“My tooth hurts.”
Her aches and pains are varied and frequent these days. I’ve fallen into the trap of treating them all like requests for attention and, lately, I’ve ignored more than I’ve indulged. Motherhood has been too many simultaneous inputs for some time now. Insufficient time, excessive demands, more needs than I can handle in one, single moment. You need to prioritize in times like these. But I’d promised myself that I’d respond more. That I’d take them, take her, more seriously.
“Let me take a look.” She points out the location of the pain – a big tooth on the bottom, that I’m sure has a name but this is not my specialty. I apply pressure to it with my finger. It doesn’t budge.
“Maybe you just got something stuck. Try rinsing your mouth and let’s brush before school.”
She’s satisfied. She gets dressed and slides on her shoes and buckles herself into the car. We go about our day.
“My tooth still hurts.”
She is brushing her teeth while I scrub inside her brother’s mouth with a silicone brush that fits over my index finger. It’s been a day, there have been other aches and pains and needs and I’d all but forgotten, as I do most days, what had happened at breakfast.
I hand the finger brush over to the boy and he jams it inside his mouth with glee. I peer at her teeth.
“Your gum looks a little red.” I tell her. “Maybe you just brushed too hard. Be gentle on it tonight and for a day or two. But it should start to calm down after that.”
She nods. Satisfied again. And, honestly, I’m satisfied too. It doesn’t really take all that much time to investigate her pain. It’s simpler than I often think it will be. It just takes a little extra effort. Oh yeah, I can do this.
They’re sitting in our makeshift reading book and quietly paging through books after dinner. I grab a magazine and join them, stretched out on my stomach on the carpet square between them. In addition to responding to her pain more, I’m also working on being more present, slowing down to be with them more. Spring, man. It brings out good things in me. She’s telling me about the board book she’s looking at. It’s way below her reading level. Sometimes I’ll push her to push herself. Sometimes I want to hang onto board books too.
Eventually she puts her book down and stretches out on the floor next to me. Side-by-side, we gaze at pretty things on glossy pages. M walks in and sits among us and the conversation turns to grown-up things, big things, exciting things, and crazy things. But we’re here, in the soft light of the setting sun in our cozy playroom, our newly arranged reading nook. I’m sitting on a rainbow-colored square of carpet with our babies happy and quiet and nearby. I’m comfortable in this moment. I like this moment.
“My tooth still hurts.” She’s moved on from books and magazines to whirl aimlessly about us as we talk.
And suddenly I remember. At dinner I had noticed something strange in her mouth. An extra space. As if something had moved. I roll over onto my back, my legs stretched out in front of me.
“Let me take a look.” I say. She sits on my lap, facing me. I go straight for the tooth, not the one that hurt to but the one next to it that seemed askew. I touch it, gently, and it moves.
I recoil my hand quickly and gasp. I feel my eyes stretch wide, a nostalgic smile creeps across my face.
“What!?!” she shrieks with a smile and a sparkle that tell me she knows exactly what.
“No way!” M and I share the look. The one we share whenever the heartbreaking speed of childhood suddenly jumps up to smack us in the face. She’s dancing around but I scoop her up in my arms. This moment feels different than all of the other marks of childhood and growth and time slipping right through my fingers. It’s tangible. Her tooth moves and soon it will move out and there will be a hole. I carry her around the house for the rest of the night, trying to reconcile the weight of her in my arms with the vision of her I have when I close my eyes, all baby fat and short spiky hair, long before teeth came in. M carries her to bed. We let her skip brushing her teeth.
“What does the tooth fairy do with all those teeth?” She’s munching on a slice of pizza. I forget about her tooth until she brings it up, which she does, often. But in between I move on with life. This is both how I survive the realization that time is passing like lightening and also the reason it feels so fast most of the time.
“Maybe she builds a castle with them. A tooth castle.” M chimes in. I smile and gaze out the window, trying to picture such a thing, as one does.
“Yeah!” she agrees. “And she just needs one more tooth to make it complete!”
Oh, my girl. Don’t ever change.
“Oowwwww!!!!!” Breakfast again and she’s yelling through fingers cupped over her mouth, a piece of waffle dangles between them. The tooth is still in there but blood is pooling around it. And she’s crying. I touch the tooth, again, so gently. It’s in there but only by a thread. And she’s crying.
This is one of the smaller moments of parenthood that I am unprepared for, but unprepared I am all the same. Do I pull it out? Encourage her to? Leave it in there and send her to school? I don’t so much decide as just continue to move forward, ushering her upstairs to get dressed, brushing her hair. Pigtails. All pigtails these day. Mama’s choice. I drop her off with a mouth full of teeth but I warn her teacher. Today could be the day.
Surprise!! That’s what the subject of the email says. Inside is a photo, my girl smiling to reveal a gap front and center on the bottom. The caption reads: She pulled it out!!
Later I’ll hear the story. How she did it on their way outside for recess. How it didn’t hurt at all. There will be talk of the tooth fairy and excited smiles sent to grandparents and aunts and uncles and big news shared with friends.
I’ll never feel ready. For her to grow up. For the next big thing to happen, the next great marking of a threshold passed through. I’ll never want to rush into these moments. But I hope that I’ll always take the time. To listen to her, to respond. To give her the attention. To wait for her to be ready and then, to follow her lead.