I had an experience recently, which was an eye-opener.  Or I should say mouth-opener because it concerned a visit to the dentist.

While dental visits are not on my list of top ten earthly delights, it was the only way I could think of to get a chronically loose crown reaffixed.   All I had at my disposal was Elmer’s Glue, which is for external use only.  And I make it a policy never to tamper with warning labels.

“Well,” Dr. Painless said, “I don’t know how long we can keep doing this.  You really ought to consider an implant. Or two.  He said this as casually as if he was suggesting I purchase a scoop of ice cream, or two, and not something that was going to require root canal.  “And by the way,” he added, “when was the last time you had a full set of X-rays?”

Gee, I hadn’t exactly entered that information into my diary, so I looked at him dumbly and said “I really don’t know.” That was definitely the wrong answer.   I should have invented some specific time frame.  My failure to do so resulted in consigning my mouth to withstand the pain and suffering of having to bite down on at least a dozen pieces of film framed in cardboard stiff enough to support the roof of a small building.

The target number of X-rays was sixteen, but I informed the clinician after I had endured the twelve, that there would be no more.  I spewed this out with my jaws clenched lest she try to sneak another one in there if I actually opened my mouth to speak.

Very proud of myself for resisting, I sat in the dental chair enjoying the relief from no longer having sharp edges digging into my palate.  That is, until the dentist reentered, put the developed pictures on the light box, and turned to me with an facial expression that could not have been more serious than if he was about to announce my imminent demise.  Instead, he focused my attention on the light box, upon which were my illuminated teeth, roots and all, in various shades of black and white.

I don’t know about you, but I find looking at dental X-rays a real turnoff.  In general, I prefer to remain unacquainted with non-visible body parts.   (In fact, now that I have gotten older, I find I would rather ignore even some visible body parts.) Once, a doctor actually sent me full-color photographs showing the results of my latest colonoscopy.  Perhaps if I didn’t know what I was looking at I might have found it more aesthetically pleasing, but I doubt it.  I mean really, a nice letter telling me that everything was fine would have sufficed.

So as I stare at the skeletal images that look like something out of a horror movie, Dr. P is explaining, with the aid of a laser pointer and a professorial voice, that while my teeth are fine, my inner bones are in a tragic state.  If I don’t act immediately, I am at risk for becoming edentulous.  Several sentences later I finally figure out that “edentulous” means that one day I shall be toothless!  Well, won’t we all, if we live long enough!

He goes on to suggest an emergency appointment with a specialist.  I was to leave the realm of the dentist and enter the rarified world of the “dontist.”  (It was to be my first “dontol” experience, having been spared the need for an orthodontist when I was a child.)

Dutifully, I now sit in the plush examination chair in the plush office of the periodontist, listening to him “tsk” and “hmm” as he reviews my X-rays.  I am getting a sinking feeling that I am about to be asked to contribute financially to these fine surroundings and the half-dozen lovely female assistants moving to and fro.  He does not disappoint.

The treatment he is suggesting to prevent further destruction of that which is holding my teeth in place, plus two dental implants, comes with a hefty price tag.  This is way more than the Required Minimum Distribution from my IRA!

I need some time to think this over.  “Can you give me a minute alone with my X-rays?” I implore the good doctor.  He complies, says he understands, and will come back in five minutes.

My mind races through various pathetic scenarios: how much longer do I have before my molar gets stuck in a piece of toasted bagel, my incisor impales on a bite of  crisp, juicy apple, kernels of corn are being scraped off the cob because I can no longer safely gnaw? Wait! I think I just hit on the heart of the matter!  Maybe it is a matter of time!

The “dontist” returns and asks me if I have reached a decision.  In the tradition of my ancestors, I respond to his question with a question of my own.  “So tell me, doctor, how long do I have?” He looks perplexed.   “Before my teeth fall out,” I reply.  “Five years, ten years?”  He says he can’t tell me that with any accuracy.  He is reluctant to give me even a ball park.

“Why do you ask?” he queries.   I fire another question. “Do you know how old I am?” He looks at my chart, and answers “yes,” he has that information.  “So,” I reason, “if my teeth will last another ten years without this expensive treatment, perhaps that is good enough.  And if I agree to this expensive treatment, can you give me a guarantee of longevity?”

I knew at a glance that he thought I was being highly unreasonable.  And, of course, I was.  But I think there comes a time in one’s life when it is not inappropriate to measure the risks, discomfort, and costs of one’s non-life threatening condition, against the risks, discomfort and costs of treating the non-life threatening condition.

In the end, I agree to the dental work. And I believe it will be worth it.  Because now, in addition to the hope that one day my bachelor sons will decide to marry, outlasting my teeth has given me something else to live for!

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