“I’m not here to be small, to compare, to judge (myself or you), to fit in or to be perfect. I’m here to grow, to learn, to love, to be human.”Sue Fitzmaurice
About a month ago, at a routine cleaning, my dentist noticed that a small portion of gum tissue had overgrown in protective anticipation around a shifted tooth. This wasn’t really a big deal, as the tissue growth was obviously healthy and my brushing and flossing habits had kept the area clean. But this excess tissue still posed a risk, as bacteria can become trapped beneath it at the base of the tooth, allowing it to potentially infect or eat away at the root – so we scheduled an appointment to surgically remove it.
The whole thing seemed so bizarre to me, so I questioned my dentist further as to why this had happened, and how we could prevent it from reoccurring in the future. The solution is actually quite simple – perfect the alignment of my teeth. As we went on to discuss the details of how we could, theoretically, go about doing this, my mind drifted away… to a hot summer evening, so very long ago.
It was 1980-something and I was sitting on our front porch steps, sucking on an orange popsicle. It was melting quickly, dripping its sticky orange liquid down onto my fingers. I remember seeing the stains smeared across the front of my shirt and realizing, for the first time ever, exactly why my mom divided the clothing in my dresser drawers between “play clothes” and “good clothes”.
That’s not the point though. The point is, as I polished off this disgustingly delicious orange popsicle, I began to chew on the stick. The sugar and syrup, that was used to flavor the popsicle, had seeped heavily into the wooden stick on which it had been frozen, and I was able to taste its lingering sweetness. I thought I could squeeze out more by chewing on it, but what happened when I did took me completely by surprise.
I bit down hard on the popsicle stick and, as the wood split in two, I felt a disconcerting SNAP! My bottom tooth flipped backwards inside my mouth, dangling by a single root. Blood trickled down my chin, splattering my orange stained t-shirt with drops of red. I was stunned. I sat very still for a moment, my head spinning in disbelief – but, as the realization of what had just happened registered more clearly in my mind, disbelief quickly turned to panic. I took off, screaming – running to find my dad.
He assessed the situation and, almost immediately, reached inside my mouth and extracted this dangling tooth with just the flick of his wrist.
I even got a whole dollar from the tooth fairy that night, as opposed to the measly quarter she usually left me for my previously lost teeth.
When we went to see the dentist the next day, he told us it was nothing to worry about. No harm had really been done… but, as my adult teeth came in, it seemed that the premature loss of this particular tooth had thrown off the alignment of all four bottom front teeth. Again, not that big a deal, right? It’s all cosmetic anyway. As long as I continue to brush and floss well, this minor imperfection causes no serious risk to my health or wellbeing. In fact, until this excess tissue growth occurred, I never even gave it a second thought. Who cares about a couple of crooked teeth anyway? Now, all of the sudden, some three and a half decades later, we were discussing how to correct them.
I scheduled the appointment to have the tissue removed… and alotted extra time within the appointment for them to perform the scans for invisalign. But, suddenly, I didn’t feel okay.
It took me awhile to figure out exactly what it was. An inkling of a feeling I just couldn’t shake, nagging at me, in the back of my mind, more and more, as this day approached. As I sat with my husband this morning, sipping coffee and eating breakfast, it finally occurred to me.
It’s my dad.
He’d had a similar experience as a kid. I don’t remember the exact details of the story, or how he went about telling it to me… but, amidst my panic and despite my tears, he’d removed the dangling tooth from my mouth. He was smiling at me, bright eyed, and looking amused. As he folded his big arms around me and picked me up, he told me about the time he popped out his own tooth while chewing on a popsicle stick. He showed me his own front bottom teeth, which I now realized were also slightly crooked, and then he said: “See? I turned out just fine, and so will you.”
My dad was a big man – 6’4” tall and, at his heaviest, weighing in at 390 lbs. He had a bit of a temper at times but, for the most part, was a gentle giant who adored children, animals, and loved my mom more than anything in the world. Despite his size and lifelong battle with obesity, he was a confident man. He dressed well, presented himself well, and refused to let anyone or anything stop him from enjoying any occasion, moment, or adventure. It was from him that I learned, and came to believe, that this world would be incredibly boring if we all looked the same. We’d sit on a boardwalk bench in Ocean City, Maryland for hours and just watch people. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite things to do. Not to judge or make fun of anyone – but to observe and appreciate the fact that we’re all so very different. We’re all beautiful, we’re all weird, and this is exactly what makes us all so interesting. We’re all so absolutely perfect – because of all our quirky imperfections.
Sure, there were times, growing up, when I’d felt insecure about myself. In middle school, I was scrawny, flat chested, and stick thin. My high school years were spent counting calories and learning how to exercise, in fear of “getting fat”. That’s all the football players and cheerleaders at my school seemed to talk about, as I spent my study halls in the gym with them, lifting weights and running. My friends and I began to experiment with makeup, covering up the annoying acne outbreaks that came as par for the course, as we navigated puberty together. Several of my friends got braces, but the thought of doing so never even crossed my mind. It wasn’t something I was concerned about. Until now.
Now, all of the sudden, an hour before my dental appointment, I told my husband, with tears in my eyes, that “I don’t think I want him to fix my teeth.”
It’s something that reminds me of my dad when I look in the mirror, and any time I see a photo of myself smiling wildly, bright eyed and having a good time.
A short time later, I was driving to my appointment, listening to the radio, when the lyrics of a song confirmed this reasoning for me. The song is relatively new, and the artist is one whom I admire. The soulful lyrics he wrote touch my heart in a very personal way, due to the sudden, unexpected loss of my own father back in 2017.
“How do I say goodbye, to someone who’s been with me for my whole damn life? You gave me my name and the color of your eyes, I see your face when I look at mine. So how do I, how do I, how do I say goodbye?”Dean Lewis, “How Do I Say Goodbye”
I’ve spent the last several years of my life learning how to accept things as they are, to look for beauty amidst this predominantly ugly world, and how to appreciate something in absolutely everything. Whether pertaining to people, places, circumstances or situations in which we find ourselves, it’s not the “perfect” things that matter the most, but rather, the imperfect ones that I have come to love and appreciate. The parts of you and of me that are capable of breaking down barriers, crumbling facades, and eliminating pretensions. The things that make us most human are the exact same things that level the playing field of life, enrich our experiences, strengthen our relationships, and possess the power to connect us and change us in the most profoundly universal ways.
Not everyone feels this way, and that’s okay.
For some, this life has to knock you down a few more times before you realize the magnitude of these very simple truths. For others, embracing this concept begins with simply remembering who you are, where you came from, unraveling the experiences that shaped you, and refusing to correct your own crooked teeth.