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    My Dad, My Dentist
   
The Vancouver Sun
     April, 1994

 

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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 job.

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 Chas.

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 floor?

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 to.

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.

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