Today I stole Dad’s teeth


Today I took Dad to the dentist. Fourth time in as many weeks. The first three times were just the prep, getting him used to the idea. Getting him used to the dentist. Getting her used to him.

They have to take out your teeth, Dad. You’ve not been brushing them. They’re all decayed.

They were decayed. They were broken. They were 80 years old and infected and causing him a mouth full of abscesses. They were threatening his heart surgery. They were threatening his life.

His dentures no longer fit, so he didn’t bother cementing them in. They clacked about his mouth when he was eating or talking, and he pushed them out between his lips, like a horse’s, for entertainment when dinner conversation was slow. He needed new dentures, but he couldn’t get new dentures while he had broken, rotten teeth. Some teeth had to go first. Five. Five teeth had to go.

Where are we going? Dad asks for the nth time.

To the dentist. She has to take out your teeth. Remember? Are you okay?

Yes, yes, he mutters, and stares out the car window.

Where are we going? he asks as I walk him into the dentist surgery.

The dentist, Dad. She has to take out some of your teeth. Are you okay? Feeling okay?

Yes, yes. He is grey, and tired. His belt is threaded through only two loops; his fly is almost but not quite done up. He was sleeping when I arrived to pick him up, and his thin silvergrey hair tries to stand at attention in sloppy slept-in peaks across his head.

How you doin’, Barrie? the dentist trills. Young. Perky. Broad Durham accent. Compassionate eyes. A darling.

I don’t like dentists, Dad tells her.

You like Katie, I remind him.

Who’s Katie?

I’m Katie, says Katie. I’m your dentist. You can come in, too, she tells me. I’d rather wait outside. I don’t much like dentists either.

I come in, too. There’s a plastic chair in the corner, next to the radiography gown, tatty and grimy with wear.

We’re going to take out some of your teeth, Barrie, remember?

Yes, yes. Dad’s on his best behaviour. Quickly agreeable to every statement, every question. No fuss. No arguments.

She tells him what the form is for and he squints at the print. He hasn’t brought his reading glasses. I tell him again what the form’s for; it’s giving his permission for the dentist to remove some teeth. He signs the form and laboriously prints his name below it. He guesses at the date, gets it wildly wrong, and the dentist discreetly scrubs it out and writes in the correct date.

Then he lies in the chair and twitches and jerks and grips his arthritis-clawed fingers together as she pushes needle after needle after long scary needle into his gums. But he’s on his best behaviour, no fuss, no arguments. Yes, he would like to spit. No, he doesn’t need a rest.

Cow horns, she tells the hygienist. I look away as she practically climbs into his lap to wrench at a molar stubbornly clinging to its roots. Should I have reminded him more often to clean his teeth? Should I have been signing off each weekly phone call with a “Don’t forget to brush your teeth, Dad”? He protected mine throughout my childhood with occasional nagging and regular checkups. Have I betrayed that gentle loving care? Have I neglected him in the worst of ways?

All done, Barrie! That was just like a dream, they came out that easily. Well done, mate, well done.

She makes a joke about the tooth fairy and laughs, and he tries to laugh but he sort of sobs instead. His lips are so fat and dead with anaesthetic, he doesn’t feel the bloody drool sliding out of the corners of his mouth. The hygienist dabs at it solicitously. He looks at her, puzzling who she is.

I walk him out of the dentist’s, into the car, back to his room at the nursing home. An orderly bustles in with water and clucks over the drool that’s stained his shirt collar.

You been to the dentist, Barrie?

He looks at her blankly. No.

She wasn’t expecting an answer anyway. I ask her to send in a nurse.

A nurse? asks Dad. Why?

So I can give her your antibiotics, Dad, and get you some paracetamol, and order you some soup and ice cream for dinner.

I don’t want ice cream.

Okay, just the soup, then.

The nurse comes in and I relay the dentist’s instructions.

I’ll get you some ice cream, Barrie, the nurse tells him. And some soup, I remind her.

Just the ice cream will do, says Dad.

He lies down on the bed, grey in the face, gory in the mouth. He dozes a little while I watch him, waiting to make sure the paracetamol arrives. He wakes with a start. I can’t feel my mouth.

I know, Dad. You’ve been to the dentist.

The dentist? When?

Today, Dad. We’ve just come back.


She had to take out some of your teeth, Dad.

Yes, yes. He lies back down again, dozes a little more. The nurse comes in with the paracetamol.

What’s this for?

For the pain, Dad. The anaesthetic will wear off in a while, and your gums are going to hurt a bit. Just rest for a bit. We’ll get you some ice cream for dinner and then you can have an early night.

A few minutes later he struggles up again, his fingers exploring his mouth, the craters where his teeth used to be, the soaked gauze that’s been plumping out his cheek.

Where have I been? Have I been to the dentist?

Yes, Dad, this afternoon.

What for?

You had to have some teeth out, Dad, remember? Are you feeling okay? Still a bit queasy?

Teeth out?

Yes, Dad. You had five teeth out.

He tenderly fingers his empty gums again, and his eyes fill with tears. They slide out of the corners of his eyes the same as the drool slides out the corners of his mouth.

You took out my teeth.

The dentist did, Dad. You had to get them out so we can get you some new dentures.

You stole my teeth.

I’m sorry, Dad, they had to come out.

Yes, yes, he mutters, and rolls down into the bed, hunches his back on me, shudders a little.

Would you like some ice cream? the orderly asks.

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