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Location: Midwest, United States

I floss daily, brush after every meal, and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Death and Toothpaste

Lately O. has been working on getting a basic handle on the concept of death. He’s known the word “die” for awhile, but only as it concerns birds and ladybugs. But recently he wondered where his adolescent cousin JD’s mama is, and I had to tell him that she died when JD was a little boy. The idea that a kid’s mama could die has understandably made the whole concept of death more pressing for O.

O. and I spend a lot of time with JD. As it happens, I’m the person who keeps track of his dental appointments and takes him to the dentist, often with O. in tow. A cavity-prone kid who brushes his teeth reluctantly, JD gets a lot of cavities, and I must cop to the fact that I use him as a cautionary example to O. sometimes when he fusses about brushing his teeth. O. often asks me to re-explain why JD’s mama died, and lately he almost always wants to talk about her with JD when we see him. (Luckily, JD doesn’t mind talking to O. about this somber subject. He’s very open about his ongoing grief over the loss of his mom.) But recently he made a weird jump of logic and began to worry about JD. The conversation went like this: “Mama, why does JD get cavities?” “Because sometimes he doesn’t brush his teeth when he should.” “Is JD gonna die soon from getting cavities?” “No, honey, people don’t die from cavities.” (At least I’ve never heard of such a case. Correct me if I’m overlooking some sensationalist dental story in recent news.)

For some reason, O’s concern about JD’s cavities and their potentially lethal effect really struck me. It was funny at the time because the idea is so improbable. But it’s also quite poignant in all sorts of ways. The very fact that my little boy is thinking so much about death and trying to wrap his mind around losing someone he loves breaks my heart. I think it must for every parent, seeing their baby come in contact with the most difficult reality of human life. And the fact that right now it seems to him like any number of relatively harmless things might plausibly cause death, and he feels like he needs to ask to find out, that’s really sad. It’s also just sweet that he’s worried about JD's wellbeing.

It occurs to me that, while I know JD won’t die of his cavities, I worry quite a bit about the deplorable state of his teeth, and feel helpless that I can’t do more to keep them healthy. His dad (my uncle by marriage) comes from a whole different culture than me, oral-hygiene-wise, and it’s hard to get him on board with my campaign to keep JD’s teeth healthy when his own teeth are literally falling out of his head from neglect. So, while O’s question about cavities and death seems funny and out of left field, I wonder if he might not be picking up on a deeper concern I have about JD and his teeth.

But all I can do is continue to bug JD to brush often and well, and keep taking him for regular visits to the dentist. And, of course, witness the good news of the faith of oral hygiene to my own kid.


Blogger Wendy Boucher said...

Here's what I can't figure out. The English have historically bad dental hygiene by reputation and even my best friend, a Brit, makes fun of British teeth. So why was it in the news lately that the English as a group are a whole lot healthier than Americans? It's very suprising, don't you think?

12:41 PM  
Blogger E. said...

Here's my theory: Americans as a group tend to be more concerned with aspects of "health" that are cosmetic rather than actually healthy. There are a lot of skinny people in this country who are not healthy. Keeping your teeth in good shape has serious cosmetic implications. Hence, many Americans take care of their teeth.

Obviously I'm pulling this straight out of my ass, and there are some holes in my theory. Americans are getting more and more obese... Then again, I also have a theory that the obesity epidemic in the US is partly a result of our national fear of fat.

Really, my guess about British teeth is that they probably aren't that much worse than American teeth overall, they're just not as straight. Orthodontia is like a religion here, and not that common over there. It's a bit harder to take care of gnarly crooked teeth, but they're not inherently less healthy, just not as ready-for-the-camera pretty.

No one walks as little as Americans, and that's probably part of the reason we're less healthy than Brits (if that is indeed the case). We need to get out of our cars, off our asses, and walk. Or bike.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Dawn said...

My husband is a radical flosser. I was not hearing this ....until about a year ago when I - by Osmosis - became a radical flosser too. We carry floss around like a damn shield. I floss on my way to work - after lunch and on the drive home.

Keep witnessing - it will sink in.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I wonder, are the Commies still flouridating our water here in the U.S.?

Anyway, tell the boy not to worry--the fact that Shane MacGowan still lives is proof that rotting teeth are not a leading cause of sudden death. Here's a photo from better days you can show him.

7:23 PM  
Anonymous Andi said...

E! Just popped in to tell you I've been lurking around when I'm pumping or feeding the baby, and while you've never made either one of us laugh milk out of our noses, we both find you Immensely Entertaining. Much love to you, O., and the Old Man

Andi & co

7:34 PM  
Blogger E. said...

Dawn, radical flossing rocks my world. I love that you floss in the car. Now I know I am not alone.

Jeff, thanks for the scary Shane McGowan picture. I still love the Pogues, but damn Shane, that's some nasty shit! I guess it's hard to remember to brush when your bedtime ritual consists of blacking out in a drunken stupor.

Hey Andi! Thanks for delurking! Great to hear from you. Hope the baby is doing well, and the whole crew.

8:24 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

My kids are a little obsessed with it, too. They are convinced that everyone dies at exactly 100 years old. Er...I try to tell them it's not true, but they refuse to listen. And then they say things like, "Grandma and Grandpa are going to die soon, right? Because 70 is close to 100." They don't know how hard that is for me to hear, and how true and untrue it is at the same time. argh.

LOVED the toy-let story below!!! My boys went through a phase where they thought flushing large toys down the toilet was super fun. We had to replace the toilet, and a couple of days later they did it again.

8:13 AM  
Blogger E. said...

That would be hard to hear. (It's another one of those that has a certain funny aspect, but really it's not funny, it's so so sobering.) I reassure O. that most people don't die 'til they're old, and he hasn't gone down the "are Grandma and Grandpa old?" road yet. I could honestly tell him that none of his grandparents are really old, but that kind of begs the question. There are so many aspects of and truths about death I don't even feel able to fully handle myself, much less trying to explain them to my little guy.

5:00 PM  

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