2012.08.08 Heather Walker: His teeth were in Alaska

I’m a “teeth person.” I mean this in the sense that one might say “I’m an eyes person” or “I’m a legs person.” I remember sitting with my best 13-year-old girlfriends, giggling over photos in our Teen Magazines and Tiger Beats, confessing to one another our “favorite features” of imaginary boys. Teeth always ranked high on my list. I like teeth. Generally, I like them big, square-ish, white and straight, but sometimes it’s even better if they’re not perfect.

My husband, for instance, has fabulous teeth. His teeth are a good size, mostly straight and white. But he does have this small irregularity in the front. His two front teeth overlap a bit—one slightly crooked tooth encroaching on the surface of the other, straight tooth. I find this irresistible. We call them his Rabbit Teeth even though they look nothing whatsoever like rabbit teeth. These teeth are so important to us that they were actually mentioned in our wedding vows. I’m not kidding. So yes, I’m a teeth person. This little factoid about me is important only because without it, you couldn’t possibly understand the story I’m about to tell you.

It was late June last year when the kids and I decided to extend a trip to Adrian by stopping by a local school playground. It was hot and sunny—a perfect June day, really, and I was equipped with some reading material and ready to let the kids play for an hour or so. 

I had no more than settled, horizontally, on the bench and read a page or two of my book, when I was startled by one of the kids yelling. I craned my head to the right to see my 9-year-old son holding his mouth in panic. I jolted up and began running toward him yelling, “What happened?” He was crying and screaming, “I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it.” As I reached him, I realized what had happened. There was a set of waist-high monkey bars set in the middle of the play area.  He had run face-first into them, never realizing they were even there.

“I’m OK, mom. I’m OK,” he half assured, half begged. I wanted to believe him. I told him so myself. “I know you’re OK. I know. Let me see.” As he removed his hand from his mouth it was if a total eclipse descended on the playground. The world no longer held color. The grass was no longer green. The swings no longer yellow. The monkey bars no longer purple. The world was black and white—except for the blood. The blood was red and his front teeth were broken.

What happened next was barely managed chaos. A frantic call to the dentist office. Four scared kids and one hysterical mom wishing, more than anything, that someone else was driving the van. My mind raced, as I gripped the steering wheel and fought back both stinging tears and bitter bile.

At last we arrived at the office where the dental aide met us on the front lawn poised with assurances and comfort. Inside, my son was whisked away to x-ray, while my poor step-children plastered themselves flat against a wall—all eyes, no mouths. I gripped the edge of my composure and eventually let go, holding my own mouth as I sought out the office restroom in a wave of dry heaves. I returned to find all the children calm, including my son, who was smiling. We were told he probably wouldn’t lose his front teeth, that the roots probably wouldn’t die, and, of course, everything would be OK.

The thing is, though, it wasn’t OK. Not to me. I knew, eventually, he would have beautiful, veneered “movie star” teeth—a great asset to a child who has been insisting that his hair be styled into a faux-hawk since kindergarten—but that wasn’t it, exactly. First his teeth needed to be right. They needed to be close to perfect—which is why we ultimately ended up at a dentist who specialized in cosmetics. Secondly, I was not OK. Something significant happened that day on the playground. Something that felt like a tremendous loss, but was, in fact, “just teeth.”

I am not naïve to tragedy. Having lost two brothers in unrelated car accidents and faced other profound family sufferings, I have come almost to expect the worst. Almost, but not quite—not when it comes to my son. I think when I saw the broken, bloody teeth that day something inside me said, “Anything can, and probably will, happen.” Since then, I have tried hard to control every factor, consider every variable, in hopes of keeping him safe. Don’t misunderstand, he didn’t become the “boy in the bubble.” He continues to play sports, ride 4-wheelers, and run around the neighborhood. I am wise enough to know that to him, they were “just teeth” (teeth that are now hidden behind braces and will eventually emerge straight and beautiful and capped). But none of this has made me any saner.

That is until…The Cruise. My mettle was tested recently, as he embarked on a 14-day adventure to the other side of the country (or was it the world?) with his dad and step-mom. The trip included seven days aboard a Carnival cruise ship, which makes its way up the shoreline of Canada and Alaska (You know, Alaska? Home of massive, pointed, ship-wrecking glaciers?). Well, it seems I was right. There are, indeed, massive, pointed glaciers in Alaska, and they’re “really cool.” In fact “there are blue ones and white ones” (which may or may not have something to do with salt content). Additionally, there are whales, dolphins, seals and arctic fox.

On the ship, a 10-year-old can gorge himself on lobster, alligator fritters, crème brulee, tiramisu and “as much ice cream as you want!” And you know what else? Gliding through the top of a rainforest canopy in Ketchikan on a zip line is nothing short of “awesome.” The trip, was, of course, one of the greatest experiences of his young life and as his mother, I can only hope he has many more, equally amazing, opportunities.

Little by little over the past few weeks, I have stopped having nightmares and have come to accept (with more than a little effort) that while I need my child safe, I also very much want him happy. Happy, smart, interesting, creative and afforded every opportunity available to reach all his wonderful potential.

Sometimes a mom has to say, “Go! Run fast, as fast as you can, across the world’s playground with your eyes wide open. Watch out for pesky monkey bars, but make sure you see all the color and wonder the world has to offer. And while you’re at it, let the rest of us see that beautiful, slightly imperfect, “movie-star smile.” You know how your mom loves teeth.