Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Knight in a White Lab Coat

After the age of eight, I rarely smiled openly. I'd hide my mouth behind my hand, and smile through my fingers.

Decades ago, when our cute paperboy came to the front door, my sister and I raced each other through the kitchen. I slipped, crashing headfirst into the corner of the counter. I remember my mother crying as I spat out blood and broken shards of tooth into the sink. Although not a stranger to dental accidents - I knocked out a front tooth, albeit a baby tooth, three years before when I fell off my bike and zambonied the pavement the day before my kindergarten photo was taken - the pain from this accident was excruciating as each breath and rinse of cold water hit exposed nerves.

We caught our dentist as he was closing. Due to the force of the impact, most of the surrounding teeth would die, he explained. Ten permanent teeth must be pulled - six on the top, and four on the bottom. My parents were leaving for a two-week canoe trip and my mother asked if he could postpone the extractions until their return. Of course, he said, but warned my teeth would most certainly be black by then.

I went to school the next day with a swollen mouth and two metal caps where my front teeth used to be. The teacher gasped when she saw my mouth. The entire class turned and stared. The mortification was almost unbearable. My constitution proved stronger than my dentist's predictions - my teeth did not turn black. Had my parents not taken that trip, I would be ten teeth short of a set.

We quickly switched to a new dentist. This lovely fellow performed Direct Electrical Stimulation - a fancy way of saying he applied electric shocks to my teeth just above the metal caps, increasing the voltage until I writhed and yelped, and he was satisfied that the nerves were still “viable.” After a couple of weeks of this, he removed the caps, and I was left with a ragged, V-shaped hole.

I lived with this battered smile and chronic fear of dentists for the next 15 years.

I compensated by not smiling, or by bringing a hand in front of my mouth. I made few friends at university, because I was too shy to speak in public and they thought I was snotty. Every Christmas my father sang "All I want for Christmas are my two front Teeth." Alas, Santa never came through. After graduating from University, I was working at a low end job, unhappily married to the only boy I had ever dated in high school, when I finally got up the guts to fix my front teeth.

Salvation came in the form of my new dentist. He specialized in patients who were dental phobics. My experiences as a child certainly qualified me. He looked at me and said "I think I can do something for you. Will you trust me?" After much deliberation, I agreed and we set a date. As he worked, I gripped the arms of the dental chair, envisioning two Chiclets, or a Bugs Bunny smile... I will never forget that moment when Dr. K. finished and handed me a mirror. I couldn't believe the transformation. It was beautiful. For the first time in my life, I felt beautiful! I burst into tears, grabbed him by the ears and kissed him, almost knocking him to the floor.

But the real transformation had just begun. You see, from that moment on, I smiled. I smiled at friends. I smiled at strangers. I smiled at the guy collecting tickets in the subway station. And you know what? They all smiled back. I even felt happier. It’s true that just the physical act of smiling can improve mood and your health. Your brain tells you, "I'm smiling, so I must be happy." Not only that, but you are perceived to be more attractive, genuine, sociable, and competent. I challenge each one of you reading this to finish your day smiling at everyone you meet. Watch what happens. I ended my marriage and got a new job. I had the opportunity to mingle with world leaders, visiting celebrities, even meeting and exchanging pleasantries with Princess Diana and Prince Charles. How? Walked up and smiled.

I met my current husband, as handsome a man as I've ever laid eyes on, as I stood on the sidewalk outside my Toronto apartment building. He remembers his first thought was, "Who is this girl with the beautiful smile?" We have now been together for 25 years and have three beautiful and accomplished children. Occasionally, when nervous, I still unconsciously cover my mouth. But now, my husband will smile and gently take my hand, and enfold it in his.

"Don't cover up that beautiful smile," he’ll whisper.

As for what my husband does for a living? Ah, there’s the rub.

He's a dentist.


helgor said...

Keep smiling! This was a great post.


nightsmusic said...

You know, I hate canoeing, (I don't swim. At all.), but I'm so very glad your parents did! :)

I just wish the picture of you with your profile was bigger because your husband is correct. You have a beautiful smile! :D

Susan Adrian said...

I always have loved this story. :)

Lottery Girl said...

Yes, Suze, I agree, this is just a wonderful story. Thanks for posting Novel Woman.

Anonymous said...

Wow. What a beautiful post. Thanks so much for sharing this story.

My sister was in a car accident as a teenager and knocked out her four front teeth on top. My mom made her go to school for some reason; it was pretty tough going until she got her new teeth.

I believe that a smile is very powerful. I make a point of smiling at everyone I meet, especially when I pass students in the hallway and we are alone; even if we don't exchange words, my smile says, "You are worth it. You inspire happiness in people around you. This, too (middle school) shall pass."

TheSnarkiest said...

That's a great story....and I hate stories with happy endings...but damn good anyway.

Susan said...

I agree. That story was so good it made me cry (but I was smiling as I did so).

Thanks so much; you made my day a bit brighter.

Merrymags said...

You got me on this one, Sweetie. I had to shed a few tears. Great story with an even better ending. Kiss that Westmount dentist tenderly tonight.


A Novel Woman said...

Ah, thanks everyone! I even got Mr. Snarkiest to smile.

People always confide their own dental histories when they hear this story. This piece originally ran in the Globe several years ago, and I remember the editor phoned me at the cottage, and talked for almost an hour (long distance!) to share her tragic braces story.

And the dentist who fixed my teeth is still practicing in Toronto! I must pop in and thank him properly.

Trudy said...

Great piece, NW! It's wonderful how dentistry can literally change someones life. My daughter needs braces and currently is a "behind-hand-smiler". It just breaks my heart to see this little girl so self conscious.

A Novel Woman said...


All three of my kids had braces, but it was my Eldest who suffered the most. She had to wear head-gear as well as braces. Her teeth stuck out so far, she couldn't close her lips to say "m" or "p" sounds. The kids at school were cruel, of course. I warned her before she got on the bus for her first day of Kindergarten that kids were going to tease her. I remember being very matter-of-fact with her, explaining everyone got teased for something - being too skinny, too fat, too freckly, too whatever. So you have a choice. You can let it upset you, or you can pretend to laugh along with them and they'll pick on someone else.

Sure enough, they called her every name they could think of, including the one that wounded her the most - Can Opener.

But she persevered, and she was smart enough to encourage the friendship of a tough girl who beat the crap out of anyone who was stupid enough to challenge her.

So Eldest got her braces, wore her head-gear, and now...well, she's an absolute stunner. And the orthodontist asked to use the models from Eldest's teeth, and the before and after photos, to show dental students what miracles can be accomplished.

I will say that the experience has made my daughter a really compassionate woman who has always had a soft spot for the underdog.

klasieprof said...

What a GREAT STORY!! When I was newly divorced, and moved 'back home to mom, she made some cinnamon rolls, drippy with frosting. I BIT down on the fork thinking it was flat, when It was up and down. I split all FOUR of my front teeth.
I called my GF who worked for a local dentist. He told me to come right over. I had NO insurance, and no money. He was Dr. Peldyak in Mt. Pleasant Michigan. He fixed my teeth. He bondo'd and they are beautiful. We "traded" out for him and his wife to use the pool at the hotel I managed. I will forever be grateful!!

Wonderful World of Weiners said...

Loved this post.

You are a great storyteller.

Hallie :)

A Novel Woman said...

Thanks, Hallie!

Klasieprof, you made my nether bits cringe. I can practically feel the crunch.

And my dentist too cut me a break when I was a poor struggling student, then a poor struggling working gal with no insurance. He was so kind to me, I'll never forget him.