A FINAL VISIT ELICITS REMINISCENCES OF
DENTAL AND FAMILY HISTORY
A visit to the dentist carries peculiar significance
when the man who scrapes under your gums at your after-school
appointment is the guy who scraped the burnt bits off your toast
that same morning.
My father looked after my teeth ever since
the first one poked through my gum line like a crocus in a melting
snowfall. Given that I can count the number of cavities I have
on one hand and still hold a bottle of fluoride, he did a fine
Until I was old enough to read, the evening
ritual found me wearing pajamas and standing before the bathroom
sink in a patriarchal headlock, foaming at the mouth while Dad
brushed my teeth. My friends couldn't believe he did that; I couldn't
believe their fathers didn't.
On the low windowsill in his office, right
where you could see as you lay back with those tubular cotton
wads packed behind your molars, there was always a little line
of rolling-eyeball erasers or maybe rings with garish jewels to
stare at. Just like all his other young patients, I was allowed
to choose one once I'd passed inspection and had a go at the spit
sink. (This in itself was reward enough; having grown up in a
house where you couldn't say the word "fart" let alone
make one, spitting in front of Dad was a real thrill.)
Apart from a flurry of visits when I had braces
and needed teeth removed - and one disturbing episode when a loose
piece of orthodontic wire caused an abscess - my trips to the
dentist were spaced as evenly as a set of dentures.
Even though he could have just told us at
dinner that we were to stop by his office the next day, my brother
and sisters and I always received the official notice on a little
moss-green business card, same as all his other patients. On the
back his nurse wrote the time and date you were expected; the
front bore his name: C.J. (Chas) Liebe, Dentist. I always got
a kick out of that odd abbreviation, embraced as it was between
soft, italicized parentheses. To his friends and my Mom he's Chuck.
His mother calls him Charles. Chas sounds like something a woman
in a fur stole might murmur with a French accent. But there it
was. And you were very unwise to be late for an appointment with
Eventually, just like the bedtime brushing
routine, he let me make my own appointments and grumbled when
he had to remind me that over a year had passed between check-ups.
I have no doubt he took my insouciance personally.
My oral hygiene lessons paid off. Check-ups
were all I ever needed. Except for one appointment when I was
terrified he'd discover I'd broken a tooth opening a beer bottle
(evidently I hadn't), and another when I was dating a dental assistant
and casually threw out some impressive vocabulary she'd taught
me regarding temporal mandibular joints, going to see Dad had
developed into a routine of grinning, gargling, and going home.
Though I'd fallen into the habit of taking my harmonicas in to
be cleaned in the Ultrasonic, at some point I stopped picking
up a little prize from the window sill.
This personal archive of dental and family
history remained filed away and untouched until last year when
I drove out to Mission for my 29th - and final - trip to see C.J.
(Chas) Liebe, Dentist. He was about to sell his practice and retire.
As best I could - what with his fingers in
my mouth - I tried to elicit some sort of emotional response from
him. How did it feel, I asked, to be leaving what he'd built up
over 35 years? What was going through his head these past few
weeks when he'd spent so much time alone in the office at night,
meticulously touching up every scuff mark on the waiting room
His answers disappointed me, revolving as
they did around selling prices and retirement funds. Wasn't there
any heart-felt connection to his lifetime's work? Apparently not:
the couch he'd snuck lunchtime catnaps on since the 1960's had
been unceremoniously hauled off to the dump and replaced with
a black leather chair from Ikea.
I asked to see my dental records. Expecting
some fat folder, I was surprised when he handed me a slightly
yellowed piece of cardboard that could fit in a business envelope
without folding. Every visit I'd ever made to my father's dental
chair was recorded in his medical school scrawl. Beginning in
January, 1969, when I was just three, on through a chipped tooth,
the braces, that dreaded abscess, a litany of cleanings and x-rays
- it was all there. It was all there, and that's all it amounted
I found this terribly depressing. Nowhere
did it express how curious it is to watch your own blood swirl
away down the spit sink. Or that morbid downtime when the freezing
hasn't kicked in and you both stare at the timer on the swivel-tray.
Or the stunning sweetness of the orange-flavoured fluoride bath
that announced the last phase of every visit.
As I wiped the last residue of that familiar
orange gel from my face, I pointed out an oil painting on the
wall and asked Dad what he planned to do with it. "Keep it,"
he told me, then launched into a detailed explanation of how the
painting - depicting a cold, snow-covered street in a residential
Toronto neighbourhood - reminded him of the street he delivered
papers on growing up in Lethbridge.
Magically, he eased off from his terse, professional
delivery and recounted the customers along the route, who lived
in what house, and how much they tipped at Christmas. He was lost
in reminiscence and it occurred to me that I'd found the connection
I was hoping for. For 35 years he'd worked as a dentist beside
a painting that reminded him of the first job he'd ever had.
His retirement coincided with my starting
a business of my own, writing corporate literature. He asked that
I draft the letter all his patients would receive, announcing
his retirement and introducing the two dentists who would take
over. I accepted, but declined his offer to pay; for 28 years
of free dentistry I was willing to swing a contra deal and whip
off a cover letter.
It included the standard assurances of a smooth
transition and thanked people for their support, but I snuck in
some family mythology: about his driving a borrowed car over the
Rockies for the first time in the late '50s; and how he'd looked
all over the province before choosing to buy a practice in Mission
because he thought it was a good place to raise a family.
Apart from commenting that I'd made him sound
"like a writer in Time magazine," he said he was pleased.
I thought about the good teeth in my mouth and all the history
behind them, and realized I was too.