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.  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.’  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!

And After Another Long, Unexplained Absence…

The new edition of Shiny is out! – but you probably already know this, as we went live last Thursday and I am only now managing to produce a blog post.

SNB-logoAnd why is this, I hear you cry? Well, let me give you the details.

Casualties so far in 2016

Mr Litlove

Trapped nerve in shoulder.

Throat infection.

Monster cold from family party at Easter.



Uveitis in eye followed by WEEKS of chronic eye strain.

Cystitis once.

Cystitis twice.

Yeast infection from antibiotics.

Mr Litlove’s cold – though I caught this mildly and it is negligible in the scheme of things.

Abscess in tooth, resulting in more antibiotics and the prospect of an unpleasant trip to the dentist.


This last one was the worst. I came home and wailed that this was AWFUL. I’d barely got past the last batch of antibiotics and now I had another and the supremely dreadful choice between root canal work or extraction.

‘But this is great!’ said Mr Litlove. ‘You’ve got something definite and it has a name and they know how to fix it.’

Well, I’ve had a good run at health issues with names so far this year and frankly, you can keep them. I’ll take my nebulous chronic fatigue any day, which usually leaves me safe in my own home and without the need for medical intervention. Ten to one I’ll have the tooth extracted, as it’s been nothing but trouble since I concussed the nerve and the root canal work may well not be entirely successful. My mother assured me most comfortingly that an extraction is the sort of thing that’s worse in anticipation than in actuality and it ought at least to be quick. The dentist did warn me I wouldn’t be able to chew so well on that side of my mouth, but I pointed out I hadn’t chewed on it for the past two and a half years anyway. So. Now I just have to hope the antibiotics work (they are working, just more slowly than I’d hoped) and that I can avoid a second yeast infection. Sigh.

It’s been kind of Mr Litlove to keep me company in ill health. We were sitting on the sofa, staring at the walls not that long ago and he said: ‘We ought to be living the dream. We have an idyllic lifestyle and all we’ve done so far this year is be ill.’ ‘Tell me about it!’ I said. We are as usual oddly opposite. Mr Litlove is someone who can’t be ill quietly; there is never any need to ask him what the matter is. Whereas I get more still and more silent the worse I feel. He said he found himself wondering at one point if he’d caught chronic fatigue from me (I thought it was a bit late in the day for contagion) or whether we should have the house checked for poisonous gasses. I can understand Mr Litlove’s chain of events easily – he’s in the middle of a huge life change after all, which is tiring, and he got the throat bug from going back and forth to the doctors for me, and then his cold from a family party where it was rampant. He thinks that my run of illnesses have been provoked by fighting off this abscess for a while, and the dentist did warn me the swelling probably wouldn’t go down completely because of the scar tissue, since it had been there some time. I don’t know. I like it as a theory and wish it were true, which means I distrust it. What if this is just all about my heading-towards-fifty-hormones? What if this is the new reality?

On a more positive note, I have recently been able to read a bit again – up to two hours a day if I take plenty of breaks to rest my eyes. Which was absolute bliss after such a long, long drought. Before that I’d been forced to entertain myself with Woody Allen-esque scenarios in which I imagined travelling around the different departments of my body. So I might visit my brain to find the operatives bored and cranky, complaining there’s not enough to do. To which I would point out that the place is in a mess, half the cooling fans have burnt out, there’s litter everywhere, a good clean would make a lot of difference, etc. But they tell me that it’s no use, they can’t get any help from Maintenance. So I then visit Maintenance, where they suck in air through their teeth and say it’s a difficult time and what with all the recent problems, resources are low, maybe if they could get more supplies…? So I go to Accounts and Distribution, who are up in arms; they really need more nutrient income but they keep being ram-raided by that criminal, Stress, who makes off with all the good stuff the moment it’s delivered… And just recently I had a little fun with antibiotic ninjas storming the besieged Northern Gum Territories.

Well, you have to find amusement wherever you can.

This is true more than usual this week as Mr Litlove, now pretty much fully recovered from his cold, has gone away to Devon for a chair-making course. We’d agreed much earlier in the year that he’d go alone as a five-hour car trip is well outside my comfort zone at the moment, and normally I don’t mind a week on my own to watch what I like on telly and eat chicken risotto every night. But he’s only been gone an hour and I am missing him dreadfully. I think I’m a little lower in spirits than usual, what with this run of illnesses. But hey, I’ve hardly read any of the reviews in this edition of Shiny – and I must mention the kindness and understanding of the other eds, which has stretched beyond the pale this year! – and I’ve been feeling too rough even to look at what’s going on in the blogworld lately, so I could catch up. And I can make myself chicken risotto and watch an old movie I’ve watched so many times that I don’t need to strain my eyes on it (and I prefer rewatching movies to seeing them for the first time). And I have Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Solitary Summer by my side to read a few pages at a time, because there was a woman who really knew how to make the most of time alone. So I will do my very best to avoid a pity party.

If you happen to stop by, tell me what you are doing this week. I’d love to know!



In A New Light

So, I have my new reading glasses.

They are quite nice though the thicker arms, which I can catch out the corner of my eye, make me think I’ve left the price tag on. I went to the opticians on Friday afternoon to pick them up, and whether it was the effect of being able to see more clearly or not, I noticed that all the assistants seem to be getting younger and younger. I was assisted by a charming young man of about twelve, who put the glasses on me and said ‘They look lovely!’ So I liked him instantly.

Then he gave me the card with all the tiny fonts on it and asked if I could read one in about the middle of the page.

Yes, I could.

And could I read the sentence two lines down?

Yes, surprisingly enough, I could.

And what about the smallest line at the very bottom?

YES, I COULD!!! And then I said to him, ‘At my age, young man, this is what constitutes real excitement.’

In the subsequent excitement, I managed to snap the flesh of my little finger between the particularly ferocious jaws of my new glasses case, so I kind of tuned out of the next things he said, though I kept smiling brightly. If he told me these glasses self-destruct in the rain, or something, I’m in trouble. But then we were pretty much done. As I was leaving, I swear to you these were the exact words he said: ‘If you need the screws tightened, or you’d like them cleaned, or if you just fancy a chat, do come in and see us. Use us and abuse us, that’s what we’re here for.’ I thought this was very funny, but I also thought it fair to warn him he should be more careful what he offered me. I might pop in and get them to read me a chapter of a book, for instance. It could happen.

So now I own reading glasses and a whole world of gesture has opened up before me. Now I understand why people go around with glasses on top of their heads. And why you find glasses sitting upside down on all manner of coffee tables and desks. And why people peer at you over the top of the frames. It’s because you can ONLY look at small type with them, and everything else is lost in a misty blur. Okay! I get it! I really did need reading glasses, it turned out, because now I recognise how out of focus most close-range type was. Have they helped with my sensitive eyes? Hmmm, well, not yet, but I hope over time they will. In the meantime, my eyes remain stupidly over-reactive to either concentration or light, becoming more bloodshot in the space of twenty minutes or so (at which point I don’t like to push it and usually give up – and they calm down again). I don’t suppose anybody else out there has had an issue like this? I doubt it. I regularly defy medical science and chronic fatigue is the weird and innovative gift that keeps on giving. But it’s getting easier to see the telly, that’s certainly less trouble than it was, and some days the computer is a bit easier too.

Talking of people who may need to alter their glasses, I found Mr Litlove peering at the spine of a review book I’d recently received, trying to read the title. The title was actually Superabundance, though I admit it wasn’t easy to make out. ‘What’s it called?’ Mr Litlove asked. ‘Super-bunny-dance?’ Once I had finally finished laughing, I put him right. But imagine my surprise when, a few days later, another book arrived, this one a collection of essays by Annie Dillard called The Abundance. ‘Oh look,’ said Mr Litlove, standing at my shoulder. ‘More bunnies dancing.’  I am intrigued to see what will arrive next. Will other animals be allowed to join the party? I will let you know!


While I’ve Been Away…

‘Don’t you think that forty-eight is a good age,’ Mr Litlove began conversationally, ‘to start a jewellery collection?’

We were in town shortly before his birthday and we both knew my reason to be there was to shop for that event. Mr Litlove has always loved a fair bit of hoopla around his birthday. In previous years my wall calendar has been defaced with messages over the start of February that read ‘take out bank loan to buy Mr Litlove’s presents!’ and then later in the month, ‘do you have enough presents yet?’ and ‘don’t forget the cake!’ This mention of jewellery was a nonsense though, from a man who’d needed much persuasion to wear a wedding ring. Still, I was happy to play the game.

‘Shall I get you a big chunky gold necklace?’ I asked. ‘Or maybe a bracelet?’

‘These could be my Mr T. years!’ he declared. ‘I could be the white Mr T. I could wear a lot of gold, get myself a mohawk…’ he sighed happily. ‘The things you can do when you don’t have a job.’

‘But you do still have a wife,’ I pointed out. ‘At the moment.’

Mr Litlove thought that this was a consideration, when it came to jewellery and mohawks.

Oh my dear readers, it has been a while since I’ve posted here, but as you can see, not much has changed in the meantime. We are as foolish as ever. I have had every test known to the human eyeballs and mine are perfectly healthy, which is excellent news. I think gradually they are recovering from what has felt like weeks of eye strain. I’ve been prescribed reading glasses, which I’m really hoping will work a little miracle. Even if, well, reading glasses! And blue-tinted ones at that, to make it easy to look at the computer screen. But if it means I can read again, then so be it.

In the meantime, thank goodness for audio books. I’d just cancelled my Audible subscription when this happened, as I had a whole bunch of books on my ipod that I hadn’t listened to. There had been a sale, and I’d stocked up on three Agatha Christies, which were perfect convalescent material. I also loved Back When We Were Grown-Ups by Anne Tyler, Enigma by Robert Harris and Hot Water by P. G. Wodehouse (glorious foolishness). After that, though, I stalled in The Great Gatsby and The House of Mirth. Who knew that those beautiful, elegant sentences of Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton could end up sounding cumbersome when read aloud? And beyond those books, lay the mammoth forty hours of Can You Forgive Her? and the even more whopping fifty hours of The Count of Monte Cristo. Both of which I had bought in sales (the Count a mere £2.50). I may have been overly concerned about value for money.

Anyway, I happened to be in the bath when there was a knock on the front door and, a little while afterwards, the sound of something being pushed through the cat flap in the back door. I thought it was just the post, as my postman has devised this method of delivering books when I’m out. However, when I got downstairs, I found a big pile of books on CD – The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, Deaf Sentence by David Lodge…. eight novels altogether. I was in awe. Who had pushed these goodies into my figurative lap? I wondered if it could possibly be the postman. He’s a bit of a local hero, having made the paper over Christmas for rescuing a woman’s cat after it was involved in a hit and run. And I see a fair bit of him because… well, for the reason you probably all know your postman quite well too! He’d been very sweet and sympathetic about my incapacitated state and I imagined it might be the sort of thing he’d do. But magnificent though my postman is, I somehow couldn’t imagine him knowing who Barbara Kingsolver was, and that I’d like her novels. Then when I checked my emails later in the day, there was one from my lovely friend, Rosy Thornton, who hadn’t been able to bear the thought of me unable to read and so had lent me her collection. What a darling! Since then I’ve been alternating The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (very good indeed) with the last of my own audio books, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (also excellent).

Mr Litlove is getting on well with his furniture making. I went for a haircut and procured him another commission – a coffee table for the hairdressing salon. He did have one tragic accident, though, when he dropped his smart phone and the glass cracked on the garage floor. This also happened on the same day that he popped the bag in his vacuum press – it was just one of those days. Although now I think about it, today he put his foot through the knee of his new birthday overalls. It’s no wonder I have nightmares about health and safety. Fortunately, the overalls were very cheap so whilst we hope my mother can perform a miracle with her needle, I could always buy him a new pair.  (They were so cheap that when we were looking online I offered to buy him the matching underwear to go with them, but he declined.)

If you get a chance, do let me know how you are in the comments. I absolutely loved the comments on the post about the menopause. Really, you are the funniest, cleverest and kindest readers in the blogosphere. But I’ve been away for a while.