A Day at the Dentist
It’s just after rush hour on a warm July morning and I’m picking up my mother at Grace’s place in Bridgeport. I have to work at five-thirty in Manhattan and I’m praying that the traffic will behave and I will be able to take my mother to the dental clinic at Norwalk Hospital, bring her back to Bridgeport and make it back to the city on time. I drove to my father’s place in Connecticut after work the night before because I am panicked that I’ll miss the appointment, and it makes more sense to drive to Connecticut from Manhattan after work rather than driving home from work in Manhattan to Brooklyn and then leaving in the morning. Even though I have called my mother a few times to remind her that we are going to the dentist I know that she will not remember. I park in front of Grace’s building and buzz her apartment.
“Hi, Grace, it’s Erica.” No response.
“Okay, we’ll be down.”
Grace says that they’ll be right down. That means at least ten minutes. My mother is on Alzheimer’s time and Grace is on Jamaican time which may account for why Grace is so well suited to care for my mother. I’m sure that as Grace is readying my mother she’s telling my mother that I’m downstairs waiting. Grace is probably repeating this several times as my mother repeatedly asks her where she’s going. Despite all this preparation when the elevator door opens and my mother sees me standing there, her face lights up.
“Sweetie, what a surprise,” my mother exclaims and she hugs me, “I miss you.” My mother always missed me, even when she was well and saw me frequently.
“I miss you too,” I say. “Hi Grace.”
Grace grunts. Grace’s not fond of saying hello or goodbye.
“What do you want to do, Sweetie?”
“I’m taking you to the dentist.”
“The dentist? I don’t need a dentist.”
“Yeah, you do.”
“I do? Why?”
“Because you’re teeth are cracked.”
“Yes, they are.”
“I don’t need a dentist to fix my teeth.”
“Then who? I don’t think you want me or Grace to fix your teeth, do you?”
“Why do I have to have my teeth fixed at all?”
“Because they’re broken. The dentist is going to give you new teeth?”
“What’s wrong with my old ones?”
“Open your mouth.”
My mother opens her mouth and I guide her finger inside, running it over the cracked nubs.
“Do you feel how they’re broken?”
“How did my teeth break?”
“It’s complicated. Today is just a check up. We’ll go to lunch after.”
“Or we could just go to lunch and skip the dentist.”
“We could, except that this appointment is years overdue. Ready? Say goodbye to Grace.”
“Isn’t she coming?”
“No she can’t, she has a lot of her own stuff to do. You’ll see her later.”
“Ohhh, don’t you want to come with us, Grace?”
“It’s okay, monmy,” Grace says in her Jamaican accent.
“Why can’t you come with us?”
“It’s okay. I’ll see you later,” Grace says.
“Yes, mommy, you go with Erica now. I’ll see you later.”
My mother kisses Grace, and Grace says “Bye mommy, I love you,” and my mother says, “I love you too, Grace,” and for a moment even though I know how lucky we are that my mother feels so comfortable with Grace, I am jealous. I also know that later when I bring my mother back she will ask why she can’t stay with me and that will upset me too.
I ease my mother into the passenger seat of her Toyota ’87 Corolla, placing my hand over her head so she doesn’t bump it as she’s getting in, and I fasten the seatbelt.
“This is my car,” my mother announces, “a Toyota ’87 Corolla.”
“That’s right, it is.”
“Why do you have my car?”
“So that I can see you more often and take you places.”
“Oh. This is my car, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But you don’t drive it anymore.”
“Because it’s easier for you to be driven than to drive. I’m your chauffeur. Isn’t it swanky, having a chauffeur?”
Once we are on the highway my mother sees another small white sedan.
“Look, there’s my car.”
“It looks like your car, but we’re actually in your car, so that can’t be your car.”
“So that’s not my car?”
“No. We’re in your car.”
A little bit down the road, another small white sedan passes us.
“There’s my car,” my mother says.
“I know, there are a lot of cars that look like your car.” I’m wondering how many little white sedans we’re gong to pass in this twenty minute ride. Next time I do this I should put a PBA out for all little white four-door sedans to stay home. Please.
On the highway my mother looks around and asks where we are and remarks that nothing looks familiar. I explain to her that that is because we are on the highway. But in fact everything does look the same and so much of the charm of the area has given way to huge shopping centers with huge stores repeating themselves endlessly from town to town, ugly large scale Andy Warhol’s in taupe and tan.
We pass Exit 17 and my mother says, “Exit 17…”
“That’s right. Exit 17 is Westport.”
“I live there.”
“You used to live there.”
“I don’t anymore?”
“No, you don’t. Now you live with Grace.”
“I live with Grace? Where does Grace live?”
“Grace lives in Bridgeport and you live with Grace in Bridgeport.”
“I live in Bridgeport?”
“Yes. You live with Grace in Bridgeport.”
“I live in Bridgeport? How did that happen?”
“Well, we didn’t like you living alone anymore and so for a little while you lived with me in Brooklyn, and then you lived with Susan in Fairfield, and then you lived with Paula at Dad’s in Norwalk, and now you live with Grace and Albee in Bridgeport.”
My mother hasn’t adjusted to all the moving she has done since we realized that she could not live alone
“That’s a lot of bouncing around.”
“I know. I’m sorry…”
“I sound like a bum.”
“You’re not a bum. You’re very popular. We just all want you to live with us. You’re more like a hippy.”
“A hippy? I don’t want to be a hippy. Where are we going?”
“We’re going to the dentist.”
“The dentist? I don’t want to go to the dentist.”
“No one wants to go to the dentist. If you wanted to go to the dentist I would think that there was really something wrong with you. Like, maybe you were having an affair with the dentist. Are you having an affair with the dentist?”
“An affair with the dentist? Who would have an affair with a dentist?”
“I guess somebody might.”
“It doesn’t sound very appealing.”
When we arrive at Norwalk Hospital where the dental clinic is we hold hands as we walk down the corridors. My mother smiles at everyone she passes, and everyone smiles back. The dental clinic has a check-in window in the middle of a long corridor and after we give the receptionist our name and my mother’s social security card we are told to take a seat. We settle into our chairs. My mother stares off into space, and I pull out a book and just as I crack its spine,
“Oh my God, Erica, look at that man,” my mother points to a Mexican man signing in, “He’s so fat.”
“That’s not very nice.”
“Look at him.”
“Here, why don’t you look at a magazine?” It must be awful to have been a fat child and to have endured all that cruel teasing by other children, and then to have grown up and all the childish teasing and taunting ends only to be replaced by four million elderly people with impaired editing mechanisms. I go through the magazine selection on the table, and discover that I am actually challenged to find a magazine more interesting to look at than the fat man. They’re all home magazines, but not good ones. There’s a lot of ad copy and some uninspiring photos. My mother can’t really read anymore, so pictures are usually the way to go. I give her one of the magazines and for a little while, almost a minute, she flips through the pages as though she is actually skimming articles and ads the way a person without Alzheimer’s does. The difference is that she lingers, not on essays or pictures, but on insignificant words in an ad for encyclopedias or a subscription re-newel form, or the one blank spot on the page.
And while my mother stares down each page of the magazine, the last image I have of my friend Wayne pops into my head. Wayne was the owner of a restaurant I worked at in Brooklyn. His boyfriend was the chef and the co-owner and basically ran the place. We all wondered what Wayne did. He hosted and had a few design clients whom he would shop for. Mainly he saw a lot of art exhibits and movies and would come into the restaurant he had designed and sort of brighten the place with flowers and chit chat. He loved everyone who worked there and took a real interest in our lives, and believed in our talents, even if he had never seen us perform, and he understood us in some deep psychological way, like my mother. He also knew everything about the customers. One night he was training a hostess and we overheard him say, “Basically your job is to pollinate the tables. You want everyone to know each other by the end of the evening. That would be an ideal night.” We called it DTW, doing the Wayne. He was just like my mother. They were like Blanche duBois with the indiscretions and histrionics sliced out so that just the poetry remained. And they both had that laugh that culminated in chocking and spitting when they were really amused or naughty.
So Wayne’s at St.Vincent’s Hospital in the city and he is dying of AIDS and I have gone to visit him with my new boyfriend, Jack, an environmental lawyer who is 6’5″ and soft spoken. Jack notices that Wayne is sinking into the bed and that he is too weak to prop himself up.
“Wayne, would you like me to pull you up a bit, on the pillows? I think maybe you could see everyone a bit better that way,” Jack says.
“Oh, that would be lovely,” Wayne says flirtatiously. So Jack adjusts a delighted ninety pound Wayne. One of Wayne’s friends has given him a book of Monet’s paintings and we open it up and he takes one look at “Water Lilies,” and his face lights up as if he has just seen Jesus and Mary appear at the door, and he says to me, “My God! Look at the colors!” I remember how when I was younger and searching for the meaning of life, I imagined that if I was present at a friend or family member’s deathbed that maybe that person would impart some wisdom to me, tell me the meaning of life. But when I was visiting Wayne, I didn’t realize that his excitement over the colors was that wisdom that I was looking for. I was far too wrapped up in thinking that Monet was an artist embraced by the bourgeois and I wanted nothing to do with bourgeois values. When Wayne and I talked later on the phone after my visit he said to me, “I’m so happy that you’re with John. He lifted me up. He saw that I had slipped down in the bed and that I needed help getting back up. He asked if he could lift me up so that I could see everyone better. It was so easy for him to pick me up. He’s so tall. Honey, it’s great to have a big man. I’m so happy for you, he really loves you and he’s a wonderful person. I guess I’m giving you my blessing.”
And I start to feel a lump in my throat as I look at my mother unable to really see what is before her, and I am thinking that her illness will never produce any wisdom and what does it really matter anyway because I am too stupid to get it when it is given, and to understand that wisdom comes in such simple forms; in squares, and triangles, and circles; and that it takes years to fully understand the gifts you were given and that you passed over because of your own prejudices at the time, and I am wishing that I had not spent so much time in juvenile existential despair and that I had married Jack so that at least I could chatter on to my mother about my children, my big children, our big tall strong children, her grandchildren, and bring her news of their development, and my heart is cracking and my mind is racing and the tears are pooling, and I whisper to myself, “Stop it,” for the millionth time since my mother has become ill, “Stop it,” for the millionth time that week, “Stop it,” for the millionth time that day, and I reach out to hold her hand and she squeezes mine back and looks up at me and smiles with all this love in her eyes and I have to distract myself from these thoughts so I go back to my reading and,
“Oh, my God! Erica, look at that man, he’s so fat!”
“I’m not supposed to say things like that?”
“Well, we just don’t say those things out loud.”
“Oh…because it’s not polite?”
“That’s right. Why don’t you look at your magazine?”
My mother goes back to fake reading, and the fat man goes into the bathroom, and a few moments later, “Oh, look,” she says and points to a picture in the magazine, and then looks at me without naming what she’s looking at.
“It’s a peach. Do you like peaches?” I ask her.
“I love peaches.”
“Let’s go get some.”
“After the dentist.”
“The dentist? Is that why we’re here? I think that they forgot about us. Which is fine, let’s go.”
Just then the woman at the check-in window calls out our name, which is great timing because I can see the fat man returning from the bathroom.
“Come on, mom, let’s go see the dentist.”
“The dentist? What does he want?”
“I don’t know, let’s find out.”
And we go into the inner chambers of the dental clinic where we wait some more and my mother waves her little Marlo Thomas “That Girl” wave to the children who don’t want to be there and she communicates the same to them and they all get each other. She goes to a baby in a stroller and coos to him and squeezes his chubby leg. She could never resist baby skin.
And then my mother is lying down on the dental chair and the dental assistant is telling me how beautiful my mother is, no make-up, cracked teeth, page boy hair cut, a blonde in need of a little touching up, and it’s true she is beautiful, even while she’s annoyed and grimacing.
The dentist asks me questions.
“What happened to her teeth?”
“She was supposed to have dental work done a while ago, but it was very expensive so she delayed. My sister, who’s a nutritionist, said her teeth started crumbling after she had radiation for a small tumor under her tongue. My sister begged her not to have the radiation, just the surgery, but my mother went ahead. Anyway, do you think that’s why her teeth started crumbling?” I ask him. Things pile up in life. Little problems beget big ones. Maybe the dental problems have caused her dementia. Nietzsche suffered from tooth decay and he became a raging…wait, my mother is not raging or raving.
“I don’t know, could be,” the dentist says. “My concern is her bone density. I’d like to take all of her teeth out at once, because this is probably confusing for her. The sooner we get them out we can begin with the mold and then have new teeth made. I have to find out from the lab if she can withstand that. We don’t want hemorrhaging. What’s your mother’s name?”
“It’s Anne.” Anna Banana plays the Piana.
“Hi Anne,” the dentist says.
“Hello, how do you know my name?”
“Your daughter told me.”
“My daughter. Isn’t she lovely?”
“Yes, she is. So you’re having trouble with your teeth?”
“Who said that?”
“If she says so.”
“I’m going to take a look at them, okay.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Oh, yeah, she’s sassy. Watch out.”
My mother opens her mouth and the dentist starts to poke around talking about what he is seeing, talking about what needs to be done, talking, and I can’t really hear him because I am thinking about my mother’s brain, webbed with plaques and tangles and the dental tape that is within reach. Plaques and tangles. Plaque. Plaque. I want the dentist to wrap some dental tape around his fingers, flip open her head, and floss her brain. Get rid of the plaque, silly string after mischief night covering her neurons, choking the neurotransmitters trying to tell the other neurons to remember; remember the stove is on; remember the way home; remember the phone call; the meal just eaten; what is old is not new; what is new is not old; where we’re going; where we’ve been; what comes now makes sense because of what came before. Remember.