Memory with teeth

I’ve dragged my heels on a couple of medical appointments this month, strictly out of embarrassment over my skills arranging an appointment on the telephone. First, I just plumb forgot the usual appointment with the sleep apnea doc, which is a straightforward five-minute thats-great-try-better-see-you-again-in-two-months sort of affair. I realized it less than a week after the fact, and then just kept putting off calling to reschedule. Finally the clinic called to reschedule my appointment, with a typical Japanese combination of apologizing while scolding to make sure I don’t miss the new appointment.

The second was for an inlay which loosened during lunch one day and then fell out during dinner. I managed to spit out the inlay and cleaned it up after dinner. I wrapped it in a tissue so I wouldn’t lose it, put it in my briefcase so I’d have it when I visited the dentist, and then …

As the days and then weeks wore on, it got tougher each time I tried to convince myself to pick up the phone, knowing that part of the interview would be, “How long ago did this happen?”

Biting the platinum bullet

I’d hobbled along with things as they were for more than two weeks, and probably closer to a month, doing my best not to get food stuck in the gap between my molars and whipping out the floss when it did (invariably some sort of meat or fish). I’m not sure what finally gave me the strength to actually pick up the phone and make the call, but as soon as I did it was a non-issue. When I said I’d had an inlay fall out, I was offered an early afternoon appointment the following day. I took it, and then hastily informed my boss I’d be having a half day off. (He’s happy to approve this, so long as there’s nothing crucial scheduled at the same time, as I have a history of not using my appointed holiday time.)

Scene from the Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange: close-up of a man's face, grimacing, with medical attachments to hold eyelids open

A young junior dentist invited me to sit in the chair and did the prep work, using some kind of disc on the drill to remove the old cement from the tooth where the inlay had previous sat, which process was not nearly as painful as some things I’ve suffered at the hands of women. When she was done, she called over the senior dentist, a fellow cyclist who has been taking care of my teeth for at least 24 years.

“It’s too old,” he told the junior dentist of the inlay I’d presented when I arrived. “It’s been a long time,” he said to me — a gentle reminder that I hadn’t scheduled my six-month cleaning after my last visit. He quickly reviewed my history. He’d originally done the inlay in Heisei 15 (2003), meaning it was nearly 20 years old. Checking more current events, the most recent X-ray was three years old. He injected my gum in several places with Novocaine, muttering to himself the while about the questionable state of my tooth, and then sent me off to the X-ray booth with the junior dentist.

After wrapping me in a lead apron and having me place my chin and forehead in the appropriate receptacles of the X-ray device, and then to bite the little thingamabob to hold my teeth in place, she told me to show my teeth. When I didn’t catch on right away she briefly lowered her mask and demonstrated. (She was a cutie — I’d be happy to show her my teeth anytime.)

And so she stepped out of the room and I tried to hold my mouth open in a grimace while biting a small plastic prop and not moving as the big machine whirred about my head. And my face wouldn’t cooperate. I watched in the mirror as my right cheek spasmed and my left cheek trembled. Was it an early indicator of some essential tremor to come with advancing age? I quickly checked if my teeth were vibrating between the muscular oscillations of my face — as far as I could see, they were still.

It was over in a few seconds. The regular dentist was satisfied with the result, so I must have held the important bits still enough. And then I was reclining head downwards once again as the drill was applied. There was little pain now as the injections had taken effect. The biggest challenge, as usual, was to keep breathing while my tongue was raised out of the way of the drill and yet blocking the water spray from running down my throat.

The dentist finished his cleaning up not a moment too soon and packed the resulting hole with a temporary goop. As soon as that was reasonably hardened and he was happy with the shape, he had me sit up again.

I won’t say anything if you won’t

While the dentist was giving me the usual injunction not to eat anything for half an hour, and to avoid chewing on the affected molar, I was wondering if I should show him the photo of me dining with my son the previous evening. He’d been taking care of José’s teeth from the time the lad was 5 or 6 until he left for university. But then I thought, No, if he knows José is in Tokyo now, he’ll ask why he doesn’t come in for a check-up.

Three people behind a table in a restaurant, arms about each other, smiling at camera. One person is holding a wine glass.
The gang’s all here

I’d no sooner had that thought than the dentist asked, “And how old is José now?”

I replied he was 30, and that made the dentist suck in his breath. I took out my phone and showed him the photo from Thanksgiving dinner the evening before. “He’s even got a beard!” He followed up with a question about where he was working, and was suitably impressed with the reply.

He didn’t ask what José was doing about dental care these days. Exceptional example of Japanese discretion. I’m glad, as the response (he hasn’t been to a dentist in ages) would have angered him.