The Smile

I have the world's worst mouth. No, really. If I were a horse and you had to check my teeth before you chose to associate with me, I'd be put out to pasture before I finished saying, "Ahhhh." Or whatever it is that horses say when undergoing a dental exam.

It all began when, as a little girl, I sat in a dentist's office and was told that my teeth issues would be "an albatross around my neck" for my entire life. After I looked up that literary reference, I was pretty sure that this was not good news for my future.

Many years and thousands of hours, thousands of dollars, multiple surgeries and procedures later, I'd like to go back and tell that accurate (albeit insensitive) doctor what a prophet he was.  And ask him for a winning lottery number. Except I couldn't afford the plane trip. I have yet another dental procedure to pay for.

A few weeks ago, I was informed that a new operation was on the table, so to speak. It would be painful enough to require general anesthesia and necessary enough to schedule quickly. Calendars were cleared and prescriptions were filled. Estimates for cost were given, but followed by the caveat that, hey, this estimate was the worst case scenario estimate. And did they mention that it was merely an estimate? For the worst cast scenario?

Until it wasn't. Until the love and compassion that is known in these parts as Medical Insurance Coverage decided that they would cover the thousands of dollars necessary to cover the surgery.

Well. I lit up my phone with emoji-laden texts to friends who, exactly as I'd hoped, joined their voices (or at least their own appropriately-angry emojis) in chorus over the injustice of it all. They stood in cyberspace solidarity with me over just how wronged I had been. Didn't the insurance company realize that TEETH were a necessity?

A few hours later, as I pulled down the dust-clouded road toward my home, still fuming and crying over the stupidity of it all, still listing each family expense I needed to be spending thousands of dollars upon, still mourning the loss of the next vacation I'd never get to take, I stopped to open my mailbox and retrieve the pile of bills and credit card offers to throw away.

And then I saw it. It was a postcard from our friends working in a tiny village in Guatemala. It was one photo, one image, one close-up view. On that card I saw the smiling face of a man, his cheeks bunched up in joy, his eyes crinkled in laughter.

His smile cracked wide in happiness, revealing something in its openness: He only possessed a few teeth.

My gut constricted as I looked down at the pixelated image. I drove home and propped it up on my desk.

I'd like to say I immediately lost my outrage and sadness at my perceived injustice, but I'm apparently, while not good at growing strong teeth, quite gifted at maintaining my hard-headed and stubborn tendencies. But every day, as his nearly toothless grin watched me work and read and type and continue to fume, I could not ignore the truth that kept circling my brain like an annoying pest.

A mouthful of teeth is not a necessity.

A denied dental surgery is not an injustice.

In my privileged, middle-class white woman mindset, I had built my anger and sadness upon an false foundation. In the places where I work and socialize and spend 28 hours of each day running errands for my people, a perfectly-straight, brightly-bleached smile is considered normal.

In the sheltered cocoon of the life I live, teeth have a rubric: They must be lined up in orthodontically-precise rows. They must certainly not have a gap between them, unless you are a celebrity and it is randomly decided that your particular gap meets the subjective definition of "charming." They must not be too big or too small or too pointy or too...toothy.

Now, I get it. I am spending, each month, hours of my work week paying for metal torture devices to rest upon my children's smiles and correct the genetic malformations of their bites. I know there are practical, medical reasons to fix one's canines and molars and incisors. But I also know, from my brief sojourn of living in another country, that it is possible to exist without teeth. It is possible not only to exist but to smile and to eat and to laugh without self-consciousness.

I know teeth are only one example of the ways our brains quietly, insidiously lull our souls into entitlement. We deserve piping hot coffee with precisely four squirts of mocha sauce and you'd-better-believe-that-milk-needs-to-be-skim. We deserve our steak cooked exactly right, and we will let the waiter know if it's not. We deserve wifi that streams our favorite show without buffering. We deserve a grocery-store experience where we don't have to wait more than 5 minutes in line. If we are ever required to stand longer than that, the sighs and eye-rolls and passive aggressive time-checking on our phone should do the trick of letting the cashier know exactly how important and busy we are.

If I'm honest, I not only live this way, I want to keep living this way. I want to be comfortable and safe and I want my smile to be something people admire in photos. I want my friends to agree with my First World Complaints when I text them my frustrations. But, if I do choose these things, I also choose to shut my mind and my heart, to limit them to my Very North American Standards. I choose to close my ears to the sounds of empty bellies of children in my very own county. I choose to turn away from the woman in front of me at the store, slowly counting out quarters to buy her baby a can of formula, 1. Wishing instead that she would hurry it up and 2. Quietly judging her purchase.

Instead, I can be grateful for the income my family makes that allowed my dental surgery to even be considered an option.

Instead, I can be grateful for the giant metal screw that now rests in my jaw, ready to be adjusted in yet another procedure.

I can be grateful for this one beautiful word that I take for granted in my life: Options. I can celebrate my choices without condemnation, without guilt, without feeling shame that I have those options. But in my choosing, I cannot forget that others will never even entertain such choices, that these very choices are not my right in life but are, in fact, privileges.

And in my choosing, I can decide to live in a way that opens my heart and my wallet to give others options as well. I can practice gratitude for the way others have provided those options for me, and I can pay them forward to others, creating a world where medical procedures and full bellies and clean water and a mouthful of working teeth aren't limited to my circle of the world.

I can be grateful for this sweet man I'll never meet. May his open-hearted smile not just move us, but may it change us as well.