Never before has the prospect of opening my mouth -’sans mask’ – been so fraught with risk.
For the first time in my life, I felt perfectly justified in my laxity; downgrading my bi-annual dental appointment to the junk pile, and mostly putting it out of my mind. But, whenever the memory of my last checkup came to the fore (Bangkok, July 2019!), or the follow up scheduled for last April that turned to Covidust, I finally had to acknowledge that I couldn’t flee forever: I was waaaay overdue.
Not once in my entire dental history had I been so neglectful; not even during the peak of law school exams, nor while I traveled around Asia, nor while I was in acute recovery from my accident (even when I had to stick a cushion under my backside to recline). Regular checkups were as fixed a mainstay as my daily floss.
But this is a year like no other; the year of the virus. And with no end in sight, I had to bite the bullet.
While I’d never been riddled with anxiety preceding a dental or orthodontic appointment, the mere thought of exposing my mouth to the drills and unknown maneuvers of a new dentist’s hands, suddenly filled me with terror. So much so that, before scheduling the appointment, I went on a reconnaissance mission to the clinic. I walked out with appointment in hand, and promptly put it out of my head. Until today.
After boosting my immunity with a good night’s sleep and morning supplement, I cycled up to the sleek, spartan, and mostly empty clinic. A couple of “X” marks on seats indicated where I could and could not sit; I opted to stand while filling out a patient form. Then my name was called and I followed the heavily-disguised assistant up a set of stairs and into a stark office.
The dentist was dressed in similar garb, both he and the assistant fully layered up in protective, moon-landing gear – making me feel, in t-shirt and leggings, grossly under-dressed. After a short chat with the dentist, he pointed out the disinfected seat and sterilized utensils, and how the window and door would remain ajar for air-flow.
Leaning back in the seat, I removed my mask and replaced the pair of dark-lens sunglasses onto my nose, painfully aware that my face alone was exposed to all the elements. I grabbed both handrests – like I do when I’m on a plane hitting turbulence – and gazed up at the spotlight that shone its gentle glow into my eyes as if it were the flattened face of E.T. with blue bunny ears. As the two young men engulfed me with their masks, face shields and gloves, and as I tried to look past them into the soft halo of E.T.’s light, I felt the soft trickle of tears streaming down both cheeks, mixing together with saliva and water that had begun to drizzle out of my mouth.
How had we come to this point, where I felt like a radioactive specimen undergoing careful dissection?
I stepped outside myself and thought back, far back. All the way to Mel H, my very first dentist in Montreal. From toddlerhood on, my sisters and I went to Mel. Grey-bearded, casually dressed and bespectacled, Mel was nothing if not a hands-on dentist; his fingers easily moved around my mouth as if he were on an expedition – cleaning, tightening, feeling my gums, angling for a better view, checking on wisdom teeth, braces, gums, cavities. He never wore a lab-coat or gloves. I never had reason to worry about hygiene, or question his methods. Mel laughed heartily, smelled of smoke (or mouthwash) and always put me at ease. Those were the days…
Those E.T. eyes produced another memory flash. An emergency room in Cambodia. My clothes being cut off to verify the type and extent of injuries. In a semi-conscious daze, looking up into the light, not really knowing if I would survive. Was I even alive?
Unable to staunch the flow of tears, I focused on my breath and kept my eyes trained on the glass-covered light. Without a word, the assistant, who shared his name but not once his face, brought a folded tissue to my cheek and dabbed it gently. The anonymity of such a compassionate gesture brought with it a wave of sadness. And unspoken gratitude.
I felt dizzy. Dentally distanced. Disoriented.
How, how, how on earth had we come to this?