Lake Superior

The Tooth Hurts


Cairo, Egypt


The other night I broke and swallowed the tooth to the right of my two front teeth while eating a piece of barbecued chicken. This event by itself would have been enough to ruin my night, but it worsened from there.

Some people are born with special genes; they develop into great painters, musicians, athletes and philosophers. I was born with lousy teeth. Loosely calculating over the last ten years, I have spent about 25% of my time and +/- $25,000 in cold cash with dentists and oral surgeons. I am missing three back upper teeth (phase one of planned implants), one lower left tooth (phase two), and have one upper back right crown holding on by a deteriorating denticle substance (phase three). Add this latest aperture (phase four). I have had four root canals and so many crowns that I feel entitled to rule a small fiefdom. Computing investment, cost of living increase and interest accrual, I have informed my two children that I have willed an equal share of my mouth as part of their inheritance.

The difference with this loss hit me when I realized that the tooth was gone and, adding insult to injury, that I had swallowed it. Nerve-out. I took my unfinished dinner plate to the sink and walked to the bathroom to examine the desecration in the mirror. Smiling, I now looked like an extra from the cast of Deliverance. Devastated and pounding my fist on the counter, I exclaimed, “I can’t believe this is happening to me; why am I so unlucky?” I moped back into the living room, avoiding eye contact with my wife Lynn, and plopped down onto the couch with a not-so-subtle “Shit!” Closed my eyes and mouth and processed what just happened: Lynn, Bentley and I were leaving in the morning for a week of rest, relaxation, hiking and enjoying the splendor of the Rocky Mountains in Carbondale, Colorado. I wouldn’t be able to go to the dentist till we got back. I would not smile or talk to anyone because each time I opened my mouth people would cringe and offer me loose change at the sight of my toothlessness. I would be sequestered, avoiding humiliation. Lynn would walk a few steps behind me in public settings. Bentley, our twelve-year-old dachshund, would empathize; he recently had six of his teeth removed.

I felt like a victim. Ashamed. Like God dealt me an unfair kick in the mouth. My life sucked.

I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was one of the framed photographs on the wall. It was in my collection of various photos taken during international travels. This particular image was taken in Cairo, Egypt. I was sitting in the back seat of a van with a group of colleagues on an excursion to a place called “Garbage City.” Taking pictures from the speeding vehicle, I noticed a man sitting on a street corner shining shoes. His smile caught my attention and, even with a sidewalk chain blocking my view, I aimed and snapped one shot. Not until later, when reviewing images from the day, did I see what I captured. A perfectly framed photograph of the shoeshine guy behind the sidewalk chain in the foreground. His face radiated genuine joy. His unharnessed smile filled the frame. He was also missing all of his front teeth.

We spend so much time trapped behind chains; trying to project best images of ourselves. Best family, college, job, car, salary and neighborhood. The best body, hair, complexion and perfectly white & aligned teeth. And, like me, we spend time complaining about our situation and wishing it wasn’t this way or that. “If only I had _______, I would be really happy.”

And then there’s this shoeshine guy sitting on a trash-laden street corner in Cairo. His expression exclaims, “God, I am the most blessed man in the world. I can’t believe this is happening to me. Why am I so lucky?”

Why is finding contentment with exactly who we are like pulling teeth.

Along with my tooth, I swallowed my pride and smiled, knowing this tooth shall pass.

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