve become accustomed to closing my eyes when the tools start to come toward my face, so I continued to listen as he described what he was doing, but firmly clamped my eyes shut. Dr. P asked if I was interested in all of this, and I replied with “Mrmps.”
Then he asked if I wanted the mirror.
I love ya, Dr. P, but that one got a firm “Nrmph, nrmph,” along with a shake of my head.
Eyes closed, I tried to remember the picture of the boats, and not focus on what I was really thinking.
I smelled something burning, and took a peek. He was holding a tool, possibly with some material on the tool, over the flame. I didn’t peek long enough to actually find out.
The smell started to permeate my throat, and I felt the anxiety rise. I mentally scolded myself because I knew he was almost done, and I had only felt a little pain.
I un-clenched and gave myself a break. I thought of random moments in the day when I feel really good, then am overcome by a sharp, stabbing pain in my knee. Down my leg. Up my arm. In my head. Through my shoulder. It’s always a brief shriek of pain, lasting only seconds, but sometimes takes away my breath for just that moment.
But it always goes away. It leaves behind a constant ache, but I’ll take the ache over the stab.
That was when I knew why I always sat so rigidly in this chair. I was always waiting for the stab. But in waiting for the stab, I was contributing to the ache. I relaxed, yet again, and heard Dr. P say, “And we’re done!”
I opened my eyes and the flame was gone. In a brief flash, I thought of the people I know and know of that suffer from the illness I have. The ones who can’t get out of bed, can’t work, can’t meet their friends for coffee, can’t go on dates with their husbands, and can’t go alone to their dentist appointments.
So next time I feel that stab, I’ll try to remember it will soon fade to an ache. When I feel the ache, I’ll be grateful it’s not a stab.
And I’ll remember the bunsen burner, whose presence made me write this.