It happens the moment I open my mouth.
It’s not quite astonishment. More a kind of wondering that borders on disbelief. It’s like the person across from me has a flashing neon sign across their foreheads that allows me to read their most private thoughts. And those thoughts are usually along the lines of “Why are YOU wearing braces?” The “you” in that question comes embedded with the inference of ageism: Why would a woman of your age wear braces? Phrased differently, it might be something along the lines of “Why bother now?”
Sometimes, if we are good enough friends, they will ask their questions outright and couch it in the very lovely, “But I always thought you already had a beautiful smile.” Which while sweet was also very true. I already had a nice smile, so why the braces at my age?
It’s a perfectly reasonable question. Instead of getting braces, shouldn’t I be investing in a boob job or a facelift? Wouldn’t those serve a woman of sixty better? I need both, it’s true.
But I’m kind of partial to my teeth and I’d like to keep as many of them as possible over the next few decades.
I have known since I was in my mid-fifties that braces were in my future. I wish I had done it then. I did not wear braces as a teen. I didn’t need them then. But in my 40s I lost a baby tooth that was essential for structure. The reason I was able to keep my baby tooth for so long is because there was nothing behind it. No permanent replacement. So for a decade, I wore this fake tooth. I’d pop it in and pop it out. A tooth falsie, if you will. My daughter Shelby swore she was going to write a short story one day about Mama’s falsie tooth.
I didn’t mind. I like my falsie. It worked and it was convenient. Unfortunately, because it wasn’t a permanent thing, all the teeth around it began caving in on it, crowding out the space where a tooth should go. Eventually, that entire side of my mouth began a slow collapse.
And that’s how come I needed the braces. Not to fix a smile gone awry, but to fix the very real problem of chewing and swallowing without choking to death, Mama Cass style. The first time I nearly choked was on the campus of UNC in Raleigh in 2009. I had a headache for days after that brief lapse in oxygen to the brain that brought two waiters rushing to my table.
So I’ve been reluctantly wearing the braces a year now. I would have preferred the boob job, but wearing braces has given me a gift I had not envisioned. Teens are the sweetest bunch of people about the braces. The minute I smile and they see the braces, they give me that glance – the one that allows me admittance into their secret club where insecurities harbor. I immediately become like them.
I’ve had in-depth discussions with numerous teens this year about the trauma of braces. Wearing them has given me a whole new appreciation for teens, especially on the days after an ortho appointment. I understand why they might be crabby or want to be left alone or not eat anything. I get it. Even after a year of this, I have not gotten used to eating out with anyone other than my family. Everything gets hung up in the braces. And who among us wants to be with an elderly person picking their teeth? (I’ve lost 25 pounds but not from an inability to eat out. That came through intentional working at it. It’s taken me half a year to lose what I lovingly refer to as “the Trump Twenty” – the 20 pounds I gained from election stress. As if there wasn’t already reason enough to loathe this man who would be president.)
My ortho – Merrill Orthodontics in East Wenatchee, Wa. – has been wonderful. They worked with me on my schedule, seeing how I live a good half-day drive from them. They didn’t bat an eye the day I got stuck with my youngest grandson, who lives in Wenatchee. I just put Baby-A on my lap and he sat there mesmerized while they replaced the bands in my braces. I won’t be surprised if Baby-A grows up to become a dentist. He found the entire thing far more fascinating than the average toddler might.
Dr. Merrill was sensitive to my concerns from the get-go. When I told him in March that I’d really like to be out of the braces by the time book tour rolled around, he made no promises, but allowed that I could probably handle more discomfort in the short term than others. So he worked with me toward accomplishing that goal and, happily, I go in Monday to have the braces removed. I hear there’s a bell involved.
There is still work to be done to repair some of the damage done by a baby tooth gone rogue, but I am looking forward to eating apples and corn on the cob again. I have learned to love sushi, which is a relatively easy thing to eat with braces, and yogurt has become a go-to preference over ice cream. Just a better health choice that has nothing to do with braces, really.
It’s funny how an alteration to one’s body can make you uber-sensitive to such changes in others. Prior to this year, I don’t think I noticed much when other adults wore braces. Now I notice them everywhere. Usually, they are in their 40s. I have not yet met anyone as old as me wearing them. Perhaps, that’s because they were smart enough to realize the value of wearing them long before they reached my age, heh?
I admit that one of my underlying worries about wearing braces was what would happen if I died while they were on. Would it have been worth the pain and effort and expense? Would that mean going to heaven with the braces still on? Spending an eternity waiting for to see the results?
I doubt these are the things teens worry about. They probably worry about more practical matters – like making-out.
It’s true, wearing braces takes the fun out of kissing, especially the more .. um… how do I phrase this… amorous sort of kissing couples do. Tim and I celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary this Saturday. There will be lots of laughing involved – going to Trevor Noah’s show in Eugene to celebrate – but not as much kissing as that first anniversary.
I’m looking forward to our 40th next year. The plan includes a trip to Europe, Italy maybe. And bread. Crusty bread that I will be able to bite into with confidence, thanks to all those wonderful professionals like Dr. Thomas Merrill and Dr. Kevin Johnson (my dentist), who believe that age is just a number and you are only as old as your teeth.
So do right by your smile. Get those braces if you need them. The sooner the better.
Afterall, none of us are ever too old to improve upon what the good Lord gave us.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND: A novel. Order your copy now from MERCER UNIVERSITY PRESS or wherever good books are sold.