I have a partial denture, not all of my teeth are my own. I write these words and the thought floats around the back of my mind. Not for publication this, not for the audience. I don’t want anyone to know. I am too ashamed.
A while ago my mother visited. She came with her much younger cousin Jo and Jo’s husband Arnold. They’d been out for lunch and my mother decided, or so she told me over the telephone when she made arrangements for the visit that it would be good for Josephine and Arnold to meet some of their younger relatives in Australia. They emigrated here a couple of years ago.
‘I’m an old lady, my mother said, what would they want to spend time with me for?’
I thought it was also a pretext to spend time with me.
I suggested my mother come after four as I had a dentist appointment earlier that day.
‘Oh, I remember you.’ She said. ‘You were so frightened for the dentist. You had to have an anesthetic.’
‘I was only little,’ I said. I was about seven and they needed to take out several teeth.’
What do I remember of that day?
My mother and I sit on a long wooden bench in a room that reminds me of a church for all its austerity, but there are magazines on a pile in one corner and no crosses to be seen. We are in the Dental Hospital and I am alone with my mother. In so many memories of my mother I am alone. She is sitting very close to me. I can feel the mold of her hip against mine even through the thick layers of her woolen skirt and coat. I am wearing my older brother’s black duffel coat. One of the wooden buttons is loose so the coat gapes in the middle.
I have come for extractions. I do not want to think too much about this word but my mother says I will not feel a thing. I will be put to sleep and when I wake up it will all be over.
I look down at my feet. I am wearing my first Holy Communion black patents. I have worn them for a long time now, every Sunday, and they are beginning to wear out. There are holes in the middle of the soles of each shoe, but no one can see this, no one knows but me. Only when I kneel down for Holy Communion at the front of the church do I worry that other people will see the holes in my shoes. Then I try very hard to curl my toes up while I’m kneeling to keep as much of the heel concealed as possible.
My black patent shoes shine. My mother has told me I must not worry. I do not want to think about why I should worry, but the smell of chemicals, the smell of toilet cleaner, the mothball smell of this place makes my stomach hurt. I try to breathe through my mouth and I run my tongue over my teeth. They are scratchy to feel.
‘Seven baby teeth have to go.’ I hear the dentist tell my mother as his big hands prod my mouth open. He scrapes against my teeth with a sharp metal stick.
‘Normally we await till they fall out of their own accord,’ he says ‘ but these seven are too far gone.’
She’s not doing a good job of brushing her teeth, is she?’ he asks my mother as though I am not there.
‘I tell her to brush them every day,’ my mother says.
It’s true. My mother tells me every night when I go into the lounge to say good night to my father and he brushes my forehead with his yellow thumb, his thumb that is yellow from smoking, He brushes my forehead in a sign of the cross and my mother calls out after me, after us, my sister and I, ‘Brush your teeth now.’
My sister goes to the bathroom and brushes her teeth. I go to the bedroom and get ready for bed. When I am in bed, I remember to brush my teeth but I cannot be bothered. Later when my mother comes to say good night she asks again.
‘Did you brush your teeth?’
I say ‘Yes’. And she is happy. Easy as that.
My teeth feel furry most of the time. But not today. Today they have a shiny feel in the places where they are not broken. They have a shiny feel because I brushed and brushed them because I know the dentist will look at my teeth and he must not know that I have not told the truth.
I tell the truth in confession. Every week I tell the priest that I have been telling lies once. Telling lies. He never asks what lies. Telling lies once, stealing once, he never asks what I have stolen. And being disobedient, I add. That one feels like a lie because I am never disobedient.
Not brushing my teeth when my mother tells me cannot be a sin of disobedience because I have included it in my telling lies. A sin only counts once. At least for me it does. Though my mother tells me that my grandmother suffered from scruples. She went to the priest and confessed her sins and even after he gave her absolution and said she could go off and say a prayer she was not happy. She came back to the same pries again and again. ‘
You do not understand, Father’ she said. “You do not understand how badly I have sinned.’
I know it’s easy to wash your soul clean. One visit to confession and everything is washed away and my soul, which is just under my stomach right down close to my bottom is clean and white again. I know my soul is near my bottom because it is harder to keep it clean there when it is so close to all the poo in my body. I know this because the nuns tells us about the soul within and how hard we must work to keep it clean and spotless.
But my teeth are not spotless. They are full of holes, ‘cavities’ the dentist says. A nurse in a white uniform with a tight bun on top of her head calls out my name and my mother and I walk into a cubicle where my mother helps me take off all my clothes. Then she dresses me in a thin white dress which has big holes for sleeves and no buttons. My mother ties the cords all the way up the back but the hospital gown gapes even worse than my coat and I am scared that people will see my bottom. But as soon as I am out of the cubicle the nurse tells me to lie down on a long bed with metal sides and she pushes me through slamming doors that snap shut behind, down a long corridor of bright lights.
I am lying on top of this trolley bed like a dead person. I feel numb the way I think a dead person feels but my mind is still ticking over. My hands are cold. My stomach aches from the smell. A man in a mask leans over my arm and sticks in a needle. I watch the silver shine of the needle as it pierces my skin and the feeling of sharpness that comes with it is not my feeling anymore and then I am really dead.
When I wake up my mouth is full of the metal taste of blood. I try to spit it out. I am too scared to run my tongue along my teeth. My mouth has become a bloody hole. I can see myself in a mirror on one of the walls and I have shrunk. I do not look the same as I remember me. My face is white, and flat as a plate. My lips are bright red.
My mother and I stand outside the big green dental hospital and wait for my father. He pulls the grey Holden into the curb and my mother bundles me into the back. Her hands are gentle as they brush back my fringe from my forehead.
My soul feels black today as though all the times of not brushing my teeth have been lined up together for punishment.
‘You can have some ice cream when we get home,’ my mother says. My father pulls the car into the traffic. I have never been in a car alone with my parents ever. Where are my sisters and brothers? Where are the others? I hope my mother has not told them. I hope they will never know about my teeth, the holes and my bad ways. There are still four days before Friday’s confession.