Normally, my mind wanders for no special reason whatsoever. My favorite roller coaster ride. The perfect way to fix a sentence. What’s on sale at the Rangeley IGA. The next U2 concert tour. Hawaii. What’s not on sale at the IGA that I need anyway.
This thought process is not particularly constructive, especially when someone thinks they’re having a conversation with me and I’m really thinking about synonyms, sunsets, or who’s going to win this season of Survivor. Still, there is a certain time when such detachment and cerebral cross wiring comes in handy, a place where I’m grateful I’ve elevated day dreaming to an art form. The dentist’s office. I begin dissociation strategies in the waiting room, occupying my mind with any and all images except those connected to the sound of a drill squealing its way through enamel. Over the years, I’ve learned to let my thoughts flee in whatever direction they will.
Used to be that mentally retreating to the late 19th century dentistry exhibit I saw at the Boston Museum of Science made me feel better about what awaited me in the next room. Singing along to the Muzak helped some, too—until songs like “Hurt So Bad” and “You Take My Breath Away” wafted through the waiting room speakers, filling me with fears that not even Barry Manilow could soothe.
“What came before dentist office music?” I’d wonder to bide some time. “What in the heck lulled patients into submission back before FM radio?” Lots of good, old-fashioned ether, I guessed. Then I’d get summoned into the big reclining chair of dread where I’d work out a week’s worth of menus and TV selections, determine the sequential order of the tile pattern on the examining room wall, and draft four or five new writing projects. It got me through a couple decades of exams—until the day the dentist announced my next visit would entail more than routine cleaning. Suddenly, my search for distractions took on a whole new urgency. After reaching my mid-thirties without a flaw, I’d have to be drilled and filled!
“That’s what can happen if you don’t brush your teeth enough,” came a warning from my cavity-prone years, back when a poster of a molar with black streaks shooting into its roots hung above the dessert counter in the school cafeteria. I came to find out, though, that this trouble spot happened because I did brush my teeth—with great deliberation—until I pushed the gum away from the top of my incisor.
“You mean it hurts when you drink hot or cold liquids?” asked the dentist when I brought the sensitive area to his attention.
“No, I mean if you poke right there with your little silver pick it’ll jolt me five feet out of the chair and I might slap you,” I wanted to say. However, “nuumph” was the only response I could muster.
“I won’t have to really drill,” he said. “I’ll just rough it up a little so I can bond some white filling to the small cleft where the gum’s receded.” But the words didn’t relieve me as intended because, as far as I was concerned, “little” and “small” would lose all relevance once high-speed steel made contact with his work surface. Only a major diversion—like a plot for my first best-seller—could see me through.
“Ten o’clock tomorrow?” I repeated as the receptionist checked the appointment book. “No I can’t come back then unless I get a baby sitter.” A legitimate excuse and, depending on how hard I tried to make arrangements, one that could buy me a lot of time.
“Why baby sitting?” she asked.
“Well, ’cause I have a three-year-old, Becky, who does furniture aerobics for exercise, who flew into a rage last time she saw a doctor come after me with hypodermic half the size of the one you’re planning to use for Novocaine.”
“Oh, she’ll be fine,” she reassured. “We have toys for her to play with. Besides, this would be a good way to introduce her to what happens at the dentist.” I agreed, reluctantly. Given my tendency to shiver and sweat profusely, I wasn’t sure I’d provide a proper first impression.
But taking Becky to my dentist appointment actually worked out well. Diverting myself from the discomfort was easier than ever, especially once Becky decided to watch from a stool on wheels about a foot away from the procedure. “You can sit there, honey, as long as you’re careful of the doctor’s feet and you watch out for the special buttons at the bottom of Mommy’s chair,” said the dental hygienist.
The unpleasantness of the immediate situation escaped me as I pondered the functions of those “special buttons” and what the doctor was likely to do with his hands if his feet were suddenly trampled. I hardly felt a thing.
It is possible, too, that advancements in equipment and technology since the last time I needed to have a cavity filled in the ’60’s had rendered the once excruciating process agony-free. And childbirth had, no doubt, redefined “discomfort” for me in the meantime. Plus when did banana flavored topical anesthetic for numbing the site of the big shot come on the scene?
“Aw, cmon, I don’t get the exam room with the really great view?” I asked upon meeting my new dental hygienist for the first time. Deciding to become year-round residents in our summer “camp” in Rangeley, Maine, my husband Tom and I told ourselves we’d have the best dental visits possible when we could look out over the lake and wooded fields surrounding Rangeley Family Dentistry. Drilling and poking just had to feel better if you could watch deer and geese rather than staring at whatever office park print hung lifelessly on the wall within your peripheral vision. “No,” answered my new hygienist as she led me to a chair overlooking the logging trucks on rural Route 4. “But you’d rather be in here anyways. You only sit in the room with a view if Dr. Dave is doing a procedure on you.”
Yup, my new dentist is Dr. Dave. His waiting room doesn’t need Muzak ’cause it has a fish tank, a selection of my friend’s local wildlife art, and a display of early 20th century dental relics up in the rafters that would make me want to disassociate from my surroundings—if I didn’t love the six-foot stuffed moose doll wearing a surgical mask that’s waiting nearby to check out someone’s chippers.
Thanks to many more years of unreformed power brushing, I didn’t have to wait long to sit in Dr. Dave’s procedure room. And shortly after that, I was back in the chair with a view, trying to levitate my way through my first root canal. Actually, it wasn’t nearly as terrible as legend had led me to believe. Dr. Dave is a drill master/micro-surgeon extraordinaire. That plus peeking out at the panorama and amusing myself imagining these very blog sentences really helped. “Rooted In Rangeley getting uprooted! I can have some fun with that…” And viola, Dr. Dave was done.
Turned out, though, that was only a trial run for the next procedure I’d need—one that would send me down the mountain to the “big city” of Auburn to a dentist reserved for one out of twenty root canal-ees like myself requiring special attention. “You need an apicoectomy,” Dr. Dave said after examining the bump on my gum not healed by spiced rum or other home remedies. Sounds exotic, I thought, until you get to the ectomy part. Like an up-sell drink off of a chain restaurant menu. (“Would you like that made with our top-shelf Apico vodka?”)
Who knew Lamaze breathing would come right back to my rescue? Two minutes into the apicoectomy chair and I was huffing and blowing like a trooper. I soon calmed down, though, deciding once again that the reality wasn’t nearly as bad as thinking about what was actually going on as Dr. Michelle, my new special dentist, peeled away a piece of gum flap to grab and excise my infected rogue root. She worked miracles with grace and humor, fixing me up so painlessly that by the time I noticed my view was of the back of a Home Depot, she was done. “A week from now you can go back to Dr. Dave to get your stitches out,” she said.
Cool, I thought, running my tongue across what felt like a Chinese string puzzle on my upper gum. I could heal up back home in Rangeley, transcending out over the lake and hills, dreaming up the perfect blog post.