I slide my tongue over my teeth, counting the gnashed pieces of disintegrating bone. The half teeth, the chips, the holes. They will soon be all gone, I think, feeling my face flush at the thought.
I have convinced myself that getting dentures is the worst thing that could ever possibly happen to me. It is uncouth, embarrassing, confusing; it is the opposite of the “Look, I’m still sexy and young and free despite all those diseases!” vibe I’ve been attempting to cultivate since I was diagnosed with lupus when I was 15.
Dentures in my twenties? What a LOSER.
During my twenties, various dentists in the various cities where I live and work work on my mouth. They fill tiny cavities and labor over root canals. They take wisdom teeth one by one as they become infected.
My mouth begins to empty, tooth by tooth, but I refuse to consent to a full surgery to remove the rest of my top teeth. I risk infection for the sake of vanity. Every procedure is done at the point of inflammation, of pain. I am hospitalized for abscesses, for infections that begin in my gum and settle like satellites into my bloodstream. I lend some magical thinking to the idea that my teeth will suddenly harden and calcify, and stay steady until the infections subside and a white magical glow plugs the holes in a wall of imperfect teeth.
I wait until I am ready to lose them all.
My neurologist sends me for an MRI. He reviews my scans and tells me my brain is completely normal and it's probably something else, something random, because my diseases are scary and random and harmful and they overlap in too many specialities for one doctor to ever make an executive decision about what to do. Usually I nod and leave without comment. But now I fight for myself; I tell him that everything that was wrong continues to be wrong and I am sure I am getting worse. Maybe lupus is attacking the brain? He agrees, orders me labs, tells me to come and see him again. But first, I encourage him to look at my mouth.
I need to hear it from him.
He practically yells into my mouth at the sight of the decay. He is almost jubilant; I am a problem he does not have to fix. He makes me promise to see a dentist and raps at the X-ray board for emphasis.
A skeleton hand floats slowly to the floor as he yells on about how serious this has become.
I nod an okay, but I’m secretly disappointed at such a banal diagnosis. I’m disgusted by myself for feeling that way. A toothache? How lame. How pedestrian. Doesn’t he knows that doctors can’t figure me out? Doesn’t he know that my nickname at Children’s Hospital was Mystery Baby? Doesn’t he know how special I am? Surely, this is not how my uniqueness manifests.
I feel like a hypochondriac, worrying my friends and family over nothing more than a stupid busted tooth. This is what’s kept me in bed? I need the credit for surviving something harder than that.
I don’t rush to the dentist to do what needs to be done, even if it may alleviate my symptoms. I'm too embarrassed to reveal the wretched state of my teeth. Medications or not, this was still partly my fault, and I can't admit to this yet.
I can't look at my Kindle or the TV when my head and mouth hurt like this. Without distraction from the media, I lie in bed and marvel at the brokenness of my body. I mentally tag it, like a surgeon marking up a patient before surgery so he avoids lopping off the wrong limb. I start at the top. The head hurts, the nose clogs, the mouth is a graveyard of sores and broken teeth. The throat is raw and painful, the thyroid cancerous, the lymph nodes perpetually swollen and sore. The chest is heavy with pressure and anxiety, the stomach slow with digestion, stunned by gastroparesis. The pancreas is made useless by type 1 diabetes. The hips, the knees, the feet, the neck and back with slipped discs: common and expected among my normal diseases and me. If it weren’t for my blue eyes and smartass mouth, I might just ask God to dump the first batch of Kelly Clay and begin again.
I wake up coughing on something stuck to my tonsils. The object feels alien, a trespasser in my windpipe. With great force that reminds me of trying to blow out birthday candles, I expel the object from the back of my throat. My hand is slick with blood. A piece of tooth lies in my palm, a fragment that choked me as I kicked off the sheets in a restless sleep.
I think of my vivid dreams, the nightmares I have had about my teeth, and how they are all coming true. How somewhere in the midst of last night's dream, there came to me an unconscious knowledge — I bled before I woke, choking; I knew before I saw the blood and tooth in my hand.
It is almost Christmas. I cannot think of a holiday dinner without remembering the pain that would accompany each delicious bite.
The next day, my face is disappeared into a mask of fluid and infection and red, blotchy skin. I drive to the oral surgeon, my face a moon in the rearview mirror. He starts to even out the sharp edges of the bottom teeth. A buzz fills the room and then it is silent; he’s thinking. He instructs me to open my mouth wider. I feel my lips stretch and I wish for Vaseline. The dental hygienist wipes the spit and blood off the bib around my neck.
The dentist takes all the air in the room as he draws his breath and tells me what I already know.
"All of your teeth are rotted. The top need to go, and they need to go now."
One, two — eight teeth! All on top, and all needing to go right now.
“We’ll take the top and we'll make sure the denture fits in time for the holidays.”
The doctor smiles as he looks up from his prescription pad, where he’s written a script for antibiotics and a dose of Vicodin that will surely not be enough.
“Your Christmas ham will need to be puréed, but the brandy is okay,” he jokes.
Shut the fuck up, I laugh inside my dumb, soon-to-be toothless head.
I leave the office, my head pounding. The pain in my left temple is as sharp as the craggy teeth still left in my mouth. What will it be like when they are all gone?
Dentures before 30. I don’t wonder how this can be; I know. Nearly 30 years of inhalers and immunosuppressants and steroids; arthritis, type 1 diabetes, chronic candidiasis, lupus, thyroid cancer. Each disease a sandpaper rub to my system, each disease burning me off, changing me a little at a time.
I don't fight anymore. I don't kick walls and break glass with my fists. I don't drink to forget. I take medicine to suppress the darkness of physical decay. I get home and I lie in bed, in the apartment above my parents' garage.
When I thought of all the ways my body could destroy me, I did not think of my teeth. They are bone. I didn’t expect to lose them so young, or to feel as devastated over it as I am. I feel as if I have outlived my vanity and youth and carelessness. I don't have a wrinkle yet, or a 401k. I have no plans to age. What’s that stupid fucking John Mayer lyric? I’m only good at being young? Yeah. I’m only good at being young and fucking stupid like a John Mayer song.
I look at everyone’s mouth. I want to tell them that at some point, they might need dentures. Your health will fail and your teeth will rot. And it will strike in the oddest of ways, sting you in a way you did not predict.
I'll get my denture. I'll hope my bottom teeth don't spoil too but I know they will. I want to fight for these teeth. But it is no use, no way to salvage these bones.
I know I never really tried to, anyway, if it meant being different from my friends, if it meant caring more about my mortality.I was living a careless life just like my peers, just as I wanted. I was just like them, until I wasn’t.
I bite down on my tongue one last time and the familiar taste of saltwater fills my mouth and I smile into the mirror before I go in to lose them all. These teeth never had a fighting chance in a mouth like mine.