I had to go to the dentist today because a piece of my tooth fell out of my head. Yes, I’m now at that stage of life where I’m beginning to shed pieces of my body.
I was eating cereal when it happened. Initially, I thought the tooth piece was an especially hard cereal nugget. When I spit it out to examine it, I discovered it was a tooth particle. And more importantly, it was from a tooth that has served as my imaginary friend since age 9.
I suppose that deserves a bit of explanation.
The tooth I’m referring to is a bit of a freak. No, not because it’s my imaginary friend. But because of its early life inside my mouth.
This tooth descended from a place called Tooth Heaven that exists in my jaw’s atmosphere. This is where all adult teeth live while they wait for baby teeth to be mined from the mouth by the Tooth Fairy. Of all the magical creatures from childhood, I consider the Tooth Fairy the most suspect and diabolical. This creature, like some Dickensian villain, convinces children to merrily yank teeth from their own jaws in exchange for a couple dollars.
I had a particularly headstrong baby tooth, though. It stubbornly stayed rooted long after its young chums had been evacuated from my jaw. As a result, the adult tooth—the one that would become my imaginary friend—was forced to grow on top of it. This created an awkward situation in my mouth. The adult literally forcing out the child, who was as reluctant to give way to its mature self as I was.
And, so, for about a year, I lived with this stalemate, as well as a pronounced bulge in my upper right jaw. Happily, this development occurred at a time in my life when children are expected to recognize their left from their right. It is one of the unknowable pieces of life that you are just supposed to know. But I struggled with it because right and left make no sense to me. They are not fixed directions like north or south, but considered “relative directions” with no absolute frame of reference.
I was routinely humiliated by my battleaxe of a third-grade teacher for my inability to master this abstract concept. But the errant tooth came to my rescue. I knew it existed on my right side. So, I got in the habit of touching my tongue to my freak tooth each time I was asked to identify my right from my left. Soon, it became an automatic reflex that continued long after the baby tooth finally left and the adult tooth settled into its rightful spot.
As I grew older, the tongue-to-tooth reflex became an internal compass to guide me through life’s other unknowables, particularly when it came to affairs of the heart. Through my 20s and 30s, as I bumbled like a drunken toddler from one relationship to another, my tongue would massage the tooth soothingly as I attempted to navigate the confusing coordinates of love, rubbing off most of the tooth’s enamel in the process.
Now, in my 40s, my tongue almost never races to that tooth for reflexive comfort. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer threatened by the indefinite, whether its aimless directionals that seem to have no place in the laws of physics, or the unfathomable nature of the human heart. I simply accept that there are some things that are meant to be unknown and unclear paths you are destined to stumble down.
And when my internal compass fails me, I can simply take it to the dentist and he’ll patch it right up.