Hurt & Faith

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