Personal essay: The whole tooth

Writer muses on the meaning of a missing tooth

By Ben Salmon / The Bulletin / @frequencyblog

Published May 12, 2014 at 12:06AM

I started what turned out to be a very long goodbye to one of my two front teeth nearly 20 years ago.

I don’t remember the date, or even the year. I know I was in my late teens. (I’m 37 now.)

I don’t know where it happened, only that it was in the stuffy gymnasium of one of the dozen or so middle schools in my hometown of Lexington, Ky.

I certainly don’t remember who did it. Some nameless kid on another city-league basketball team who came down with a rebound and bounced straight back up, presumably to try to lay the ball into the basket and not to drive the top of his skull directly into the front of my mouth.

My most vivid memories of the injury are: 1) Doubled over, taking my hand away from my mouth and watching bright red blood pour out onto the polished-to-a-shine gym floor; and 2) Looking up and watching my dad as he bounded down the rickety old wooden bleachers toward the court.

Dad took me to a nearby urgent-care facility, where they … did something, I’m sure. I don’t remember. Mostly, I remember being annoyed that I was missing the end of my game.

I split my lip that day, but I didn’t lose a tooth, at least immediately. Within weeks, though, it became clear that my front tooth on the right — No. 8, I have since learned — took the brunt of the blow. Like a river rerouted by an earthquake, it had moved a bit, dropping even farther out of alignment with its naturally crooked top-row buddies than it was before.

No. 8 also eventually began to feel different. It wasn’t pain, but a sort of dead feeling, as if it were made of wood or plastic and not dentin and enamel. It might’ve discolored; I’m not sure: Discoloration is a relative term in my mouth.

But it stayed solidly in place, and totally usable. It never wiggled, never hurt. So I went about my business of eating and talking and living life doing things other than being a model who smiles for a living.

About five years ago, on my first or second visit to dentist Jeff Timm in Bend, he asked about the tooth. I told him the story and he explained that it was experiencing resorption, which is basically a fancy way of saying it was breaking down. At some point — maybe five years, maybe more — I’d be parting ways with it, Dr. Timm told me.

Turns out it was five years. In early March, Dr. Keith Krueger, an oral surgeon whose office I can see from my window at The Bulletin, pulled No. 8 using bigger tools and more brute force than I expected. (To be clear, there was, amazingly, zero pain during the extraction.)

The day before the procedure, I experienced an odd, mild sadness about losing a tooth that had served me well enough for more than three decades. During the procedure, Dr. Krueger warned me a few times that I might hear some unsettling noises; I quickly cranked up the volume on my iPod. And afterward, he told me the tooth was stubborn, but that it definitely needed to come out.

Now, I’m in the middle of the healing process. I’m scheduled to get the post for an implant in mid-June. Then that has to heal. At some point after that they’ll create the fake tooth. And then at some point after that they’ll install it. I assume.

Remember that Bananarama song “Cruel Summer”? Well, this is my Toothless Summer.

The dental team gave me a crude fake to wear solely for cosmetic purposes while waiting for the real deal, but I haven’t worn it much. Once to a 4-year-old’s birthday party, when I knew I’d be making small talk with adults I don’t know well. Otherwise I don’t bother. My wife and kids have gotten used to the look, and I’ve worked at The Bulletin for eight years, most closely with people who’ve been there as long or longer. They can deal.

I will say, though: I have never been a particularly self-conscious guy. I am fortunate, I think, to be able to float through the world without much care about what anyone thinks of me or my appearance.

But missing a prominent tooth has led me to a whole new level of self-consciousness. When I’m out and about and having basic daily interactions with strangers, I find myself tightening my jaw, lowering my upper lip, talking in a more reserved way. I might look off to the side or put my hands to my face to try to hide my new, black hole. And if I know I’m going to have an actual conversation with someone, I will acknowledge the issue as soon as I can: “By the way,” I’ve said 20ish times in the past three weeks. “I’m not normally missing a tooth.” Then I make a joke about being from Kentucky. Because Southern hillbillies are the last group of folks on Earth that it’s OK to make fun of, see?

I wish I had a better story. A bar brawl. A past life as a hockey goon. Scurvy. But nope. I just got smashed in the face a long time ago by some kid. An injury on one side of the country when I was a teen has left me toothless in Bend, Oregon, at age 37.

Life is funny like that. •

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