by Marie O’Toole
Grace: An undeserved gift, or unmerited favor.
This is a highly personal, non-theological post.
Today, I was the recipient of a blessing on so many levels that I cannot begin to express my gratitude. I spent the afternoon with my dentist, who I’ve been seeing since I was about 13. He was to repair a molar that broke months ago. As he put on his gloves and asked me how I’d been, I said: “Dr. C, I think we need to have that conversation we’ve been putting off for 30 years.”
At age 17, my dentist was the first person to figure out that I was bulimic. I had never had a cavity up until that point, but as my anorexia and later bulimia progressed, the damage to my teeth worsened. By the time I was in college, my life was in danger and while the dental damage was not the biggest priority, he did a tremendous amount of fillings and composite repair that I still have in my mouth. I have used a prescription toothpaste with concentrated fluoride for about 25 years to re-calcify my teeth, and practiced excellent hygiene. However, once the enamel is that damaged, teeth never fully “recover” the way a person might. Staining continues; cavities are frequent; damage is evident.
I may not be “damaged goods”, but my teeth definitely are.
In short, I am very self-conscious about my teeth. For some women, it’s their thighs or stomachs or breasts that make them insecure. For me, it’s my teeth. This is not simple vanity. The only time I think about eating disorders these days are when I am counseling a woman, or I go to the dentist – but I still have to see them every day in the mirror. Keep my lips closed when I smile (hard for someone who is often smiling or cracking jokes!).
My damaged teeth are a visible reminder of who I used to be. And it isn’t pretty.
So often, I wish I could shake my 15-year-old self, the one who was obsessed with being the thinnest on the gymnastics team, and tell her: “Stop it. There is nothing wrong with how you look; and do you have any idea of the permanent, painful and expensive dental work you will need down the road?”
Not that I would have listened. I had concerned adults galore trying to warn me.
When I was 17, Dr. C warned me that eventually I would need to have them all capped. Having been fully recovered for nearly two decades, and having had piece-meal work done, I have somehow managed to avoid that; but the continued sensitivity, occasional pain, and obvious cosmetic issue lead me to decide that something needed to be done. I was strongly considering traveling to Albania this coming summer and having all of them capped (that’s a thing, by the way – it’s called “Dental Tourism” and all of my Bulgarian patients, as well as many Americans, do it – the cost of having one’s whole mouth done would be about the same as a co-payment for one or two teeth here.)
Dr. C. listened to my concerns, and asked what bothered me the most. “People see it when I smile,” I answered. “I’d be embarrassed to open my mouth.” He ordered x-rays of my entire mouth, determined that everything was in good shape (no need for root canals or immediate work), and showed me that most of the “ugliness” is just fillings. Fortunately, I am at a place where the capping would be purely cosmetic, but because so much work had been done on each tooth, I would run the risk of his “killing” them and needing root canals.
I am a dentally-complicated patient.
I realized it would be better to have the same dentist who knows the history behind each tooth do any work than seeing someone new on the other side of the world – no matter how good. There are highly skilled dentists in Eastern Europe using the same technology and treatments one might obtain in the U.S., and I could surely bring my dental records to an English-speaking provider, but Dr. C’s suggestion seemed better: he preferred to cap only the front six teeth, which are most visible….
…..at a greatly reduced price.
“Marie, you were sick for a long time. We didn’t know if you would be here at age 46. I have watched you heal for 20 years….your strength is inspiring. I want to do this for you.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Nothing is more humiliating that having to open my mouth at the dentist’s office, even though the hygienists have known me since childhood and are not intimidated by the challenge I provide. The only time I really still feel regret (shame, even) over foolish, youthful mistakes I made is in that chair. I did this to myself, I am constantly thinking. I don’t even deserve Novacaine. Then, I leave and go about my daily life; and don’t think about my bulimic past until 6 months later, at the next dental appointment.
But it’s there. And every time I smile, I feel like the world is staring at my damaged teeth. And recently, I decided to do something about it….but I couldn’t have imagined my old dentist would not only meet me halfway, but gladly offer this as an affordable service to me. This will save me several thousand dollars. But what touches me most? Even knowing all I’d been through, or perhaps because of it, he wanted to do it for me.
Completely undeserved and unmerited. I probably caused that man many sleepless nights in my teens (he is friends with my parents, and has sons my age.) He felt he was watching me kill myself. He wants me to feel pretty again when I look in the mirror, and chose to extend major grace in his billing to this dentally-challenged single mom.
The icing on the proverbial cake?
Before we start the capping, he wants to try and lighten up the baseline of all my teeth, and threw in a high-quality dental bleaching system (worth about $70). When I went to pay for it, he wouldn’t let the receptionist charge me.
Probably the average reader cannot understand how huge of a deal this is to me. (“YOOGE”, as Donald Trump would say.) Most people don’t have to worry about seemingly-trivial things like this (self-inflicted dental damage); and unfortunately some have far bigger problems to deal with (like diagnoses of cancer or other serious illnesses). I know, because I see you every day. The struggles of some people make my everyday problems look trivial or even microscopic in comparison. And yet, this was a very big deal to me.
Not just because I won’t have to hide my teeth when I smile anymore. But because this was such a pure, unexpected and undeserved gift of grace. My dentist showered me with pure unmerited favor today, and told me he wanted to have the pleasure of capping my teeth. While she was checking me out and making the appointments to begin the work, the receptionist (who has known me since high school) exclaimed, “I’m so excited for you!” She actually had tears in her eyes.
Max Lucado once wrote a devotional book, “Grace in the Moment”. Perhaps today at the dental office was one of those moments for me.