Let not man put us under

It is an astonishingly simple thing to pull the teeth out of someone’s head. Did you know this? I did not know this. You just reach in with very strong pliers and pull them out. A little twisting, a little rocking back and forth, and presto, out they come. Considering the fact that skulls thousands of years old are found with their teeth still solidly rooted in their jawbones, I would have thought that there was more to it.

I had my wisdom teeth extracted when I was a teenager, and I’ve always assumed the reason they knocked me out first was because they were going to be using teams of mules, maybe some plastic explosives. My wisdom teeth were impacted — still encased in the jawbone — so it was certainly more work than if they had been daylighted. But even so, sitting through Angela’s operation has made me realize afresh just what snapped-together little creations we are. Anyone with the right tools can take us apart. 

Stalactites and stalagmites

Angela had wanted me to be present if possible for her appointment with dentistry, and while I doubted they would let the husband witness the operation — he most likely to want to sue if things went badly — I promised I would ask, and to our surprise they said I could sit in the extra chair. She’d had one valium the night before and two more before we drove to the little dental mall in Northgate, so she was relaxed even before they fitted her with nitrous oxide and asked her to make a fist and injected her with the serum that gives dreamless sleep.

Then, after my dearie had indeed vacated her consciousness, they used a series of very ancient looking syringes, like small side-loading caulking guns, to inject novacaine and lidocaine into the back of her mouth at strategic points. This took some time. They kept reloading, like Texans at the Alamo. I couldn’t help admiring these tools. They looked like something from another era, and maybe they were, even though their chrome was as shiny as when they’d first been manufactured. I guess it startled me they were not made of some high-grade medical plastic, with different textures for the grip and the shaft and maybe an abstract logo emblazoned next to an irritating name like Adenta or Dentiva or Pullzall. Instead they were just shiny metal tubes, each with a curled metal loop at the top for the doctor to put his thumb in for pushing the drug through the needle.

Who knew we all have a Wharton's Duct? Lithograph plate from "Gray's Anatomy".

Finally she was ready. After all this prep, as I say, I expected a long operation, but at this point the doctor simply reached into her mouth, four times, and with a little cajoling and resorting to a different prying tool took out a huge tooth each time. He was working with his back to me, and I couldn’t hear him well because of his facemask, but he was mainly making wisecracks to his assistant, a friendly and reassuring person whose English grammar was as good as her pronounciation of it was unintelligible. So I had to surmise what was happening from the movements they made, and from the fact that these movements made a sort of pattern, repeated four times, at the end of which the doctor would turn and put something on the tray beside him. The last time he did this I saw the tooth as he took the pliers out of Angela’s mouth — it was bloody but not dripping, and it was large like something from the mouth of the hound of the Baskervilles.

It occured to me how simple it would be, if you weren’t paying attention, to reach in and take out the wrong tooth. And it would come out. And it would just be out. Forever. It made me think that what God has joined together, we should take great care in putting asunder.

Only his were newer. Image of 17th-century Italian forceps lifted from thesmilecinema.blogspot.com.

At one point near the end, Angela’s eyes opened and she rolled them around lazily. I panicked at this, and told the doctor she had opened her eyes. He was not worried, even though a root had broken off of the last tooth and it took another minute or two to pry that piece out (the only part of the operation that did not go perfectly). She had gone back under and, said he, couldn’t feel a thing. I hoped so. I had looked into her right eye to ascertain whether she was communicating pain or anxiety, but it was impenetrable as a whale’s eye breaking the surface of a dark sea then blinking shut to sink again into obscurity. 

I have been having a little fun in this telling, but I confess that I was host to some pretty strong feelings sitting there. My beloved was completely helpless and unable to defend herself or even move and people were using the prying physical force of metal instruments, the equivalent of small car jacks, to remove bones out of her head. I kept flipping between a sort of raw horror at the fact of what I was watching and amazement and gratitude that there were people, good people, who knew how to work these tools and had every good intention toward my wife.

My wife. I looked at Angela, so peacefully abiding there in the tipped back chair, and experienced a deep yearning to connect with her. The absense occasioned by anaesthesia is a bugger. When you watch your spouse or your children sleeping, you feel comforted, as though they are coccooned in some sphere of stillness and safety that you can hold in your hand. I’ve only seen one person reposing in death — my grandmother, two years ago — and that was something else again. She was not there, no part of her was there but what was to be left behind forever. But this felt like an anxious place between. Angela’s spirit was inside that body somewhere, or somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t see her or reach out to her. Unanimated, her face seemed strangely unfamiliar. Her limpness was a shock.

Looking back I can distinguish two dominant feelings. First, speaking of hounds, I felt very protective of Angela in her vulnerable state, like a dog posted there to make sure she would be alright. Not that there was anything I’d be able to do except bark if trouble arose, but I felt an elevated vigilance, a need to watch and record, hear and see everything within my earshot and vision. Second, I felt a momentary but intense loneliness, a longing for this one person, for just her, just Angela. It seemed impossible that that continuous silent communication that we share could be interrupted, and then it seemed even stranger that I should have such a communion with someone I didn’t even know until I was thirty-three years old.

Am I codependent and enmeshed? Undoubtedly. I’ll read a book on that and get some help. But I experienced this longing as a good thing in the end. Looking at Angela lying there unconscious made me want to be a better man today. It made all of those little skirmishes seem ridiculous that my ego gets me into on an almost hourly basis. Defending my dignity, getting my fair share, blah blah blah. As though this person was out to ruin me. She was flattened in a dentist’s chair, no threat to anyone. Her mortal life was literally suspended.

"Please open wide and let me see the holes?" John Everett Millais' "Huguenot lovers on St. Bartholomew's Day", 1852.

I pictured what we are to each other. Being married is like calling over the fence for your childhood best friend nextdoor to ask if they can play, and the answer is always yes. At least it feels like that to me. Of course “play” may not often be the things we once thought of as play, like badminton and Red Light Green Light and Operation. Play these days might be asking for the third time whether we need new mustard at the store because for the first two times our spouse was too busy thinking about whether the paper recycling is this week or focusing on counting teaspoons of baby formula. Or play might be arguing about what a Time Out for one of our family members should look like and what behaviors should qualify as a Time-Out-Triggering Event. Or play might be doing dishes together, you wash I’ll dry. Once in a while, play is playing Uno with our daughter, or cuddling up and watching an episode of Dark Shadows at the end of the long day.

The inflationary increase of adult responsibilities has obviously undercut the value of the word “play”, but it’s all play if I consider that most of the things we do all day long we don’t have much choice about and we might as well say that that’s the fun part.

Come back, sweetie. Come play with me. 

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14 Responses to “Let not man put us under”


  1. 1 kiwidutch March 15, 2011 at 22:58

    Aw… she will, she will… this lack of play is temporary I assure you.
    I love the way your expressed the “let’s play” of marriage, I can SO relate to “you wash, I’ll dry” LOL, or the “Thanks Love” mumbled back after your lovely hubby has mumbled sleepily “I’ll go” at 3.00am as a sick child cries in the night.
    Beautiful words that expressed the feeling so very very very very well!

  2. 2 Louis March 16, 2011 at 01:07

    “Being married is like calling over the fence for your childhood best friend nextdoor to ask if they can play, and the answer is always yes.”

    Lovely analogy.

  3. 3 Janet March 16, 2011 at 07:37

    Just let us know when Angela switches to using the back of a chair to untangle her skein of yarn for her knitting.

  4. 4 Matt March 16, 2011 at 08:20

    @kiwidutch – She’s fully back in play mode, you’ll be happy to know.

    @Lou – Boy, when you just hang the sentence out there like that, it seems more assertive. I wonder how true that is for most people.

    @Janet – Brilliant idea from one with experience. Thanks for the tip. She’s already finished a scarf for Mara and one for me, and now she’s making me some fingerless gloves with a tighter stitch. I should give her your email address in case she gets tangled.

  5. 5 aplscruf March 16, 2011 at 17:58

    I really like what you said about your intense loneliness, watching her in that unanimated and unfamiliar state.

    I noticed I’m dependent on my husband more than I realized. I always let him be the “alpha” male, and when he has a cold or flu(which, this winter has been the worst yet–the fever and hacking cough variety), I feel out of sorts. My routine gets thrown off! And as we get older, those feelings of mortality start to set in. It’s a weird, uncomfortable feeling.

    So we try to make every day special in some way, and yes, find time to play. When our boy was a wee lad, that meant one thing: sleep. ha Now that he’s 15, we find time (with or without him) to take a walk, work in the garden, watch a good movie, sleep in, and, of course, go to a show!

  6. 6 aplscruf March 16, 2011 at 18:21

    Oh, and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” makes diaper duty and night feeding much more bearable! We would have fits of giggles when we’d both hit “rock” etc. in a tie!

    • 7 Matt March 16, 2011 at 20:51

      aplscruf, it sounds like you’ve found great ways to fend off those feelings of mortality. Hooray! And we should definitely try the RPS for chores, not because I think I could beat her, but because it would make it more fun.

  7. 8 Lisa March 21, 2011 at 04:30

    So that’s what they did to me when they took my wisdom. It felt like I just blinked and it was over. Oh, but was I ever merry when I woke up, very thankful, and apologetic too .

    • 9 Matt March 21, 2011 at 08:05

      Lisa,
      Good to see you here again. Are you British? I once heard that one of the defining characteristics of the English personality is that they apologize when you step on their toes. There’s a great scene in the movie “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain” in which Hugh Grant bumps his head coming downstairs and mutters “mp, sorry” to the wooden beam.

      (Lisa writes about the trials — and amusements — of living with obsessive compulsive disorder. Click her name to follow to her blog.)

  8. 11 Invisible Mikey March 21, 2011 at 17:40

    Really good writing, Matt. Easy to empathize with.

    Those kinds of feelings and emotional reactions to watching a loved one being worked on medically are normal, normal, normal. That’s why they don’t let us work on members of own own family. We can’t detach and concentrate on doing the job properly.

    BTW, I love those Panorex 180-degree curvy x-ray machines (that display of all the teeth laid out flat along one plane). What a cool idea. Like Mercator projection maps of the world.

  9. 13 Librarian Girl March 22, 2011 at 10:23

    I don’t have anything to say except: totally, totally, totally.

    • 14 Matt March 22, 2011 at 11:43

      Sounds like SOMEBODY has had some experience with some aspect of this. Your recent post about “waiting” seemed to depict a place where doctors might be. Hope all went well.


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