The Chickienob had a tooth that would not come out. It was loose, but wedged in-between two adult teeth that weren’t allowing it much wiggle-room. Every night for weeks, she would come downstairs during one of her multiple bedtime-stalling maneuvers and complain that she couldn’t sleep because the loose tooth was too distracting. As a parent in this situation I have two contradictory priorities: 1) Get the child back to bed as quickly as possible. 2) Indulge my amateur dentist cravings.
Most nights I am pretty good at sticking to #1 and ignoring #2. Unless the tooth is hanging by a thread, I’m pretty quick to send her back to bed with the promise that if she really really wants the tooth to come out now, I can do it, but it will be very painful and very bloody. Occasionally she’ll try to call my bluff at which point I’ll usually make a half-hearted attempt to pull the tooth before fixing my eyes on her and telling her that as her daddy, I just can’t bring myself to cause the pain that removing this tooth would result-in. Having gotten this affirmation of love, if it feels genuine to her and not a ploy to get her back to bed, she’ll back-down. Sometimes she’ll even throw-in a comforting comment meant to show that we are equals in the tooth removal game. Something like, “I really do want this tooth out, but if it starts to bleed a lot then it will get all over my pillow-case and ruin it and I don’t want that to happen.” We all have our considerations, she means to tell me. Yours include not causing the people you love pain. Mine include avoiding hard-to-get-out stains.
The Wolvog almost never asks me to pull his teeth. He manages the process on his own, usually presenting a bloody chicklet at the unlikeliest of moments, like in the boarding area of the Orlando Airport before our flight home from Disney World or at multiple Paneras around the greater Washington Metropolitan Area.
But I would guess that of all the teeth the Chickienob has lost, I’ve ended up pulling out the majority of them. The first time I did it, I found it a remarkable landmark in parenting. I wasn’t a kid who liked having his teeth pulled, didn’t like going to the dentist (who does?), didn’t particularly care to observe bloody, quasi-medical procedures. But there I was, calmly extracting her tooth, issuing commands like “wider” and “Rinse and Spit.” I asked for pictures to be taken. When the tooth came out in my hand, I held it aloft, pinched between my thumb and forefinger like a tiny Excalibur.
There have been a lot of teeth since then. I’ve honestly lost track. Melissa doesn’t pull her teeth. Just me. Melissa doesn’t even like to be in the room when its happening. So between the Wolvog’s self-regulation of dental extraction and Melissa’s repulsion, the whole teeth-pulling routine has become something of a special ritual for the Chickienob and me.
So the other night, when the Chickienob came downstairs, I gave the obligatory tug and determined that the tooth would probably come out easily (and I was confident that I had at least a few dollar-bills in my wallet), I set about trying to get it out. She had her head tilted back but was still trying to see what I was doing out of the bottom of her eyes — a look that communicated both her trust in me and her creeping suspicion that all children develop that maybe their parent doesn’t really know what they are doing. The tooth really was jammed in-between those adult teeth (incisors? cuspids? I really don’t know). I had to practically twist the tooth 180 degrees before I could tug it out.
It came out with a satisfying “click” and to judge from the Chickienob, not too much discomfort. She flashed a bloody grin and ran off to rinse and left me holding the tooth. As I listened to her gargling and spitting it dawned on me that she only has a finite number of baby teeth and like I said, I have no clue how many I’ve pulled out. Which means I have no clue how many are left to pull. Which means I have no clue when this part ends. Perhaps that was it? Perhaps I was holding the last tooth I’ll ever pull out of her mouth. Later I Googled how many baby teeth a child will lose and was surprised that it was only 20. I don’t know what number I was expecting, but I thought it was higher. I thought I had more time with her as a little girl.
She went back to bed, her tooth in the tiny pillow Melissa used as a little girl. When she was asleep we slipped in and placed a dollar bill inside the pocket (thankfully we didn’t forget). I wondered if she would stop believing in the Tooth Fairy before she ran out of baby teeth. I wondered again, whether I would ever get to pull another one of her teeth. Whether she would go on trusting me that completely. Whether I should have been a dentist.
In my mind I keep going back to that moment. We were in the kitchen. The tooth came out and she ran off to rinse and spit and marvel at all that blood. I sat in the kitchen holding the tooth. In the morning, her smile would be different — if only a little bit. Those adult teeth were already crowding into the gap and reminding me that braces seem unavoidable. The feeling, if I can describe it is the bittersweet satisfaction of knowing that you’ve done part of your job as a parent, and that soon, you won’t be needed to perform that function anymore.
(Image: By Uncredited WPA photographer (Works Progress Administration photograph via ) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)