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Disheveled Theologian: Tooth fairy trauma

I was in kindergarten when it happened. My first dental-related memory. I was riding the bus to school, squeezed onto an overcrowded seat. It was an old bus. The kind with no “cush” in the cushions. The kind where you felt every bump on the road. The kind with a metal bar on the top back of each green seat as opposed to full vinyl coverage.  

So there I was, teetering on about 3 inches of seat, bouncing along at 30 miles per hour (the top speed limit on Orcas Island) when suddenly Mr. Keel had to stomp on the brakes.

I slammed forward and my mouth smashed on the metal bar of the seat in front of me. Teeth on steel. I tasted blood. Felt as if my mouth was falling apart.

My two sisters — bless them — mopped me up the best they could with the napkins from their packed lunches. I remember feeling so badly that they wouldn’t have any napkins that day.  What if they spilled their milk?

When we got to school, my sisters took me straight to the office. I had to go to the dentist and he pulled the tooth, which, thankfully, was a baby tooth anyway. By the time the appointment was over I had missed most of the morning of school, so Mom and I just went home. It felt weird to be missing class when I wasn’t sick.

I remember, too, that Mr. Keel felt so badly about what had happened that he removed his false teeth and smiled so that I would laugh. He only did that on very special days.

The tooth fairy visited me that night. It’s really the only visit I remember, given the trauma of the lost tooth. She gave me 10 cents. That was the going rate in my house. But I don’t remember feeling ripped off until I heard that some of my friends got a quarter.

When I was finally done earning tooth fairy money of my own (I do remember asking her if she’d give money for wisdom teeth when I had them removed in 10th grade, but I don’t remember if she did or not) I had a few years of not giving a thought to her toothy ways. But then, one day, our oldest child lost his first tooth and suddenly I had graduated. Now I was the collector and not the collectee.

Is that a word?

Doesn’t matter. You know what I mean.

It didn’t take long for the pile of teeth to grow and grow. All these carefully labeled envelopes with wee baby teeth in them, sometimes even with dried blood, which apparently had never been washed off. What am I supposed to do with them? Make a necklace? Like a cannibal?

One day, one of my children found them. She came to me, eyes wide, hands full of baggies of tiny little teeth.

“The tooth fairy didn’t take them away, Mama. Look!” She looked at me. Something glittered in here eyes. Knowledge. Dawning like the sun. “Are you —”

Baggies and baggies of mother-guilt and confusion. Why didn’t I just throw the incriminating teeth away? Because that felt as if I was throwing away their childhood.

I had no idea the ways that trauma would enter my life as a parent. And we haven’t even talked about the times the tooth fairy forgot and my child would come, tears in his or her eyes, announcing the devastating blow: NO MONEY IS UNDER MY PILLOW. See? Here’s proof in this baggie: the tooth is still here! A small hand would hold out the bag, bloody tooth inside, and I, the errant fairy, would die a little inside at my failure.

Our youngest child has one last baby tooth left to lose. The tooth fairy will make one more visit. And while that’s terribly freeing, it’s also terribly sad. They’re growing up. Grown, even.

And I still don’t know what to do with all those teeth.

Nor do I know what verse to use to end this theologically void column.

Let’s go with this, a gentle reminder that when we’re worried over even silly things like what to do with piles of lost teeth, there is still Someone we can go to in our distress.

“Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer”. Psalm 4:1 NIV

I’m not sure I’ve actually prayed about the teeth … but it’s not too late, is it? It’s never too late.

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, is published weekly. Her email is gcodon@gmail.com.

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