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Oct 21

Lessons on attachment, exactly like “pulling teeth”

I just had a molar extracted this week and I think that it’s about the best thing that I’ve done in years.  This tooth had been molesting me for years, or maybe longer.  I don’t know why I wanted to hold on so long but it’s been a great lesson for me.  I was planning on doing it before going to the States in November, but kept hearing the echo of my father’s voice in my head, something about “harder than pulling teeth”, which was one of the standard expressions in his repertoire,  and I just kept procrastinating.

Monday night, I brushed my teeth before bed and a little klink in the sink signaled that another piece of filling in this molar may have fallen out.  This suspicion was confirmed by that constantly roaming vigilante of the mouth, the tongue.  Well, I called up Norman, my dentista, to ask if he was going to be attending patients the next day (sometimes he goes to Guate City to buy his supplies) and he was.  He also told me that the road from Solola to Pana was going to be closed on Thursday for at least two months.  So it seemed like I was getting the dual signal to yank this spent ivory.

I’d heard that rains this year had royally trashed the road from Pana to Solola, normally a ten to fifteen minute drive over very steep terrain.   That I confirmed on the bus trip up there the next morning.  There’s one place on that route that half the road is completely gone and if old Bluebird Bill, the bus driver, misdirects his wheels just a little bit, that Guate painted ex-school bus is gonna be rolling and tumbling, and the people are going to be crying all night (morning, actually but to finish the extraction from the famous blues song) long, at least the ones that are still alive and able to cry!

Norman Sanchez has been my dentist here for years.  He wasn’t the first but he’s the last.  One guy I went to was horrible.  Maybe the attraction there was that he spoke English, but in the end that was little compensation. He told me after an examination that he was going to fill two teeth, but when he had finished and I went to pay him said he had actually done three, so I owed him more.  I thought that was a little bit funky, but not as bad as having to have one of them redone a couple of weeks later by another dentist who told me that it was not cleaned properly before it was filled.  After telling a long time resident here this story, he strongly recommended Norman to me and I never looked back.  I have been to many dentists in my life, friends of my father’s, and personal friends of mine who have been good, but Norman is by far my favorite.  He’s just got the touch!

Cata insisted that we have breakfast before we went up to Solola.  She told me that I was not going to be able to eat anything for a while after that tooth exits, so I might as well do it now.  But after getting to Pana on the boat at about 9 o’clock, it was past ten thirty when I able to get to the little waiting room in the front of Norman’s “Clinica Dental”, on the busiest street in Solola, the road to Guatemala City.

Norman does not take appointments, he takes patients.  It’s first come first served.  And that little blue room with it’s four simple wooden benches, one bare light bulb, and its out of order bathroom (it’s been out of order for all the years that I’ve been going there) was filled to standing room only that day.  There’s always people there…always.  The gente know about Norman.  Today there’s some young people, and some older, but it’s mostly women with their young children.  Guatemalan people are always accompanied for whatever they do, it seems like they never do anything alone….it’s just part of the culture.  Most likely you bring your sister or brother or your mother or a friend, but if they’re not available, you bring your kid or kids, if you have some, but if not, a niece or nephew or even the kid next door will do.  So I scan the room to try to estimate my waiting time.  It’s going to be a while, that’s for sure, but it’s impossible to tell who’s going to be sitting in the dental chair and who’s going to be observing their compañeros dental procedures.  There’s none of the obvious dental trauma trappings visible…the bandanna tied around the forehead or anybody covering their mouth with a crunched up rag.  Nobody seems to be suffering today.  And if they are suffering, nobody is letting on.  Guatemalan people are pretty stoic on this front, they have suffered a lot as a people and know how to do it without putting on a big show.  Ludwin needs some new shoes for his graduation from 6th grade so I send Cata and him to do that while I wait.  As soon as she leaves, somebody’s granny shoves over a little and I can sit.

Gracias a Dios, I have my iphone and on the Stanza app, some books that I can read.  I get that out and continue reading where I left off on Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins.  (I hate to change the subject here, but this is a great book by an even greater author….if you’ve not read Tom Robbins, you’re in for a massive treat.  I read this book, perhaps my favorite of his, years ago and just started re-reading it recently when I found it in a digital edition.  He’s famous for his similes and metaphors….stuff like “it took longer than crossing purgatory on a lawn tractor” or “the dark clouds rolled in like double parked limos at a mob funeral”.)

Now, granny and her grandson do a sliding switch on the bench so the kid can check out what I’m doing with the iphone.  He’s interested in the touch screen scrolling action, and gets his head right down in there so he can get a good look.  I’m actually considering for a moment if this kid can read English, cause his attention is glued to the display, except to look up at me once and a while to see what my reaction might be.  This is not considered rude in Guatemala.  Granny or mom does not strong arm the kid and give him the Johnny don’t bother the nice man routine.  Children are loved and tolerated.  They probably felt the kid had a good reason to be interested and if I, the only gringo in the room wasn’t going to elbow him out, nobody was.  Mom or Granny wasn’t going to get right in and oogle the screen themselves, but they were fine with the kid checking it out and if they needed to be filled in about anything, the kid would do that later.

Me, after being here for 15 years, am much more tolerant of people, especially kids, in my space.  I figured that the kid didn’t actually read English and that novelty of the touch screen scroll action would wear off eventually, and 5 minutes later, it loses his fascination.  There’s no whining from the kids, no yelling from the moms, everybody is waiting patiently in the little blue room.

Every once in a while, the black metal door to the dental office opens, people leave and the next group or individual enters, and Norman pops his head out to do a quick survey of the remaining patients.  Some people have come in after me, and at one change, Norman comes out and closes the door to the street, limiting the patients that he will see for this day and warmly greets me.

Cata and Ludwin return just as my turn to enter arrives.  It’s around noon now, and I have waited for about an hour and a half.  The room has two dental chairs, a newer one that Norman bought used a couple of years ago, and the older original one that he started with.  The compressor for running the drill and other dental tools is the construction type with the front handle and two rear wheels that is parked on the floor in front of the chairs.  Around the tops of two walls is a high shelf that displays stick puzzles of dinosaurs, horses, and other animals.

I’d been here in May and Norman had sent me to another dentist to do an x-ray of this tooth to see if it would qualify for a root canal.  Norman does not do root canals but would recommend someone in the capital who does.  The other dentist shot the x-ray, and said that I should go right away, but, like I said, I procrastinated.  This was the middle of a hard rainy season, the road condition for a 4 hour drive to the capital was always in doubt, and I was not sure that that is what I should do.  I talked to my daughter Becky about it one day back in June and she said that she had researched root canals somewhat and had a negative opinion, and that I should look into it myself more thoroughly.  I did and pretty much decided that I was going to yank it, when it was no longer tolerable.  Norman looked at the x-ray that I brought with me and pointed out that one of the roots was fractured and that a root canal would not have been worth the effort.  That made me feel pretty good; I had arrived at the correct conclusion!

Norman administered the Novocain, and while it took effect, I told him a story, that Antonio, Cata’s 80 year old father told me the other day.  He came out of his room with an old red plastic handled front end nippers in his hand, a cheap Chinese pair that masons use here to tie wire to connect re-bar in construction columns, and asked me if they were mine.  I never had a pair like that I told him.  He said he had found them there at the house a while ago and was concerned to find the owner.  I made a joke that now that they were in his possession, maybe he should start offering the service of pulling teeth.  He laughed but became serious and told me that in reality, “antes”, this is what they used to use to do this job here in Guatemala.   A person would drink a couple of 1/8’s of guaro, the local cheap corn liquor, and then submit to being held down and the local adept would work the tooth out with this crude tool.  Norman said that he still has patients that refuse to take anesthesia and that will come into his office plastered on guaro, ready for him to pull their tooth.

Well, even though I gladly welcomed the Novocain, this process was not entirely painless.  It was pretty intense.  The first heave ho broke off the top of the tooth.  “¿Ya?”, I asked.  (Is it over?)  No, not yet.  (A wisdom tooth that he pulled for me a couple of years ago was the biggest he’d ever pulled.)  So he had to dig in a bit and pull out the root in two sections because of that fracture.  But he did it quickly and with dexterity, and it was done soon, and Norman packed the hole with some toweling type material and asked me to bite down on that, and removed my bib.

Within minutes of that tooth being out of my mouth, I began to feel wonderful.  He showed me the tooth and it was horrible.  The inside of the broken off top was brown, rotten, and smelly.  I shuttered to think about swallowing saliva for years that had mixed with that.  There was some pain from the operation, but I was being overwhelmed by the bliss of having that thing gone.  When I was back in San Marcos, I looked up tooth extraction prices on the internet and found that they could be anywhere form $130 to $300.  He charged me five bucks.

I took one ibuprofen when I left the office, and felt no residual pain.  The next day, I began to think about the attachment that I had to this tooth.  Hey, this was my tooth and I did not want to give it up.  But, what is really mine here and what is it that I am not going to eventually have to give up?  Good question, uh?  Back in my Guru days, we used to have a song that we sang, a line from which goes, “Angers, Desires, Attachments, rob me of my Heavenly Life.”  The message in this case is pretty strong and direct.  I was holding onto something that was rotten to the core, was giving me daily pain for years, and yet wanted to keep “just a little bit longer”.  Why?  Because it’s mine or to avoid pain?  There comes a time that we will need to let go of everything that we think is ours…ready or not,…like it or not.  It’s sure nice to have a little positively reinforced practice for this eventuality.

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