Summer Essays: Tooth or Consequences

On the way to middle age and root canals.


Published:

Photo illustration by Spirala

Editor's Note: Summer essayists contemplate personal moments of disloyalty, sharing their stories that range from a failing body and objection to war to peer pressure and loss of faith.

An act of betrayal can cause hopelessness and despair. But people show amazing resilience and often overcome the temporary setbacks disloyalty leaves in its disastrous wake.

The East Bay Monthly asked East Bay writers to consider a moment of betrayal in the summer essay contest. The theme seemed to resonate well with the wordsmiths, and essayists responded by turning in moving prose about infidelity, loss, abusive relationships, inside jokes, bullying, and other topics.

The essays chosen to present in print address betrayal in wide-ranging ways, touching on the strains of a weakening body, standing up to the U.S. Marines, and making a gut decision that puts a group of friends at odds. They explore a loss of faith in a trusted adult and a careless act in wartime. They are poignant, dramatic, exciting, heartwarming, and humorous tales, and they are well-written.

Congratulations to the winning essayists, Naneen Karraker, Robert Menzimer, Stacy Appel, Patricia Young, Anna Rabkin, Flossie Lewis, and Bobbie Stein. Thanks to all the many Bay Area writers for submitting such wonderful prose—it was truly great reading. Look for our next essay contest in the winter.

This is the last of the seven winning essays:

 

Teeth are shrouded in mystery and superstition. They are a constant strain. They erupt one day and painfully push their way through our tender gums. Then they fall out ... and soon it starts all over again, until at last our mouths are full. There are years of dental appoint-ments, and cavities, and braces; crowns and root canals, and, for the unfortunate ones, the eventual loss of those pearly whites.

In a short period of time, snaggle tooth after snaggle tooth broke free from my almost 8-year-old daughter's mouth, finding their final resting place underneath her beloved pillow. The much anticipated, single dollar reward that replaced each tooth did not outweigh her yearning to know more about how the money had actually gotten there. I could tell by the kind of questions that she was beginning to ask that the day of reckoning would soon be upon me. I would be faced with the ultimate dilemma: whether to perpetuate the myth and prolong the age of innocence or come clean and suffer the consequences of my betrayal. Alas, I honorably, but stupidly, chose the latter.

I have always stressed honesty, beyond just about everything else to my children (second, perhaps, only to chocolate being a food group). So I was not at all surprised at the depths of despair and anger that shook my daughter to her very core when the truth was finally revealed. Not surprised, but unprepared for her vitriolic rant.

Like all good parents, I had celebrated the loss of my daughter's first tooth with the appropriate pomp and circumstance. I helped her clean it off and told her to put it under her pillow for the tooth fairy. And like all good parents, I tiptoed into her bedroom in the middle of the night, hoping that I could reach easily under the pillow and extract the tooth without waking the sleeping beauty. My skeptical daughter never bought the concept of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. She questioned the existence of God soon after she could talk. Yet she held tightly to her belief in the tooth fairy.

 With each tooth lost, the excitement of the morning's new-found money soon gave way to critical analysis. It didn't take long for my daughter's questions to go beyond the usual, "What do you think the tooth fairy does with the teeth?" She began trying to communicate with the elusive fairy; leaving her offerings of her own and questionnaires that she expected to be filled out. This was becoming complicated for me. What seemed an innocent incorporeal game now felt oppressive and dishonest.

I could no longer, in good conscience, pretend to be the tooth fairy if it meant making up answers to the questions left out with each tooth. So, when the time came and my daughter looked me in the eye and asked me if I was the tooth fairy, I told the truth. Clumsily, I said that I wasn't the only tooth fairy. I will not soon forget the look of profound indignation on my daughter's innocent face in the split second that it took her to process the information.

Of all people, her most trusted ally, the woman who extracted splinters without inflicting pain, the woman who baked a banana bread that could cure all ills, the one person with whom she most liked to snuggle at bedtime, the one who always told her how important it was to be honest . . . had lied to her.

I tried to justify my misdeed but struggled to explain how the tooth fairy wasn't so much a lie, but a game. That it wasn't something that I made up, that it was part of not just popular culture, but ancient cultures as well. I offered explanation after explanation, but my daughter wasn't having it. She cried and told me that she would never lie to her children and was prepared to go to school the next day and announce to the entire student body that the tooth fairy was a fraud. She couldn't stand the thought of others being duped in so cruel a manner. She told me in no uncertain terms that she would never forgive me. And I believed her. I had no doubt that my betrayal would be analyzed, ad nauseam, years from now in therapy (that I would, no doubt, have to pay for.)

It was a defining moment for both my daughter and me. The quintessential loss of innocence was not hers alone. In an instant, my daughter turned from a little girl into a regular kid. My stomach took a slight turn for the worse when it hit me that I no longer had a small child at home. My last baby was well on her way to independence, and I, incredulously, was well on my way to middle age and root canals.

Bobbie Stein is a Bay Area criminal defense and civil rights lawyer and writer. A former lecturer at the University of California's Berkeley School of Law, John F. Kennedy School of Law, and founder and director of the New College School of Law Criminal Defender Program, her articles have appeared in both national and local publications and often focus on criminal and civil justice issues.

Editor's Note: This story appears in the July edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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