“I think he knocked out my tooth,” I tell my husband, carefully feeling around my mouth with my tongue. My three-year-old had been in my arms, but he’d wanted to dance. As I was putting him down on the floor, he jumped too soon, colliding with my chin. It is the first anniversary of my mother’s death.
My father is on his way over. A casual dinner on a Tuesday night. Nothing fancy or formal, but just this once, this first time—we should be together on this day. For thirty years, he has sent his own mother flowers on the anniversary of his father’s death. Mom always thought this was morbid. She wouldn’t have wanted us to mark her day like that. So, tacos—refried beans, grated cheese, and flour tortillas. After-work chaos of a hungry kid on the hip held away from the splattering stove.
The tooth is pushed back into my mouth at a forty-five-degree angle, and wedged tight. Seeing me holding my face and my breath, my son cries that he hurt his tooth too. He can’t articulate his feelings, so they become physical pain. I am trying not to talk—everything is throbbing now—so my husband phones the emergency number on the dentist’s voice mail, trying to figure out where we can go. My son says, “I need to go to the dentist too.” So I comfort him, check his teeth, the top of his head. Turn off the stove.
Dad arrives as he always does, with his slippers and a bottle of wine in a grocery bag. He sees my hand over my mouth.
“You both go,” he says. “I’ll watch the kids.”
“I want to come with you!” my son cries as we grab our jackets.
“Lucky I was here today,” Dad says.
The nearest dentist has another emergency come in just before we arrive. So we drive north, phoning around, then east, finally ending up in a small clinic deep on the south side of the city, explaining, “My son—he jumped.” The dentist numbs me with a needle, and I think about the supper we left on the stove, whether the kids are in bed, whether I will lose my tooth. How my mother once kept my baby teeth in the drawer of her nightstand. How the feelings we can’t articulate become physical pain. How the day stands not for the moment of loss, but for the time that grief has been endured. A whole year. Or, thirty years ago. When my father announced that he’d gotten engaged, I wanted to say, Couldn’t you have waited a year? Just until that first anniversary is behind us? But now it is almost behind us.
“How old is your son?” the dentist is asking. “That was an awful lot of force,” he says, yanking the tooth back in place.
I come home with a splint, which looks and feels like the braces I had when I was twelve. The kids are asleep; Dad is sitting with a glass of wine. He hands me a small box of gourmet chocolates, tied with a ribbon. “I can’t eat them now,” I say. “Only soft things. Maybe tomorrow.” I don’t realize until after he has gone that I should have opened them anyway, that he was waiting for me to share them. My mother would have loved these. Bergamot truffle, cardamom, chili. Not a gift but an offering, a way to acknowledge the things we aren’t going to talk about. Her death, our grief, the time that has passed.
My family will not pause to acknowledge this day again. But it will come—a Wednesday, a Thursday, a work night, a pork chop night. A whole year since I last bit an apple.
In the meantime, I have a root canal. Then, for a month, try to talk without my lip slipping above the splint. And when it does, I tell the story—my son, he wanted to dance.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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