Impressing the Tooth Fairy
I greeted my grandfather with a quick hug and then slid into the booth opposite him at our regular Friday lunch spot. As a young man, he was a fiery redhead with the proverbial temper to match the hair. Now, at eighty-seven, he has the same amount of hair that he had fifty years ago, only it’s as white as the porcelain veneers replacing his top front teeth. And his temper must have vanished along with the hair color, because in all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never once seen it.
“How’s it going, Grandad?” I asked, and when he opened his mouth to reply that everything was “alright,” I noticed he was missing a lower front tooth.
“Grandad, what happened to your tooth?” I asked, horrified. We meet for lunch every Friday, and the Friday before, there had been no gap.
“Aww, that tooth was bothering me, so I took a pair of pliers and yanked it out,” he shrugged.
Good Lord. Somewhere, a dentist is cringing, and a Tooth Fairy is impressed enough to waive the age limit and contemplate payment for that lost tooth. But it begs the question of why on earth an eighty-six-year-old man would pull his own tooth.
I’m tempted to say it was money. A child of the Depression, Grandad remembers barely having enough money to buy food, much less money to pay a dentist. Toothaches were cured with a swig of homemade corn whiskey and a pair of pliers.
He and my grandmother married during World War Two, and they had two sons. After the war, he tried farming, but the farm failed. Paying a dentist would have been low on the list of priorities at that time, probably akin to paying $4 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks these days. Unable to make the monthly payment on the farm they were renting, he was forced to look for work in Atlanta, a half-day’s drive from the place where he and his wife had been raised.
He found work at the Army Depot in Forest Park, and they moved to the south side of Atlanta with their two young sons. He opened a vending machine business on the side. The business prospered, and they lived happily and comfortably, enjoying their children and grandchildren. They even caught up on the dental care they’d neglected in their younger years. Grandmom had extensive work done to save teeth damaged by childhood malnutrition. And Grandad replaced several top teeth with those beautiful veneers.
In their retirement, they were able to purchase a second home on a lake in the valley where they had grown up. They were married fifty-nine years, three months and one week, and then my grandmother died of pancreatic cancer. He still wears his wedding band, and to this day, his eyes fill with tears at the mention of her name.
Several months after he pulled his own tooth, during our regular Friday lunch, conversation turned to how much money he had lost in the recent stock market declines.
“Nearly eleven thousand dollars,” he lamented, adding that the stock market would eventually come back but that he probably wouldn’t be around long enough to see it. Then he said, “I paid that much for a set of teeth one time, so I guess it’s all relative.”
It wasn’t the money, then. He had enough money, certainly, to pay a dentist to pull that tooth.
And it’s not like he didn’t have access to a dentist. Our family dentist is also a close family friend who on occasion makes house calls. For instance, my little niece Kate fell and nearly knocked out a front tooth when she was two. Her mother, my sister, called Dr. Al, who immediately jumped on his jet ski and came across the lake to look at her tooth. Early the next morning, he did an emergency root canal on a two year old to save a tooth that will soon fall out on its own. Why? “Because the baby needs to be beautiful,” he crooned in his sexy Cuban voice.
He would have done exactly the same thing for Grandad. So it wasn’t the lack of money or lack of access to dental care that prompted him to pull his own tooth. I wondered if perhaps the pain had been so intense Grandad couldn’t wait to see the doctor.
I don’t think so. Historically, our family members have possessed an extremely high pain threshold. My twin nieces, Faith and Grace, are so competitive that when they got a first loose tooth at the same time, Grace worked hers until she had it out just so that she could be the first to lose a tooth. Of course, we all laughed that we knew where she’d gotten the idea to pull the tooth out herself, and we offered thanks for the fact that she hadn’t had access to any pliers at the time.
But again, what would possess the man to pull a tooth with a pair of pliers?
I stared at the hole between his front lower teeth and realized that before me sat a man who had, as a child, wondered if he would go to bed hungry. He had marched into liberated concentration camps at the end of the Second World War and been assigned the gruesome task of helping bury the stacks of bodies. In his lifetime, he has experienced pain in many different forms.
He pulled his own tooth precisely because he was not afraid of the pain. Seven years before, he had helplessly watched as the love of his life suffered with pancreatic cancer, and that’s the kind of pain that gets to my Grandad, the particular pain he simply has no threshold for.
Wouldn’t it be nice if that kind of pain could be solved with a pair of pliers and some corn whiskey? Compared to the pain of losing Grandmom, pulling his own tooth was nothing. Just like he said, it’s all relative.