“Root canal,” the dentist said.
“Aw shit,” I said.
“Let me call the endodontist. Maybe he can fit you in today.”
Sitting in the chair, I gingerly touched my bicuspid and was rewarded with a stabbing jolt of pain. Two weeks ago, the dentist filled it and I thought I had dodged a bullet. But then I had a terrible headache for a week and, after it went away, a persistent throb took up residence in my sinuses. Thinking I had an infection, I went to an ENT who snaked a camera down my nose and pronounced me clear off problems. “I think your issue is dental,” she said. “All those nerves are connected, so that probably explains the pain you’re experiencing. When I woke up the next morning, her diagnosis was confirmed. Tooth number thirteen was on fire.
“Yes,” I heard the dentist saying to the endodontist’s receptionist. “He’s in your system. You worked on him in 2010. Yep, that’s right. Today’s his birthday.”
I shook my head ruefully.
“They can see you at three o’clock,” the dentist said, holding the phone to his ear.
I looked at my watch. It was only 11:00 AM. My dentist is an hour away from my house. The endodontist was even further away. The thought of cooling my heels for four hours, getting a root canal, and then driving home didn’t appeal to me.
“No,” I said. “I’m not getting a root canal on my 50th birthday. Can they fit me in tomorrow?”
“If you get It done today,” he said, “The pain will stop.”
“Just give me a couple of tablets of Vicodin. I’ll be fine until them.” The dentist arranged the appointment for noon the next day. I took my birthday off from work. Now I’d have to take another. Just great.
“I’m sorry, Steve,” the dentist said. “But you waited too long.”
I patted the dentist on the shoulder. “The fault’s entirely mine.”
“I’m not going to be around forever,” he said. “Get in here regularly.”
As I walked down the stairs to talk to the receptionist about my prescription, I remembered climbing up these same very stairs back in 1973. I was five then and the dentist, who is a childhood friend of my father’s, had just opened his practice. I remember loving the nitrous oxide and the Snoopy toothbrushes I got after a cleaning. The dentist and my dad were 30 back then. Now they’re both 75 – grey haired and dealing with the vicissitudes of age. The hygienist on staff wasn’t even born back them. Shit, I don’t think she took her first breath until I got out of college.
Glumly, I got into my car and drove home; feeling old, tired and defeated. In my head, I calculated how much fixing this tooth was going to cost me. Thousands. Happy Fucking Birthday.
Then again, nothing really much was going to happen that day. When I turned forty my mother and then girlfriend threw me a lovely surprise party. I told everyone I wanted no such thing this decade – just a small dinner with friends, maybe a big barbecue later in the summer. Simple. No muss, No fuss. No fancy watch, no bacchanal in Vegas, no vacation to Tuscany. Fifty is no big deal.
But as I drove home in the thick midday traffic I felt a deep surge of anger. Maybe I should have insisted my 50th be a big deal. Maybe I should have thrown caution to the winds and bought a Rolex, gone to Vegas, or hopped on a plane to Florence. But what I will be paying for is a root canal and a crown. I felt cheated, ignored and forgotten. But, as a wise friend once told me. “After you have kids, nobody gives a shit about your birthday.”
As I drove down the highway the other drivers were driving either too fast, too slow, too aggressively, too distracted or too drunk. “Assholes, all of them,” I thought. As I plunged into an abyss of self-pity, I thought about fifty years of wrong turns, going fast when I should have gone slow and vice versa; the people I ran over and the people who ran over me. All the while, my tooth was heralding the triumph of entropy over the Dominion of Man. I’m not going to be around forever either.
Pulling into my town I called the pharmacy. My Vicodin wasn’t ready. So, I went to the local luncheonette where they know my name and are always friendly. As the waitress me greeted warmly, I didn’t mention it was my birthday or that I was in pain. I just ordered a tuna sandwich.
“Rye toast?’ the waitress asked.
‘Just regular white bread today.”
Eating my sandwich, I dreaded going home and opening my mailbox. “If that AARP letter’s there,” I said to myself. “I’m going film myself burning it and put it on You Tube.” Hmm…that might raise a few eyebrows.
Halfway through my sandwich, a man in a business suit came in and sat on the counter. The moment he opened his mouth I knew something was wrong with him. He sounded like he had suffered a stroke. Looking over, I could see a scar on the side of his head. Cancer? Car accident? Mugging or warfare? Accident? I’ll never know. But he was upbeat and told the waitress about taking his 90-year-old mother out for Mother’s Day. The waitress, who is a very sweet, listened to him like he was the only person in the world.
“I’m sure you made your mother very happy,” she said.
“That’s why I like coming here,” the businessman said. “You are all so kind to me.” Come to think if it, that’s why I was there too.
Pushing my plate aside, I realized I was being childish. I was facing a root canal – not brain surgery or a bypass. Even though I’m lax with my dentition, I’m good with seeing the doctor and still healthy. Some of my friends never hit the half century mark. I also have a wife and family who love me, a healthy child, friends and accomplishments. I am a very lucky man. I forget that sometimes.
My anger cooled and I thought about my pity fest in the car. Everyone makes bad choices. Everyone acts like an asshole and a saint. We are all the sum of those choices. Reflecting on that reality may hurt some sometimes, but the warm light we bask in always casts a shadow. As I walked out of the luncheonette I remembered an old Star Trek movie. In it, an alien mystic offers to take a suffering Captain Kirk’s pain away. Kirk refuses and William Shatner, in his usual over the top fashion, proclaimed:
“Pain? They’re the things we carry with us; the things that make us who we are. If we lose them we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain!”
Driving to the pharmacy, I picked up my painkillers and went home. Standing In my kitchen, I stared at the Vicodin tablets inside the bottle and decided against taking them. Today, I didn’t want my pain taken away. I needed my pain. It reminded me I was still alive – or, at the very least, to go to the dentist more often.
But I’m not crazy, of course. I took a cold beer out of the fridge, popped the cap, and toasted my fifty years on Earth.
“Here’s to you James Tiberius Kirk, “I said. “You were right.”
Fifty? What the fuck? KHANNNNNNNNNNNNN!