Dentistry’s poet laureate
October 1, 2006
You never want to hear the words, “I have some bad news” from anyone. Especially not your dental hygienist. Even more especially not when you first walk into the dentist’s office.I hadn’t even taken my jacket off before I heard those words last week. I walked into the office for my cleaning appointment and there she was, standing by the front desk, waiting for me.”I have some bad news, Barry,” she said. I could tell by the look on her face that she meant it. I reached over and grabbed the counter to brace myself. I haven’t even opened my mouth yet: How could there be bad news already? My mind raced – Root canal? Gingivitis? Halitosis? Dental records indicate that I’m adopted?No. It was actually worse.”The dentist is on vacation,” she said. “So I won’t be able to administer nitrous oxide during your cleaning today.”The room went dark. I woke up a few minutes later to the sight of the dental staff crouched over me, fanning me with a newspaper, asking if I was OK.No, not really – but as it turned out I DID have to stabilize myself on the counter a little bit.See, for the past month I’ve been eagerly watching that entry in my computer calendar, the one that says, “DENTIST APPOINTMENT!!!!” As of a few years ago, when I discovered that my dentist will give me laughing gas during my cleaning, I’ve anticipated my dental visits with a zeal usually reserved for exotic vacations. I get a cleaning twice a year, and I’d go more often if I could.A few weeks in advance of each appointment I begin to clear out my sinuses – no dairy, no wheat – so that nothing stands between my brain and the sweet, sweet nitrous.As the days count down, I imagine myself in that dental chair, sucking down the nitrous oxide from the heavy rubber nose piece, staring blissfully into the bright light while my skilled and gentle hygienist scrapes away half a year’s worth of irregularly flossed meal residue. Ahhhh: simple, simple pleasures.The night before my visit I sit in a meditative position and make a list – a list of deep questions to ponder while in the soothing, expansive clutches of this wondrous analgesia: What is the nature of the unknowable? Is time linear? How are my days best spent on the planet? Despite my planning, I usually abandon these questions after the first three or four deep inhales, and instead just spend the next hour thinking, “Wow.”But not this morning, it seems. No, this morning I get only nitrous interruptus.”But,” I protested.”I’m really sorry,” she said, “but a doctor has to be present for nitrous oxide to be used.””But?” I countered, hoping she’d forgotten the first time I’d said it and that this time it might just work.”We can go ahead with the cleaning or you can reschedule.””But, but nineteenth century English poet laureate Robert Southey said …””I know,” my hygienist interrupted. “He said, ‘I am sure the air in heaven must be this wonder working gas of delight.’ You told us that last time. And the time before.””Could you just put a little bit in here for me,” I asked, handing her my half-empty Gatorade bottle.She stared at me for a moment, then patiently repeated my options.I was having a hard time concentrating. My day – heck, my week – had been planned around this morning of nitrous bliss, and now everything had changed. My reaction was surprising me. When I tell people that I get nitrous for a routine cleaning they laugh, thinking I’m making a joke. When I convince them that I’m serious, they look at me like I’m some kind of dope fiend. Which I’m not. Seriously, I’m not. I don’t HAVE to have nitrous. I can deal with this setback in a calm, rational and adult manner.”When does the dentist get back,” I asked.”Two weeks.””No problem,” I said, sitting down and picking up a magazine. “I’ll wait.”Award winning columnist Barry Smith appears every Monday in The Aspen Times. When he’s not waiting for a fix at his dentist’s office, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.