What We Talk About When We Talk About Orthodontics

January 7, 2016

When I was a child, I had braces for a long, long time. Third through eighth grade, a process begun in Omaha, Nebraska and ended in Vancouver, Canada. To a child’s mind, an entire lifetime of braces, mouth rubber bands, headgear and retainers. Near as I can figure, everything orthodontists offer was applied to my mouth at some point, all to recover from a thumb sucking habit which must have been ferocious.

My older daughter is about to embark on this process, through no fault of her own. Neither of my girls has even sucked her thumb, but the older has a mouth a bit too tiny for her adult teeth, and that has to be corrected, and we all know what that means.

I took her to the first appointment, which might not have been a great idea. I can still identify every instrument on that little table next to the dentist’s chair and view all of them with suspicion. I stood resolute by my daughter’s side, ready to defend her against losing the next half of her life to…well, I don’t know. Necessary procedures, I admit, but miserable ones.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when the orthodontist told me this: since we caught the problem while her mouth was still in the process of fusing into its final form, my daughter would be in braces for a year. A single year. Incredible.

It was only when I was engaging in the parental post-appointment debrief with my wife that I realized, decades after I lost my last retainer, how braces had weighed on me. I’ve always been an an easygoing, head in the clouds type, and it’s not unusual for my own emotions to pass me by without me devoting much attention to them. I fully recognize this sounds odd, but I also wonder if it’s not fairly common. Life is not television, after all. Human beings are fractals of complication, and everything doesn’t sync up all the time.

To return to the moment: me, on the phone, describing the wonders of modern dentistry to my wife, attempting to be as precise and clinical as possible, when: I start crying. It’s not that I never cry, so much as I didn’t know I even felt like crying. I had no idea how much and how deeply my daughter not having to go through what I went through meant to me — or even that I had gone through it. If you had asked me, up until that moment, about my experience with braces, I probably would have rolled my eyes and said something about how interminable it was. Not that I remembered every detail of it, and that the whole experience was as deep a mark on me as the car crash I was in in fourth grade — but it was also a disaster, a sort of slow motion car crash, with my mouth in a cast for half a decade.

It was my daughter who brought all of this from the deeps, not just the sight of that damnable set of orthodontic torture pliers I am all to familiar with. It was knowing that, when she is an adult, she will barely remember having braces. That all she’ll have is the smooth smile her earnest, warm self so richly deserves. No hidden trauma, even trauma as silly as mine. Just the smile.

As well, probably, as the memory of her father taking her to every dentist appointment he possibly can and never leaving her side.