This 2020 pandemic story starts almost 13 years before on a night in Austin when I got blackout drunk, fell, and broke my top front teeth. It’s an embarrassing, uncomfortable story to tell mostly because I don’t remember it; for me the story starts waking up in the hospital the next morning.
I flew home to Pennsylvania and got those teeth fixed right away. It was my first trip to the dentist as an adult—or at least a partially-functioning adultish 26-year-old—and as I lay back and let them apply the bonding that would make my mouth look whole, I thought about what happened to me. I’m not one of those “when God closes a door he opens a window” kinda gals, and I don’t throw around “everything happens for a reason” when shit goes down. But sometimes coincidences are too large to be anything but suspicious. You get that cosmic feeling the universe is trying to tell you something.
This was not one of those times.
Oh this clearly had happened for a reason. I was making some super shitty choices in my life and they usually involved alcohol. Turns out you do not, in fact, mess with Texas.
Eventually I got better at making choices. I tucked away the story of my lost teeth, thinking of it as part of the 40-years-wandering-in-the-desert that was my 20’s.
Then the pandemic happened. My family was fine, relatively speaking, but in the beginning we were on that emotional rollercoaster everyone seemed to be riding. As the second week of uncertainty came to a close, my 4-year-old daughter crashed her scooter. Hard. I was walking both our dogs, following her, and watched in horror as she zoomed down a big hill, wobbled several times, and then slammed face-first onto the sidewalk. I knew it was going to happen as she picked up speed, yet I was powerless to stop it. Felt like my little Nora was one big metaphor for our whole society.
I found her injuries surprisingly minor. Yes, there was a big dent in her pink bike helmet with cat ears, and a line of blood appeared on the inside of her upper lip where her teeth made an impact, but otherwise she was only frightened and in pain.
So even though I rarely drank any more, I cracked open a few beers later that evening. My kids were safely in bed, and my husband and I were enjoying ourselves. The only thing bothering me were these silly acrylic nails I’d had for months. I absolutely loved wearing them, but they required regular maintenance. I was well beyond needing a trim and fill, and I didn’t know what to do. So I played. Nibble here. Pick there. One nail cracked. I bite on the crack to see what would happen.
And after 14 years, the bonding on one of my broken front teeth popped off.
I was horrified. I made some horrible, guttural sound that was satisfyingly dramatic and drew my husband’s attention away from the TV. We were watching Tiger King and now I looked like a character from the world of big cats and few teeth.
My husband couldn’t stop himself from laughing every time I talked for the next two days.
My kids were confused.
I kept having flashbacks to my past.
I’d be cooking some of the $500 worth of Costco food I bought while having a legitimate yet minor panic attack the day before the world shut down, or sorting through that hopeless bucket of socks who’ve been permanently jilted by their partners that we all seem to keep around, and suddenly I’d remember my tooth was broken. A cold wave of fresh anxiety would break over me. Like where could it come from? How was my stress well that deep?
I whined. I broke out into random crying fits, sometimes with noise and sometimes just the kind where tears silently but steadily roll down your face while you go about doing your thing.
I talked endlessly about how unhappy I was, and I felt justified because I looked like Jim Carrey’s character Lloyd in Dumb & Dumber. My nails were a mess. The kicker was that I decided to try an asymmetrical hair style earlier in the month as COVID-19 was barreling its away across the globe. A few nights in, I had a “fuck it” moment that can only break one of two ways; I took the family hair clippers to one side of my head and sheared a patch right off.
Then one morning as I sat across the table from my 4-year-old, she smiled and it looked like one of her top front teeth was grey. Or blue? I told her to brush her teeth. I watched her brush her teeth, you know, to make sure.
Turns out about 2-3 weeks after experiencing some kind of trauma, a tooth can turn bluish grey because it’s dying and flooded with blood. It had been 2-3 weeks since the scooter accident.
Everything was going to be fine. It was a baby tooth. No big deal. But the more I talked about it—telling her, telling her father, mentioning it on family Facetime—the more upset she got. She finally screamed at me “I don’t want to talk about it,” and ran away. My feisty little white-haired girl who I promised to raise to be the most empowered, badass woman the planet had ever seen, was self-conscious about her appearance. At age 4.
And I did that to her.
Me: the woman who battles sexist pigs on the regular; who owns her own business; who volunteers in political organizations designed to empower women; who runs one of those political organizations; who fought the local Democratic Party’s entrenched “leadership” until Cecil Richards gave her advice to quit; who takes on the gun lobby, publicly, as a gun-owning hunter momma herself. I am a woman who ran for local office and won. I am a woman who had a vision of her confident daughter running proudly towards a sun-drenched horizon while pregnant and deep in meditative prayer. The woman who decided the biggest bullet-point in her feminist agenda was to raise the strongest girl the world had ever seen. That women had bequeathed self-consciousness and shame to a 4 year-old.
Turns out my broken tooth was a message, and God supports my feminist agenda.
At first I took that message to be “shut up, JR,” and that seemed to help Nora, but it wasn’t the answer. Doing something destructive and then suddenly ceasing does not repair the damage you’ve done. But I wasn’t sure how to fix it.
My mom is a pretty awesome woman herself, who blazed trails that inspire me. Even she couldn’t save me from a society’s worth of messaging that says girls aren’t good enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, blah blah blah, diet industrial complex, etc, etc… I mean she tried. Like that one time I stood crying in a department store changing room because none of the pants I liked in the Junior’s section would fit, and she told me it was okay because I had good birthing hips. Turned out she was right, but 16-year-old me wouldn’t discover that until I was twice her age, so thanks, belatedly, for at least trying, Mom.
While trying to figure out how to connect with my family, I decided to practice by reaching out to just about every woman I knew via cards. I shopped on Etsy for something unique to send, and ran across pretty little purple butterflies swirling around Proverbs 31:25, “She is clothed with strength and dignity and she laughs without fear of the future.” It struck me, in the way a pleasant surprise can make your day, and I didn’t have to browse any further because I knew it was perfect.
Proverbs are all those parables right after the book of poetry that’s Psalms, and this line comes from a section titled “Description of a Worthy Woman.” It continues in verse 26 with “she opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”
It was time to open my mouth. To be kind to myself. To laugh without worry about what I looked like here and now or in the future.
I showed the neighbors my tooth when we were out for walks. I started video calls with clients by pointing it out, declaring “I’m self conscious about this, so I’m just going to call it out,” and they were amused. I put a little piece of dental wax over the gap for my Zoom calls with the local Board on which I’m an elected official. The first time I tried it, I turned my head to the side to sneeze, and my wax shot across the room and hit the window. Thank God I was on mute. It was mortifying but also hilarious. So I kept telling the story of sneezing my tooth out, laughing every time. Eventually, I was comfortable. I even got Nora to laugh with me about it. Perhaps teaching her to laugh about it is the best thing I’ve done for her as a Mom so far. Lord knows this job is hard. That’s why I needed help.
Then, just as I was feeling settled, word came down that we all had to start wearing masks. Masks! Suddenly I had an excuse to hide my tooth the very few times I was around strangers. Didn’t seem fair. I’d earned my comfort with the tooth. But I’d also heard God, loud and clear, and so I guess it was time to give myself a break.
Besides, after I get my tooth fixed, I’ll still have my choppy hair and bad nails.