I had my last cleaning with my favourite dental hygienist today. Let’s call her Mary K, or Mary for short. I’ve been getting my teeth cleaned by Mary for almost 20 years. 20 years! Just think about that. Pretty much my whole adult life. It’s probably close to 50 visits. One’s relationship with one’s hygienist is often a one-way one, isn’t it? Mary would chat to me about her life and what-not and my responses were often just grunts or slight head nods (slight, you can’t move too much with such a full mouth). I feel like she knows next to nothing about me, despite all I’ve gleaned from her through my time with her. Our relationship (if you can call it that) couldn’t be more lopsided, and yet over the years I’ve come to look forward to, if not actually enjoy, my visits with her.
Before Mary, I had a different dentist. (Some astute readers will recall past posts about my oral woes. I think I had a VHS called Oral Woahs!, but that’s another story). Ever since childhood, I’ve had a fear/phobia of the dentist. I also was told that I had an overactive “gag reflex” and I even threw up on a hygienist one time, and I hated the gritty gross polishing and those awful “fluoride” mouth pieces with which you had to stand over a sink and let miserably drip for what felt like an eternity. In short, I hated the dentist.
So when I was assigned Mary in the mid 1990’s, I had low expectations. But you know what? Mary was pretty great. I told her first off that coming to the dentist was one of the worst things in my mind and just so she was aware I gagged a lot. She said that we could have a little code where I put my hand on her hand when she was working and that would mean she’d take her hands out of my mouth and I could have a little break. I thought this was great, and actually used this code from time to time over the years (not so much recently, but it was nice to know we had that understanding.)
One time, I was getting ready to go to the dentist, and the phone rang. It was Mary! She just called to say that she was running a bit behind and she knew how nervous I got before the dentist and that I might as well wait at home instead of fussing and fretting in the waiting room. I was so grateful for that little kindness. I’ve never forgotten it.
She was also a great intermediary between me and the dentist, who would often say the same things to me “Teeth look good, the gums are inflamed though. You need to floss more.” After the dentist left, she would whisper to me in a conspiratorial tone. “Don’t listen to him. I see your gums more than he does, and I can see improvement. You still need to floss more, though.” I appreciated that little bit of encouragement and coaching. In more recent years, after I developed that “pocket” along my lower right side, Mary was expert in cleaning it and giving me advice as to how to clean it better at home. A small group of my friends and I have an informal flossing meme (#flosswatch2013) which was a great help in remembering to floss on a daily basis. I almost told Mary about it, but I didn’t want her to think I was weird.
Mary saw me through my aimless 20’s and when I got married and my wife was looking for a new dentist, I recommended my office. “The dentist is okay but the hygienist is really great, and really in an hour appointment, who do you spend the most time with?”. So my wife started going there, and so does our daughter. Mary is multigenerational! She was a constant presence throughout my university days and now my “working life” for the past ten years.
When I started going to see her, I was going barely once a year. I knew the recommended interval was six months, but I couldn’t face that. With Mary’s encouragement, I slowly began to increase the frequency of my appointment to every six months at first, and now to every four months. Cynically, I think that I go every four months because my insurance covers it, but Mary tells me, “You’re just one of those lucky people who have more plaque and bacteria build up and could use with more frequent visits” and I kind of believe her.
Over the years, I may have only had a couple of hours’ worth of actual conversation time with her, but you can learn a lot if you just pay attention. For example, I knew she got married when the picture of her dog was replaced by a picture of some guy and her (and the dog!) on her side table. A few years later, it was just the dog again and I knew that the relationship was over. She didn’t need to tell me, and we never really talked about it directly, but I knew not to ask her about her husband after the ol’ picture switch. Over the years that one dog’s picture changed, and then a new dog was on her desk. Again, I deduced that her original dog had died and she had a new one in her life. Over the years I’ve gleaned that she likes golfing, loves dogs, and during the whole time I’ve had her as a hygienist, was studying to be something else. First: a dentist, and later on: French Studies to become a professor, so I had known for a long time that my working relationship with Mary would eventually end, but when the events of the past year unfolded in five-minute conversations every 4 months or so, it was still difficult to accept.
It started almost a year ago. I was in for my October visit and I asked about her summer. She had travelled to Quebec to practice her French (as she had for a number of previous summers) and met a man at a bed and breakfast who was travelling with his adult daughter. They were visiting from France. They were about to go into Northern Quebec, and Mary sat down with them and gave them some pointers as to what to see, where to go, etc. After the trip, the man emailed her to say how much fun he and his daughter had and that if she were ever to come to Europe he would return the favour and show her around. The correspondence continued and I learned at that October visit that she was going the very next week to Grenoble for a holiday and to spend some time with this fellow bed and breakfaster at his villa. I wished her a Bon Voyage and said I’d see her in February.
In February, I got updated on the situation. Well! What a difference four months can make. The trip went smashingly well and Mary told me, “We fell in love”, and he asked her to marry him! Holy cow! I was so happy for her, knowing (deducing) that she had been single for so long and that this terribly romantic situation (handsome stranger in a bed and breakfast! villa in Grenoble! marriage proposals!) was almost too good to be true, but that she deserved to be happy. We all deserve to be happy, I think. Yes? But my happiness was tempered with the sudden reality that this guy lived in France, and soon so would Mary. So like most things in life, you’ve got a dash of bitter with the sweet. But my happiness for her outweighed my selfish sadness, if only by a little. When I got home from my appointment and my wife asked me how it went, I talked more about Mary’s exciting news than I did about my inflamed gums, because really, what’s more interesting? My wife’s reaction? “Chernobyl? That’s TERRIBLE!”
In June, I received further details. The wedding was to happen in September in France, and my October appointment would be my last with Mary. (Well at least I had one more appointment with her! I thought.) She planned to come back home and wrap up her life here (job, house, friends, school etc) and move to France permanently in December.
The summer flew by, and the final day came. Everything was as it was. She shuffled out of her room to collect me with a smile. Her slightly rounded shoulders and sheepish grin, as if to say, “I know you hate this, but we’ll get through it.” I did hate it, she was right, but I hated the fact that this would be my last time with her more. The appointment started as it always did, with a little chat. She asked if I had any special concerns, and like always, I did not. I asked her how things were going, and she said the wedding was lovely and that everything was moving forward. Her house was sold, and she and her new husband have bought a place just about 15 minutes outside of Grenoble. I tried to impress her with my geographical knowledge.
“I understand they held the Olympics there once.”
“Yes! In ’68. It was the year Nancy Greene won the gold in skiing for Canada”.
And that was the extent of my geographical knowledge of Grenoble.
The rest of the appointment went well. I didn’t have to use our “hand code” even once, and after the dentist told me my teeth looked fine but my gums were inflamed, Mary and I just exchanged a glance and we both smiled.
The saddest part of the appointment was making the next one.
“Um, your next appointment will be in Feb. Do you want to make it now? Do you have any preferences?”
I wanted to say something cheesy like “No one will live up to the way you’ve treated me over the years, Mary, and I wish you didn’t have to move away but I am also so very happy for you at the same time” but all I could manage was “No preferences.”
“Okay, I’ll put you with Sam. I think you’ll like him. He’s really nice and gentle.”
HOLD. THE. PHONE. Him? Mary assigned me to a male hygienist? A male-genist, as it very much were? Why does this give me pause? I suppose dudes can be hygienists just as much as dudes can be nurses or even librarians, but I’ve never had a man before. I wonder if I will like it? It’s actually kind of brilliant, because it will be such a shift for me, maybe I won’t be doing so many comparisons. We’ll see. So she handed me my appointment card and walked me out to the front desk. The “Mary box” was unticked. “Sam” gets that dubious distinction from now on. I wonder if Sam will be cool with a “hand code”? Will Sam ever think to call me when he gets backed up? Will this next relationship last for 20 years too? Impossible to say.
I thanked Mary once again for all the years of looking after me. I went in for a hug, and it was kind of one of those awkward sideways half hugs, but it was still nice, and I think that was okay. I mean, she’s had her hands down my throat for almost 20 years, so a little hug goodbye was probably well within society’s norms, right? I think it was fine, and maybe even weird if we didn’t hug. I mean, COME ON. Twenty years!
A friend once told me that she wasn’t good at letting go. I think she actually said, “We don’t let go very easily in our family”, which actually was kind of comforting to me. It meant that once you were “absorbed” as a friend, it took a lot to harm or sever that friendship. I thought of these words as I walked back to my car. The whole “not letting go” easily, and I thought about sending a facebook request to Mary. Just to keep in touch, you know, in case I ever happen to be in Grenoble, but maybe that’s a bad idea. Maybe I just need to let go and move on. I haven’t decided either way.
I held it all together until I got back to the car. I looked at that appointment card one more time and I sort of lost it. I’m not ashamed to say that I had a good strong (but brief! Brief, people!) cry over another ending, another change, another loss, even if it ultimately meant good things. I felt a bit better after that cry (don’t we all?)
Good bye, Mary. (Or should I say “Au Revoir”?) Thanks again for looking after this old silly for so many years and making my dentist visits bearable, if not ever enjoyable. You will be missed. I will stay vigilent with my #flosswatch, will try to remember not to feel too bad about my inflamed gums, and maybe one day, if I am ever passing through Grenoble, I’ll look you up and have a visit, and maybe, for the first time in almost 20 years, I can answer you with more than a grunt and a nod.