The Story of my Teeth, But Not By Valeria Luiselli

This novel has been stirring a lot of interest in review pages, but I may have to wait a while before I can read it. My tooth is out, I lived to tell the tale, and here it is.

Well, if it hadn’t been for your lovely encouraging comments and my family support team, I’m not sure I would have got over the threshold of the dentists’ on Thursday. Words cannot describe how much I dislike, and fear, invasive medical procedures. But the day before I went, my sister-in-law offered me a great strategy. ‘What’s the best possible outcome?’ she asked. And I had been so busy preparing for all potential calamities that this really struck me afresh. I don’t often anticipate good happening in the medical arena. So I did think about how nice it would be if this infected tooth turned out to be responsible for a lot of the issues this year has brought, and that its removal might be a boost to my overall health.

I was still somewhat shaky when I got to the dentist’s however. Here’s another trick I learned: sixty deep breaths, with all the focus on the out breath, really does take your anxiety down. Well, for about five minutes, anyway. ‘How are you today?’ asked Rachel, the dental nurse, brightly. ‘Terrified,’ I replied. And she laughed and steered me up the stairs to my doom.Β  I do like my dentist, who can be rather funny and amusing. Though she was in grave mode, explaining to me all the things she is, I imagine legally, obliged to explain in terms of risks, while the anesthetic kicked in. Pity it couldn’t numb my brain, though I had actually lost the power of speech at that point, I was so frightened. Eventually I said, ‘I may have to hold Rachel’s hand,’ to which the dentist said, ‘Oh yes, give it a really good squeeze. Rachel’s got good strong hands.’ This was my mother’s advice: ‘Grab a hold of someone’s hand,’ she told me, and it does really work. The experience moved from intolerable to tolerable, and I just hope that poor woman has some feeling back in her fingers now.

It’s a strange sensation, having the tooth prised out. My dentist was slow and careful, which on the whole I was grateful for, as she’d warned me she might get the drill out if it looked like the tooth would split and she could preempt that. Now I had signed up for a twist and a yank, and the thought of the drill was on a whole other level. I was waiting for the noise like an ancient fence post being ripped from the ground, which was all I could remember from having teeth out aged ten, but this never happened, so the dentist did indeed say ‘It’s out!’ before I was expecting it. ‘You’re not a bleeder, that’s good,’ she then said, which I thought was possibly the most beautiful sentence in the English language at that point. Though she topped it with, ‘Oh you’re an excellent clotter,’ a few minutes later. While we sat, and I clotted, and waited for the tide of fear to recede, the dentist told me the tooth had come out with the abscess intact and it was huge. Subsequently I have felt sort of perversely proud of this, as if it’s an achievement to have anything, even a bad thing, on a magnificent scale. ‘So it’s probably just as well we didn’t try to save it,’ she said. ‘Would you like to see the naughty tooth?’ I shook my head most emphatically ‘no’. I was hanging on by a few threads here, and eyeballing a gruesome exhibit might have tipped me over. ‘You were very good in the chair,’ said my dentist, with immense kindness. ‘So calm. Made my job as easy as it could be.’

When I told Mr Litlove what she had said, much later that day, he said, ‘In other words, you froze.’ ‘Yup,’ I replied. And that was about it. I staggered downstairs to pay at the reception where Mr Litlove had come to walk me home in case I needed support (I was happy to have support). The receptionist was in fine form, too. ‘Now, no hoovering for her for at least six months,’ she told my husband. ‘In fact, better say no housework for a year.’ If I could have done, I would have laughed a lot.

It wasn’t a terribly nice day, it must be said. The removed tooth turned out to be an enormous one, and I couldn’t quite believe the size of the gap it left. Several days later I showed the gap to Mr Litlove. ‘See that tooth,’ I said, pointing to the one on the end of the front row, ‘that’s like the end of the pier. And those teeth right up in the back? That’s America.’Β  My mouth looks like a provincial theatre on a Monday night, with half the upper stalls empty. It turned out that my tongue rested against that tooth, which meant I tasted blood sickeningly for the rest of the day. And now I have a lisp, which Mr Litlove tells me is cute, but it is NOT CUTE at all. The annoying thing is that my bite is all wrong and two teeth that probably never met with the big old tooth in place, now clash together. By now, I am resigned to all these changes, and just waiting to adapt to the new situation. But on Thursday evening, all the locked down emotions of the day had risen up, dosed with useless adrenaline and curdled into a bizarre mix. I wanted my tooth back! I felt I would never get used to this vast gap, never adjust. In one of the many, rather lovely conversations I’ve had about teeth over the past week, my adorable editor at Numero Cinq called them ‘little gravestones of mortality’ and boy was he right. I was mourning that tooth, and all the useful tasks it had undertaken so modestly, so silently, and I hadn’t appreciated them at the time. It’s an interesting thing, every time I am forced to observe it, how crazy emotions make us. How entirely dismissive of fact, and reason and reality. Do we understand that enough, I wonder?

Anyhoo. As I read somewhere (I forget) just recently, time heals everything, until it kills us. My life now consists in a long series of hot saltwater washes, six or seven a day for a week, thanks to the severity of the infection. I’ll do anything to keep the gap clean and healthy, though I may end the week also pickled in brine. And of course I do wonder just how long I was incubating that infection for, and it does seem likely that at least some of the illnesses of the year were due to fighting it off. Maybe my sister-in-law’s best possible outcome may yet be a possible outcome. Cross your fingers for me.

And thank you again for all the wonderful comments, and stories and advice that you’ve left on this site and added to my life management manual. They were all extremely helpful!


33 thoughts on “The Story of my Teeth, But Not By Valeria Luiselli

  1. Oh dear…. I’m glad it’s all over and you certainly seem to have an excellent dentist. But it *is* weird having to adjust to your mouth feeling different. After my root canal, my dentist filled up the hollow shell of a tooth that was left, and my bite felt awful because the tooth was full and flat surfaced. However, I seem to have worn this away quite rapidly (I grind at night apparently) and it feels a bit hollow and odd now. No doubt I’ll get used to it – and at least the pain is gone, which is the main thing. Your abcess sounds quite nightmarish and hopefully your sister in law is right – all that poison is gone from your body so that has to be a good thing! I’m crossing everything for you! x

    • I may not have got the balance of elements quite right in this account – considering what an awful phobia I have of this sort of thing, it did go off as well as it could have done. I thought it quite likely I’d pass out or something would go wrong and I could never set foot inside a dental surgery again! But you don’t realise how important your bite is until it’s unsettled, do you? It is so very strange. I am sure I’ll get used to it in time, and yes, I do hope very much that removing the abscess is going to give my immune system a rest! πŸ™‚

    • I have to say that everyone at the dentists was so, so kind and supportive to me. They couldn’t have been nicer. And the tooth couldn’t really have been saved, and now the abscess is gone, so on balance, yes, rather positive! xx

  2. I am very impressed with your sangfroid, even if that happened in an exactly literal sense of the word.

    Also delighted by the comparison of your mouth to the seating in a provincial theatre.

    Also relieved that you have that thing out of there. You will feel better without it, as I know from personal experience of having had low-to-medium-level infections for months/years. You can’t gauge how hard that is on your body until it’s gone.

    Will you be having an implant to replace the misbehaving tooth, or is that a question too fraught with peril?

    • Oh David, I knew you would know exactly how I was feeling about a significant trip to the dentists! Your first comment did make me laugh. And I’m so glad your own experience encourages me to be positive – excellent! Ha, as for an implant, well probably not, a) because of the LUDICROUS cost and b) because it would mean more hours in a dentist’s chair than I can really face. But it might be possible to have a bridge, which I might maybe consider. On the whole, I’m really hoping I’ll adjust to that gap!

      • Bridging the gap is probably the best solution. You might get used to it, but your other teeth won’t, and they will start to move in ways that will destroy your mouth over time, and that will require far more time in the chair than you want. Oh, for the days of death before fifty, when one’s teeth became quickly irrelevant!

  3. Who cares if you froze, it was bravery of the first order to get as far as the chair in my book! Good luck with your recovery – I’m sure there’s something in the idea of a link between a persistent abscess and vulnerability to other infections.

    • Aww, bless you! I was VERY scared, and with a bit of hindsight, it wasn’t really that awful. But I’m also extremely glad it’s over! Mr Litlove has been telling me for ages I was fighting something off – I suppose now I’ll find out if that was true! It would be a very nice outcome if it seems I was.

  4. Very happy to read this as clearly it was overall an excellent outcome. I’ve been sure all along that the infection was at the back of some or all of the other ailments. And take it from me (about a month ahead of you in the tooth extraction stakes), you will get used to the gap.

    • I am so glad to hear you say I’ll get used to the gap, dear Harriet! At the moment it still feels like the Grand Canyon in there, but it’s only been a few days. I will hold onto that hope! πŸ™‚

    • Ha, nowhere near as brave as you have been lately, my dear friend! My dentist said to me that she thought the extraction of a large tooth was probably the worst thing you could have done, and both she and everyone at the dentists’ agrees that root canal gets a bad press and it’s really not that awful. So I will hope very much that it is true and be very curious to know what you make of the process, too! I’ll be thinking about you and sending love. xxxx

  5. I’m glad to hear you got through it relatively unscathed! It’s so true about not noticing your bite until it’s wrong. When I had my root canal for my bad tooth, the dentist had trouble getting the crown shaved down, and I ended up having to go back a couple of times to get it adjusted. It’s fine now, and I’m glad she erred on the side of not doing too much, but it was annoying.

    The recent dental crisis in my house involved my cat. She had to have all her teeth removed a few weeks ago. For the first couple of weeks, she licked her gums a lot, trying to figure what was different. She seems to have adjusted, but without any front teeth, she tends to stick out her tongue a bit, which she didn’t do before. I’m sure she would send her sympathies if she could!

    • Oh my cat sympathises with your cat! He has practically no teeth left now, and he sticks his tongue out too (which I am sorry to say gives him a dreadful village-idiot look). Mr Litlove did indeed point to Harvey as the pioneer in our household of tooth extraction, but he has been very reticent with the details.

      I can’t tell you how relieved I am to have this particular ordeal over! But the bite is an incredible annoyance – I just keep jarring this one tooth. I suppose I will have to do something about it in a bit. You remind me that a person can go back and get things adjusted to suit – I don’t have to put up with it!

  6. I’m glad it’s all over! It sounds like no fun at all, but I am shocked that after all that you didn’t want to see the gross tooth. I have these little bumps on my head that I have to get removed every two years or so (they just keep growing! my head bulges with brains I suppose!), and I alllllways want the doctor to give them to me after for inspection. Only one of my three dermatologists has ever agreed to this request however. They find my interest suspicious like maybe I am going to do some sort of ritual with it.

    (Hm maybe I should do a ritual with it next time.)

    (I’m not going to do that.)

    Best wishes for a speedy recovery!!

    • I sort of wish I could look at the tooth now, when I feel fine and not faint and reeling and all over the place. Now I’m curious! How fascinating that you are growing extra brains all over your head – what a strange and wonderful thing! My mother was sent home with her gallstones in a jar after her operation because they were so unusually large. I have suggested to her that she gets them polished and mounted in jewellery but I don’t think she’s taken me up on it. I mean, fair do’s, what you produce you ought to have an option on keeping, right?

  7. Well done. Sounds like you did very well. I would also freeze – in fact I half froze up just reading your account. I nearly reached for the phone to call my dentist!
    BTW, my dad-in-law was very sick from a tooth infection which spread to his knee. So I guess our teeth deserve special respect!

    • NO! Your poor father. Crikey – I am constantly amazed by what I hear lately about the (evil) power of teeth. You are so right they deserve respect! And you made me laugh about freezing. It was very cathartic to write it all down!

  8. So glad you’ve had the offending tooth removed and that the whole experience is behind you: I completely empathise with your perverse pride in the huge abscess, I’d feel exactly the same. May your recovery be speedy and absolute.

    • Thank you, dear Angela. I am so relieved it’s over too. And thank you for such lovely wishes – it would be just so nice to do some real and lasting recovering!

  9. I’ll bet you’re going to feel a lot better with that thing out. I have a bridge to replace a tooth on the side that was infected and had to come out, and it’s great–it attaches to the teeth on either side and I can bite on it. My dentist built it after the gums had healed where the tooth had come out. Now I floss under it with a piece of “super floss” or a floss threader and it’s been fine for years.

    • Jeanne, thank you for telling me this. A bridge is one of the options I’m seriously considering, so it’s extremely helpful to hear about yours. Did it take long in the dentist’s chair to get sorted?

      • I think it took a couple of hours, but they mostly weren’t doing much to my teeth, just mixing glue and fitting things in. I think my dentist built up the fake “tooth” bit by bit to make sure it would be comfortable and not press on the incision spot, even months after the extraction.

  10. I’m not in love with dentistry either but it must be horrid to be so frightened. good for you to find some strategies that worked at least to get you over the first phase

    • Drugs are good! I must find ways to do better though, joking aside. My feeling is that it’s bad enough having to go to the dentist, no need to make it worse if it can possibly be avoided!

  11. Way to be brave! So glad it is over and I hope it is indeed the best possible outcome that you imagined. I totally would have looked at the tooth even if it made me queasy because I am curious like that. Will you be getting an implant or bridge or something to fill the gap and make your tongue happy? Or do you now have an extra place to store snacks for later? πŸ™‚

    • Lol! Funnily enough, I have discovered that I can fit carrot sticks in my mouth sideways now. I’m not sure how much value this will add to my life, but you never know! I am considering a bridge or a partial denture or something… sort of depends on how rich I feel and how brave. If I put it that way, I can see I may have to live with the gap! πŸ™‚

  12. Don’t worry, your lisp isn’t noticeable online πŸ˜‰ I’m glad your infection is stopped. Here at Smithereens home, the big boy is losing his milk teeth, at the pace of one a day these past 3 days! The tooth fairy (a mouse in France) is totally broke, and his smile is just… well… in dire need of Photoshop.

    • Your comment did make me laugh! I jolly well think the tooth fairy ought to pay ME for having the tooth out. That would have perked the experience up a bit. πŸ™‚

  13. Goodness, I’ve realised I forgot to leave a comment here. I hope that you’re still on the mend and that your lisp is a thing of the patht.

    I am impressed by your calmness. I went to the dentist for the first time in (whisper it) 15 years recently. Unsurprisingly there was about three metres of tandensteen – can’t remember the word in English – encrusting every tooth and it all had to be scraped off – this is NOTHING in comparison to having a tooth gouged out and I was all twitchy and whimpery and sweaty, in other words a total wimp. So hats off to you!

    (Still, a photograph of the abscess would have been lovely for all your blogging fans to see! But we’ll live.)

    • Oh Helen, having the hygienist clean your teeth is the most painful thing you can have done, I know this for sure! At least I didn’t feel a thing. I absolutely loathe that sonic screwdriver thing they use that puts every nerve in your mouth on red alert. Gah! Gives me the shivers thinking of it. You do amuse me so – my lisp is better, thankth, and the idea of a photo does make me giggle. Wouldn’t that have livened up this blog a bit! πŸ™‚

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