Extracting a Tooth

#1’s tenuous grasp on courage was strained when he noticed a beaker full of 100mL syringes. “Those are big shots…” his voice trailed off from the chair where two assistants were strapping electrodes to his wrists. His eyes revealed anguish and gave him the look of a scared young animal. He looked quickly at me for reassurance. I tried to smile comfortingly as one assistant explains “We only use those for distilled water if we need to flush out your mouth during the procedure.” #1 was relieved but still not happy.

#1 was being prepped for a “procedure.” He was not duped by the innocuous term “procedure,” which he knew was a euphemism for extracting forcibly and violently a tooth that was firmly rooted in his jaw and trapped under neighboring teeth. As he sat there, he slowly realized that this “procedure” would involve general anesthesia, local anesthesia, an I.V. drip, a drill and grinder that look like an industrial grade Dremel tool, what we would call in any other context vice grip pliers, and various expensive monitoring systems. Standing in the corner, I was thankful he hadn’t seen Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello, D.D.S., in “Little Shop of Horrors”.

The room was not comforting. The white linoleum floor and white walls glared brightly in the harsh fluorescent light. The large black “procedure” chair seemed like an altar on which the patient is offered up as a sacrifice to some mechanical mantis of devices and instruments poised over #1 as he sits there. The few times the assistants spoke, they did so in quiet voices and clipped sentences. They wore black uniforms and walked deliberately around the room. Their pastel-colored masks, classic Kimberly Clark Procedure Masks complete with earloops, resembled 8-bit-lo-res colored squares floating around an otherwise monochrome scene.

The physician, Dr. B., walked in and asked jocularly to nobody in particular: “How’re we doing?” The assistants said nothing so #1 answered tentatively “I’m a little nervous.” Dr. B. didn’t try to comfort him. Instead, Dr. B. instructed one of the assistants to “Energize” the gas that would put #1 to sleep and then told me to stand by #1 while he administered the gas. As he went to sleep, #1 seemed to shrink as the spirit that animates him diminished.[1] As Dr. B. pulled up an eyelid I see just the white of an eye that has rolled back into #1’s head. Suddenly #1 involuntarily clinched both his hands into fists. The assistants stationed on either side instinctively spring forward and restrained his hands. Dr. B. immediately dismissed me: “Alright dad. We’ll take care of this. You can leave now.”[2] An assistant ushered me to the door, closing it firmly behind me as soon as I had exited the room.

I’m sitting now in the waiting room. Although I know that everything will be fine, somewhere deep down inside me festers that last image of #1’s fists clinching. Is that normal? Why did that happen? What does it mean?

I text the Mother: “If all goes well, #1 will wake in 15 minutes lacking a tooth.”

Although I know #1 will be fine, I worry about him in a way I would never worry about me or even about the Mother. Perhaps it’s the unadulterated trust and faith he has that I won’t hurt him. Perhaps it’s the responsibility I feel to take care of him. While such explanations are certainly true, they misprize what binds me to him (and I hope him to me). The ineffable, breathtaking, staggering love I feel for him—that’s why I worry about him.

Although I know #1 will be fine, I will worry until he is.


  1. I have wondered before about how #1 and #2 seem smaller when they have fallen asleep. It’s odd how their personality seems to inflate them, making them larger than their physical being. Usually, this happens slowly and naturally, as they fall asleep. Today, the harsh room, the gas mask over #1’s face, the silent assistants restraining his hands, the metal instruments, the drills and lights cantilevered over the “procedure” chair added a sinister quality #1’s inanimate body.  ↩

  2. Let me be clear, I have no doubt about Dr. B.’s qualifications and skill. He exudes confidence and experience. He promises to “tell it like it is.” As a patient, this is precisely the type of physician I want working on me. As a parent, I found that I wanted Dr. B. to comport himself with more compassion. Looking at #1 and knowing that he was anxious, I wanted to be able to console and reassure him. But in that space, I could offer only platitudes and generic encouragement. So I was looking to the Dr. B. to supplement my banal words of support.  ↩

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