Recently, I lost my first adult tooth. Number 21, middle, upper left incisor.
When it was pulled a couple of weeks ago, I was ready to be done with it. For reasons I still don’t understand, that tooth started to “migrate” fifteen or twenty years ago, slipping downward and angling outward, giving me an ever broader and more uneven space between by front teeth. Over time, the snaggle tooth became an irritant. When the gum infections started, my dentist told me that sooner or later the tooth was coming out. It began to loosen, and shifted downward even more. And when that final toothache made it impossible to bite in the area, the good dentist and I agreed that it was time.
Now I never thought I’d have any particularly strong reaction to losing a tooth. I was surprised that the experience struck me as a rite of passage into old age. I didn’t want to let a part of me go, knowing it would never grow back or truly be replaced. I turned 56 this year, and nothing until now has made me feel so much that I was slipping beyond middle age.
Once the tooth was gone, however, I quickly got used to the gap in the middle of my face. It didn’t look nearly so bad as I’d imagined. I didn’t feel the need to hide it; in fact, I almost went out of my way to show it off to folks. The gap was free of discomfort in a remarkably short time. I was eating the same night, and chewing by the next. I even found I could play my sax with hardly any adjustment at all. The biggest problem was a slight lisp in my speech.
I’ve been thinking about where to go from here. My dentist’s assumption – and Ponczka’s – was that I’d get a permanent replacement as soon as possible. But I don’t know if I want that. There’s a sense of wanting to honor my gap, and the now absent snaggle tooth that served me so long, by leaving it as is. I don’t know that I want a disguise. So, one of my thoughts is to get a decorative and symbolic replacement. Top of my list would be a tooth fashioned of obsidian. It would be functional, but at the same time an acknowledgment of the biological fact. But we’ll see. It will be at least a couple of months of healing before any permanent steps can be taken.
In the meantime, today I was given my temporary prop tooth, fit to a piece of plastic molded to the roof of my mouth. It looks incredibly real. My teeth look better than they have in two decades. But it feels like I have a small shoe horn in my mouth, and it distorts my speech more than the gap does. My dentist insists that I wear it at least 12-14 hours a day. To protect my gum, she says, for the permanent work she’s already planning for me.
But I remain undecided. The snaggle-tooth is gone, and that’s well enough. I came by it honestly, but also lost it honestly, meaning that, the deterioration and eventual yanking of that tooth directly reflect an arc of my life, from my early life laziness about flossing, to the eventual surrender to the pressures of pain. And the gap may have a thing or two to teach me yet, lessons that may well come in the reactions of others. But I remain suspicious of the prop. For me, it’s tainted by an aura of untruth, like the plastic surgeries and baldness treatments I’m also wary of. Something about the artifice of a flawless presentation worries me. If the motive behind the prop will be to hide something, don’t I want to fully understand what it is I’m hiding, and why? I think this is something I’ll be thinking about the next little while.