I can vividly remember the day I learned I was supposed to brush my teeth. Every day. At least twice a day. For the rest of my life.
I was in 5th grade. I know most kids learn to brush their teeth long before this time, but, as was often the case, my parents somehow “forgot” to tell me about important, general, basic requirements like this. As if I was somehow supposed to intuitively “know.” They taught me many lessons…awful lessons. But they neglected to teach me so many of the average ones. Like how to tie my shoes. How often to bathe. And that I, along with everyone else in the world, was also supposed to brush my teeth.
On that day in my 5th grade classroom, we had a visitor and everyone was excited because that visitor was passing out gift bags. I was disappointed when I realized the bag contained a toothbrush and toothpaste. But it also held some little bright red colored pills that looked like they might be candy. Of course, every kid in the room began tearing open the clear crinkly packaging and popped a pill or two in their mouth. And we were rewarded because they actually did taste like candy! The room went near silent while 28 kids chewed the sugary tasting little red treats. The visitor watched us patiently, smiling at our delight.
Then, there was a burst of giggles that started in the front and moved like a wave across the room. Before long, everyone noticed. The candy had turned everyone’s teeth red!!!
The man laughed too, then shushed us and began to explain the “candy” was actually a red dye that adhered to plaque on our teeth. He told us plaque was the enemy, explaining how it attacked our tooth’s enamel and that this would cause us to have cavities. Cavities were bad. We had to do everything we could to prevent them. Which was why we had to brush our teeth. Every day. At least twice a day. For 3 minutes. The candy would tell us when we had brushed long enough and show us if we missed any places. We could use the little red pills until brushing properly became a habit.
While a lot of my classmates nodded with understanding and agreement (or perhaps boredom), I sat and listened intently, embarrassed and slightly stunned.
It was disturbing to me to realize my classmates already knew about brushing their teeth. This wasn’t news to them. Nor was it new. It made me uncomfortable to find I was the only one in the room who didn’t seem to already know what this man was so patiently explaining to us that day.
It was disturbing to me too, because I realized, while my brother had been instructed to brush his teeth and had been to the dentist several times in his short life, no one had ever mentioned that this particular requirement also applied to me. I had shrugged it off, thinking it must be something boys had to do, but not girls. I had never been to the dentist. Not even when I knocked out 4 of my front teeth and loosened many more to the point I could barely eat after I fell mouth first onto the concrete sidewalk when I was 6.
After that day at school, I started brushing my teeth – most of the time . But I was never taken to the dentist while I still lived with my parents. In fact, my first experience with a dentist was when I was 21 years old. I finally went when I had a very painful toothache. By the time I went, it was too late to save the tooth.
I never had braces, even though I clearly needed them. There were many things I didn’t get that I clearly needed. That was the way life went for me when I was a kid. It was as if they forgot about me and didn’t really notice me until they wanted something or were angry and disappointed with me.
My teeth today are in bad shape. The early years of inferior care certainly didn’t help, nor did my eating disorder or the asthma inhaler I had to use for several years after a severe sinus infection triggered breathing problems. I will never know what it’s like to have perfect teeth. To be able to smile without embarrassment.
I work hard to smile with my mouth shut.
I also work hard to hide my other imperfections.
No, I will never have perfect teeth. The opportunity for that experience has long ago come and gone. Nor will I ever be a perfectly together, whole, self-confident individual who believes they have value and are worth loving. That option was taken from me in childhood by my parent’s abusive, selfish, lustful hands. The parents who rarely took me to the doctor; who never told me I needed to brush my teeth like my brother and everyone else on the planet. The parents who knocked the life right out of me and crushed my soul.
I have lost much because of their abuse of me. There are things that can’t be recovered or redeemed. Not at this late date.
I’ll never be the person I might have been had they nurtured, cared for and loved me. Had they done the things most parents do instinctively. Had they done those things instead of hitting, demeaning, sexually abusing and neglecting me. The potential of a fulfilling life was not in my cards. That’s not the hand I was dealt.
My crooked, messed up teeth are a lasting reminder of what they took from me, how they destroyed someone as surely as if they had aborted me while I slept in my mother’s womb. How they stole every hope of me having a meaningful future. These pathetic teeth are a symbol of all that has been taken.
I will never have perfect teeth. My imperfect teeth will forever struggle to chew what life has provided to sustain me…and to somehow survive on those meager, tasteless and hard-to-swallow provisions.