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Ravibala Shenoy

Strong Teeth

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Mr. G entered the house through the garage door. His wife was sitting at the kitchen table watching a report on Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on TV.

“What happened?” she asked. All week, Mr. G had complained of a toothache in the right molar, “Dentist no good?”

Under his breath he murmured, “He said my teeth are so bad that soon I will have to get them pulled.”

The next day his wife made an appointment for Mr. G with another dentist.

The new dentist told him, “Don’t worry, we will save them but you will have to work at it.”

Mr. G was a self-made man. He met challenges head on and overcame them with discipline and self-control. Mr. G began to brush and floss his teeth twice a day and gargled with mouthwash after each brushing. He went regularly for his cleanings. Within six months, the dentist displayed a picture of him on the wall as his most “improved” patient. Mr. G was extremely proud.

Even though Mr. G was not quite fifty, age was catching up with him. First it was a hernia. Soon it was a strangulated hernia on the other side. Then some years later, there was a return of the first hernia. He had begun to go bald on the crown of his head. The remaining horseshoe of hair had begun to gray already in his late thirties.

Because heart attacks ran in the family, he went for a stress test, which he flunked. Mr. G was more accustomed to acing tests than flunking them. After the angiogram, the cardiologist refused to release him. He had quadruple bypass surgery. Tubes were coming from everywhere as he lay in the ICU. But he survived. Meticulously, he exercised, ate one square of dark chocolate and drank a glass of red wine.

Soon he was bustling about more energetically than before. Now the only reminder of the surgery was the crucifix-shaped scar on his chest. Mrs. G remarked, “To me, you look more like a battle-scarred veteran than a mathematician!”

Years passed, he began to cough, although Mr. G had never smoked. The X-ray showed a dark spot on the lung, a spot that grew bigger in six months. The pulmonologist said it was lung disease and it was terminal. Mr. G. googled the disease and learned that he had one to five years, max. The disease was idiopathic. The word infuriated him: it was like being sentenced for a crime he did not know he had committed.

He took all his medications systematically, even the ones that made him nauseous, counting them out from his lift chair recliner. His days were filled with doctor and hospital visits. He carried a portable oxygen cylinder and exercised at the health club.

As his illness progressed, he needed a wheelchair and a woolen cap on his head to keep out the cold. He pushed an aluminum walker for exercise. No matter what the state of his health, Mr. G took care of his teeth, changing to milder toothpaste and an alcohol-free mouthwash.

Soon the oxygen cylinder was replaced by a concentrator that hummed in his bedroom. It was attached to a cannula that ended up his nostrils like transparent fangs. Sometimes when a noise woke him from a nap, he looked around warily and thought   was he in the afterlife?

The X-ray showed lungs blackened like a used furnace filter. Something was hardening the alveoli. By this time Mrs. G had engaged the services of two caregivers who got him ready for the day and ready for bed at night. He reminded them to bring his toothbrush and floss to his recliner

After a telephone argument with the manufacturer of an expensive drug, he had a mild stroke. But he survived.

One evening when he blew his nose the tissue had blood. Blood bubbled out like two waterfalls and puddled on the floor. The paramedics carried him down the stairs into the waiting ambulance. Outside, it was raining, lightning zigzagged and thunder crashed. The trees tossed crazily in the wind, and water gurgled in the gutter. The ambulance careened through flooded streets to the ER.

The next morning, he dutifully counted his steps as he pushed an aluminum walker in the hallway outside his hospital room while a physical therapist looked on.

Back home and on his recliner, he stared at the TV screen. Impassively, he watched sports, a special on the Mueller Report, news about gunshots, terrorists, accidents, and ruminated on the irony of young men not wishing to live while he was gasping for every breath.

“You look very tired today,” the caregiver said one night. “Let’s skip the teeth brushing.”

“No, never!” said Mr. G.

So she pulled the table on wheels towards him. He brushed his teeth as he had done every morning and evening, and spat into the kidney shaped bowl, then swirled and spat out the mouthwash and wiped his face.

He closed his eyes and images flitted in his mind’s eye: He was a boy of five, alone with a lantern, keeping guard outside the cowshed while his mother milked the cows, a gold medalist at twenty; he remembered the stamina and strength of his body at forty.

Later that night, he asked his wife to bring him the hand mirror. He held it and, turning his head first one way then the other, he examined his teeth. They were still standing like upright soldiers, one had fallen, rolled off the battlefield painlessly with no blood, no fuss. A light flickered in his eyes. “Remember that old dentist?” He said to his wife. “The one who said I would lose…”

But the exertion of speaking sent Mr. G into a violent fit of coughing. Exhausted, he rested his head against the pillows. The memory brought a smile on his face. He couldn’t raise his hand, but he had the expression of a man punching the air with his fist in triumph.

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