on being fragile

Brushing teeth in Brooklyn
Annette brushes her teeth.
Arthur Rothstein, Library of Congress Collection

Last year, or the year before, my dentist told me I needed gum surgeries. And I didn’t go back.

Cut gum tissue from the roof of my mouth. Sew it to my receded gums. Heal. And repeat. No thank you.

But now I’m in pain . . .

I HATE going to the dentist.

No. ReallyViolently hate.

I once stormed out of our newlywed apartment, marched furiously through our sketchy neighborhood until it was nearly dark, got home and locked myself in the bathroom until my bewildered husband apologized for his offenses.

All he’d said was you have to have a regular dental check up.

Well, he kind of insisted . . . and I would have none of it.

. . .  I’m sure I’ll have to have a teeth cleaning, also known as torture . . .

the gag reflex awakened by Xray cards that bore holes in my mouth, the electric shock of hitting a nerve on my intensively sensitive exposed roots,the stabbing of my inflamed gums, the tugging at the tartar behind my front teeth until it feels like they’re being yanked out, the inevitable lecture on flossing . . .

I don’t stay with dentists for long.

As soon as they expect me to keep regular appointments, I disappear.

* * * * *

But I go . . . more than a little ashamed I waited so long.

And I repeat to myself: it’s not chemo. And I picture my sister, a cancer survivor and my “patron saint” of all things I think will kill me.

And I take my nine-year-old for moral support . . .

I am sure there are notes in my chart. About how I clench my jaw when they clean my teeth. About how I don’ t keep appointments. About the time I grabbed that other hygienist’s hand away from my mouth and begged her to be more gentle . . . Or maybe the notes just say be careful.

How long has this pain been going on? the dental clinician asks.

An embarrassingly long time, I tell her. I am compelled to apologize.

She kindly assures me it’s okay. And does not dismiss or chide my fears of infection.

The dentist says kind things about my receding gums — that I know are notably worse — calling me an “over-achiever” in my tooth brushing, a perfectionist.

She pokes around my mouth and does not send me through the roof. She is always like this, my dentist. But usually I have to endure the torture before I see her, so I forget how kind she is.

She tells me about the hole in my exposed root. She tells me there’s more now than just gum surgery. And she takes my tight face in her hands and looks me in the eyes and says, I know. I had gum surgery, too. But you have to do this. 

And I feel better. So much that I call to make all the appointments as soon as I leave her office.

* * * * *

A few weeks back, on a Sunday morning, I started a post all about how much I hate going to the dentist. (My teeth have been achy for quite a while.)

I wrote and wrote. Dave left to do his Sunday duties. The kids waited in the car for me instead of me for them. And we pulled into church nearly a half an hour late.

We rushed through the foyer, still full of first-service social stragglers, and my eyes landed on my favorite church greeter.

Seeing his face brought back the years when going to church was painful. 

Years of wanting to be there to sing the songs that were an ointment to my heart. To pray. To hear sermons of grace that gave me hope as though written just for me.

But I didn’t want to see all the people. To talk to them. To answer questions.

To hear about marriage and homeschooling and all the ways my life could not measure up.

Not every time. But enough.

I just wanted to slip in and out quietly and unnoticed back then. Not to be early and not make a grand entrance.

The days migraines or withdrawals kept Dave at home in bed. Or we’d had a fight. Or I was on the verge of breaking. Or I was overwhelmed with managing the children alone.

I heard Where’s your husband? Or We haven’t seen you in a while.

Or had a dreadful march to the front row where there are lots of seats.

Later, when the healing began, but I still hurt. I was late to church on purpose. To avoid.

And I felt guilty because I knew I was wrong.

But my favorite greeter has never said those things. And he’s never seated me up front.

Whether I’m ten minutes late or thirty, he gives me a big smile, hands me a bulletin, opens wide the door to the sanctuary and says:

You’re just in time.

Simple words that always make me feel welcome — just as I am.

* * * * *

There’s no chart at Church. No notes.

Nothing to say this one is hurting.

We don’t even wear a color to signify mourning anymore.

But there are people just like me coming to church in desperation.

Because it finally hurts so much they’ll endure small tortures just so they can be healed. 

Healed by Jesus — who they forgot is always kind and gentle.

Some haven’t been in a while. Hoping no one notices it’s been so long. Maybe apologetic.

The notes are written on the face. In the eyes . . .

. . . I’m fragile.

Sometimes it takes a while. To trust.

Do we speak simple words that encourage them to come back?

Or do we use the tools? Questions. Comments. Statements.

Do they leave strengthened to do the hard thing they have to do next?

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, “for you are very precious to God. Peace! Be encouraged! Be strong!”As he spoke these words to me, I suddenly felt stronger and said to him, “Please speak to me, my lord, for you have strengthened me.” Daniel 10:19

10 thoughts on “on being fragile”

  • This is such a beautiful, raw and honest post. I hate the dentist too and after having a bad dry socket experience, I dread more of the same. I am glad I found your blog and hope to connect with you again. I am feeling fragile today after getting bad news so this post helped me remember God has my face in his hands.

  • With all the work I’ve had done on my teeth/mouth over the past 7 months I can totally relate to every word you wrote! Instead of running away, I would avoid them a little and then my dentist would either retire or move! I seemed to have a knack for finding ‘those’ dentists, LOL. After my last consult with the orthodontist, I decided no more avoidance. We’re only given one life, one set of teeth, etc., right? I like the tie-in to your experiences at church! I really like what your greeter said…I’m going to steal that saying too!

    You have such a way with words, Deb. I hope you will put all of this into a book! You write beautifully and truthfully!

    • Thank you, Trina. One set of teeth — you’re right. And my visit to the endodontist today was a really powerful motivator. Apparently if you don’t take care of these things, they only get worse…I suppose there’s a life lesson in that for me as well. No, I know there is.

  • Deb, I have enjoyed so many of your stories. You write with so many great feeling to your stories that I felt like I have been transported there. I hope you will write a book because you are a great story teller. Love you, Aunt Carol

  • Deb, thanks for sharing this post! This is a good reminder that church is the ER and that people are broken, hurt and beat up …but when we come together with God there is healing or should be. We can take off our masks and see each other as fragile as you say and we can allow God’s spirit to use us to be an encouragement to those around us, and we can allow God’s spirit to use them to be an encouragement to us…so hopefully when we leave church we are better.

    I love that phrase that the greeter said…I’m going to use it! 🙂 Thanks!

  • Deb, you write with such realness. You spell out the feelings. I want to hug that greeter. I used to leave church feeling like a liar because so many people would ask, “How are you?” and I would say “Fine” knowing either they didn’t really want to know how I was doing or that I couldn’t really be vulnerable at that moment. On leaving church feeling all dirty with guilt, I told Dale and he gave me words from God: “You are telling them how your soul is, and your Soul is Fine.” From then on that question and answer is like salve on my wounds, and I remember that no matter how I feel, no matter how bad the depression may be at that moment, My Soul is Fine.

    I am just getting to know a precious friend at church whose husband beat her and almost killed her, but it was all a secret. It has now been a year since he left her and she is just now acknowleging the things that happened to her. She has been coming to church, but she thought we all had it together – I know better and it has been my pleasure to tell her I too am broken. I have “flag friends” at church. Friends that have shared deep dark struggles with depression, panic attacks, anxiety, health issues, marital problems, all a different story, all different circumstances, but we can see it in each other’s eyes and we “check” on each other with just a few words so tears don’t start spilling at inconvenient moments.

    Bless you, dear sister!
    and Dave, Thank you for letting your story be told.

    • Thank you, Annette. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say when you are hurting about things people don’t talk about — things they really, actually don’t want to know and you don’t really, actually want to tell them. Friends who know and understand are valuable and precious. They were (and are still) anchors — once I let them in.
      And it’s hard to know what to say on the other side, too. When you know someone is hurting.
      Dave (the greeter) had the perfect words I needed to hear to keep me coming back to church when it was hardest. That’s what I needed. To be there. And it was good enough.
      Now everyone at our church knows our story. People don’t ask how my Dave is doing anymore, or if they do, I feel like I can tell them to ask him. And when Dave (the greeter) tells me I’m “just in time” when I’m really a half an hour late, I have so much confidence I march myself — kids and all — to the front of the church & I leave the back rows for the people who need to be where no one sees their tears.
      Thank you for this, Annette. We just don’t know what people are dealing with — depression, abuse, addiction. It’s always best to handle them with care. To let people in close to Jesus — like the woman in the Gospels who said “If I can just touch His robe I will be healed” — and let Him talk to them. And make them feel welcome no matter what.
      Thank you for telling me your story. And for sharing yours and ours with others.

  • YES. Beautiful illustration, honest, eloquent. Many could benefit from reading this. I love your style — and your heart. WRITE THAT BOOK!!

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