For any sane person (that is one not overly fond of dental sadism) a trip to the dentist’s chair is avoided at all costs. No one enjoys a gloved hand poking around their mouth. No one looks forward to the injections, the drills. The saliva vacuum cleaner which makes me feel as if I have just leapt out of an aeroplane and forgotten to shut my mouth on the free fall.
For most of my life I have managed to avoid the Dentist for anything other than the odd check up and clean. That was until a few months ago, when I woke to discover a rumbling in my gums, a headache that threatened to split my cranium in two. Days later an X- ray confirmed that after years of waiting patiently in the wings, my wisdom teeth had finally decided to make their entrance
While consulting my Dentist, I mention that I’d like to hang onto them if at all possible. “Wisdom” I suggest, “seems pretty hard to come by these days.”
The dentist is not amused. She has spent far too many years peering into the grotty crevices of people’s mouths to find this even vaguely funny.
“The wisdom part” she replies curtly, “ sadly has nothing to do with your intellect. It refers to the age one reaches when these teeth first appear. By all means keep them if you want. It’s your mouth but don’t come knocking on my door when your pearly piano keys start to resemble the planks of some badly knocked together picket-fence.”
I suppose my reticence to have these teeth removed can be blamed on two reasons. The first and most obvious being the thought of a dental tool wrenching a molar from the root is a very, very unpleasant thing to imagine. The second was incited by an esoteric friend of mine who convinced me that the removal of such teeth was nothing short of a dental conspiracy.
“The body doesn’t just grow things it doesn’t need” she protested, “These are the teeth of your ancestors, your forefathers.”
She did– I must confess– say all of this with a hesitant smile. Her parted lips allowing me to glimpse the calamitous consequences of being overly philosophical about ones late blooming molars. Similarly my friend Ntando could only shake her head when I told her I was considering forking out the ten-grand fee to have them removed.
“You white folks!” she laughed. “Always finding something to waste your money on. How come all the black people I know don’t ever complain about these teeth and never spend money on operations to get them taken out?”
All this got me thinking. Was this perhaps an historic ache of some sort? A taste of my ancestors own terrible medicine: the colonisation of the gums? Imperialist teeth who pull into the party ten years too late and simply refuse to get on with the locals. Surely there was enough gum to go around? Surely, give or take a month or two they could all learn to get along?
It took a few more weeks of nasty infections to realise that the chances of dental reconciliation were very slim and that my wisdoms were in fact waging a war for complete control of my jaw. Sadly the time had come for me to have these intrusive molars forcibly removed from their squatting grounds.
In preparation for my appointment in the surgery chair, I began to ask friends and family for advice. This was a fatal mistake. No one, I repeat no one has any form of comforting advice to offer. No one simply shrugs off the experience saying “It’s not so bad” or “You’ll be just fine. Rather they glare at you with such compassion and pity that you’d swear you’d just told them you were about to have all four limbs amputated.
To give you an example, on mentioning the word to a friend of mine, she automatically clutched her jaw, wincing in a sort of knee- jerk response common to all survivors of tooth extraction.
“You poor, poor thing” she cried, “It’s worse than childbirth and I should know. I’ve had three kids and two of my wisdoms removed!”
At least after childbirth one gets to take some sort of a consolation prize home. The idea of four bloody molars rattling around a test tube is not necessarily something one wakes up looking particularly forward to.
The various other stories I was told did little to comfort me before the op. In fact a fair share of friends recollections seemed to be worryingly similar to scenes taken straight out of one of those Gorenograpy horror films. The type of films where a hapless American hitchhiker spends the duration of his/her vacation undergoing bouts of amateur dentistry from some Eastern block psycho with a limitless supply of power tools.
My cousins own experiences were not far off from such a nightmarish ordeal. While backpacking around Mexico in her early twenties she realised she was going to have to have her wisdom teeth removed. Travelling on a modest budget she decided to opt for the more cost effective route of a back alley extraction (She saw a hand painted advertisement hanging on a pokey door).
Of course the next thing she remembers is waking up –mid marijuana tea anaesthetic– to find a rusty pair of pliers rummaging around her mouth. Her moonlighting dentist actually a greasy –if not enterprising– car mechanic hoping to make a quick buck from Gringo’s gullible enough to offer themselves up as willing guinea pig.
But I digress. I went through with it all (made sure I was in the hands of a reputable facial surgeon), slept soundly through the procedure and woke to find my mouth woven with a web of stitches and craters where previously my wisdoms had plotted their siege.
Of course the ‘healing part’ is the episode that garners the most attention in people’s recollections. This is the part where one unwillingly enters into a Quasimodo look-a-like contest. A sight likely to traumatise small children should you be cruel enough to reveal your puffy mug in public.
I write all this on day five of my recuperation. Still my face is straddled by an ice- pack, ballooning cheeks crammed into a Velcro saddle which for the moment seems to be holding my whole face together.
It has been five days. Five days of gurgling salt water, conversing with a speech impediment, spooning mashed, scrambled, soupy substances into my mouth the way one dribbles Pro-Nutro into the beak of a motherless chick. How long this might continue for I have no idea. The healing process they say can last anything from two days to two weeks.
Recently I Googled the word ‘wisdom teeth’. The results of my search reveal a range of euphemistic titles by which these teeth are referred to across the globe. The Turkish apparently call it the 20th year tooth, the Arabs The tooth of the mind. Koreans call them Love teeth, while in Spanish speaking countries they are rather biblically (and ominously) titled the molars of judgment.
Scientists are altogether less whimsical, referring to them as vestigial third-molars once used by our simian ancestors to chew the resilient cud and now serving as useless additions to the smaller jaw- lines of the new improved homo sapiens.
In other words the only benefit of such teeth in this day and age is to your dentist’s burgeoning bank account and the Mypradol Corporation who (post-op) manage to snare a whole new generation of paracetamol junkies.
May I suggest we no longer delude ourselves with terming these invasive teeth sweet ‘coming of age’ names like huddling, love or wisdom teeth. I would far prefer to sever any emotional (or intellectual) ties with them. Names like Neanderthal veggie grinders, neo- colonial invaders, unpunctual or twenty- years to bloody late teeth are a few titles I have come up with for the moment.
In closing I’ll leave the last word on ‘wisdom’ and ‘teeth’ to American humorist Mason Cooley who best sums up my present sentiments when he writes…
“If suffering brought wisdom then the dentist’s chair would be full of luminous ideas.”