83: A Story of Love and Teeth

83: A Story of Love and Teeth

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

A Story of Love and Teeth

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.

~C.S. Lewis

When I’m asked what it’s like to be married to a dentist, my first response is glib: I get teased for being the only parent who sends her kid to a sleepover without a toothbrush, I co-carry a school debt load as big as a mortgage, and I’m expected to have perfect teeth and even better breath — which, in my experience, is not always possible.

But then there’s the response that’s not glib, but heartfelt — as true as anything I’ve ever believed: I can’t separate my particular dentist guy from his dentist job, for together they make him the person I’m married to.

My particular dentist guy, Mick, was once an unfulfilled twenty-eight-year-old manufacturing and plastics engineer who drew computerized sketches of an airplane’s wing rivets for a prominent aerospace corporation. A couple of years later, he designed water ski and wakeboard bindings for world-class athletes. Cool enough, to be sure, but that same engineer guy would come home disappointed that he’d sat at a machine all day and had spoken to only one or two other human beings — about nothing that meant anything to him.

Then Mick got laid off, just days before planes were used as bombs to take down the Twin Towers. He spent six months searching for engineering work — mostly in his underwear at the computer — while I taught college courses part-time and we shared caring for our infant and toddler. Desperate, Mick eventually took up work with a contractor, installing hardwood floors and painting trim for another few months.

Somewhere in there, though, he observed his younger brother at work as a new dentist. Mick sat in the operatory and watched carefully. He saw how the mouth was the gateway to health for the rest of the body. He watched his brother’s hands move in intricate and detailed ways in a small space. He listened to the care, banter, and concern communicated between patient and dentist. In short, he immediately saw how he, too, could use his head, his hands, and his heart — by being a dentist.

Initially, he didn’t say anything about what that visit meant to him. But I’ll never forget the rainy day he pulled our old VW Vanagon off the highway and cut the engine. He unfastened his seatbelt and turned toward me, his voice shaking. “I think I want to be a dentist.”

I shivered.

Then I nodded my head like crazy — I knew he could do it, and I knew he’d be good at it. I also knew he was brave to want it, which added yet another layer of love for him in my heart. There in the van, he told me he’d considered dentistry in high school, but thought the road too long and possibly too hard. However, after watching his brother go through dental school, he reflected on how four years passed no matter what. Time passes whether or not you’re doing what you want. Why not take a risk and make sure you do something meaningful while the time passes?

Looking at our two kids, oblivious in their car seats, Mick said, “I want to leave them a legacy they can be proud of. I want to leave a legacy of pursuing dreams — even if they seem really, really challenging.”

So Mick returned to college at thirty-three, taking three full years of prerequisite classes from the school where he’d graduated seven years earlier. For the first few months we wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into. We were on public assistance, my part-time contract work at a college an hour and a half away was finally up, and we were out of money. I remember standing in the kitchen taking a phone interview for an airport shuttle job, with my toddler squeezing my knees and my baby sticking a Cheerio she’d found on the floor in her mouth. I was scared, I could barely concentrate, and I couldn’t stand the thought of random hours driving an airport bus.

That interview, and another for a résumé-writing service, went horribly. We trusted our persistence would pay off, though, and put the word out to all our friends that we each needed work. Our friends were excited for us, even envious at times, and they looked out for us, the way people will when they want to be part of something big.

Eventually, I got a miraculous call to interview for teaching a full course load at the university. I started a week later. Mick started a part-time job making dentures that same month.

Carefully balancing my job, Mick’s job, childcare, and Mick’s student load, we made it into the final quarter of prerequisites. Mick scored high on the Dental Aptitude Test, filled out fifteen dental school applications, wrote a killer statement of intent (thank me very much), and earned himself a seat in the only three-year program in the nation.

After a mighty garage sale where we sold everything we could think to sell, mostly wakeboards Mick had acquired, we packed up our three-and four-year-old kids and moved to San Francisco for a life of school, loans, and part-time work.

Dental school was challenging and scary. We were still on public assistance and I worked part-time as a preschool teacher — so I could bring my kids. I managed all childcare, healthcare, and household work in order for Mick to give 100 percent to his studies, which often felt laced with elusive requirements as he bartered and traded patients with other students to drum up crown work, root canals, and fillings.

It was really hard. But it was really worth it.

Now Mick’s a dentist, one who’s just ironic enough to enjoy saying it’s time to go to the dentist when it’s “tooth hurty,” and who comes home from work deeply moved by the work he’s done and the lives he’s encountered. He never tells me names or places, but his eyes often water as he tells me about hardship, victory, silliness, or gratitude he’s seen or experienced in the mouths or lives of his patients. He never got that fulfillment as an engineer.

So when Mick leans against the kitchen counter, a new dentist at age forty-one, talking to me passionately about his work, I appreciate this particular guy who loves his particular job. I hold onto the memories of hardship and risk — because they make this all the sweeter — and I hone in on his lovely, if slightly imperfect teeth and his occasionally bad breath. Because, well, sometimes you just can’t have it all. But with a lot of determination, you can come pretty close.

~Anjie Reynolds

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