I hold my seven-year-old daughter across my lap, her head tilted toward the lamp on my night table, and cradle her head in the crook of my right elbow. The light isn't quite bright enough for the task of illuminating her open mouth, which these days holds a shifting cast of teeth that are coming in and out, some wiggly, some not, many uneven, with smooth pink expanses of curved gum where missing teeth have yet to grow.
I remember when she snuggled in my arms and was soft and small, unlike this wiry bundle of muscle that bounces with life, legs churning like she's running a race on my lap. I remember when she didn't have teeth at all, and how when I kissed her soft, plump cheek her breath was sweet and milky.
I remember a time before toothbrushes.
Taking the purple plastic floss stick, I press it between her teeth, wiggle, and repeat, while she twitches and squirms. "Mom, that one hurts!" she says when I floss the tooth with a filling, the tightest spot.
"Well, sometimes it hurts a little, but it's important to do. Hold still—just two more teeth," I tell my daughter, squinting in the dim light and trying to hold her more firmly. And then—finally—we're done with both her upper and lower teeth, and it's time to hustle her down the hall and into bed.
Some parents dislike nursing, being pregnant, or changing diapers, although probably few will admit it. Others loathe their toddler awakening them at 5 a.m., eager to start the day, while some parents struggle to master car seat installation or baby slings.
Me, I can't abide the brushing, the flossing and the anti-cavity rinse, at the sink I’m past due on cleaning, let alone the repeated requests I must make to get the whole process started each morning—and each evening.
Night after night I barely have the energy to brush, floss, and rinse my teeth with hydrogen peroxide. More often than I like to admit, I skip it. Most nights, I just wish I were lying down. Lately, I've begun to fantasize about building my daughter a separate bathroom, so I don't have to look at the floss sticks spilled everywhere, the jars of my face cream exuberantly knocked over, the blobs of pink kid's toothpaste smeared on the sink's edge.
But then my husband calls. "Lily had a great check up at the dentist today," he tells me. I pause. She has no cavities, he tells me. Her teeth are healthy. Could it be? I instantly get giddy thinking about the appointments we won’t have to schedule and the dental bills we won’t have to pay.
Most important his call means that we did a stellar job with all of her brushing and flossing and rinsing. Frankly, it means we are rock star parents. When my husband gets home, we turn to each other, smiling, savoring our joy together. In quiet awe, we lean back against the pillows of our bed, grinning like idiots, the way we did the day our daughter was born, healthy and howling.
"Oh, that's so great!" I tell him as if our daughter had just cured cancer. "All our brushing and flossing and rinsing paid off! Good job!" We exchange a fist bump. No matter how many good checkups she has, the news never gets old. I suspect when she's 25 and calls to tell me she had a good dental checkup (a silly fantasy), I'll still be just as glad, as I grip the phone with my liver-spotted hand. My husband and I sit for another minute, swishing our victory around in our mouth like pink anti-cavity rinse.
Let's not overlook these quiet victories of the quotidian. Let's wipe the toothpaste blobs off of our shirts with a damp washcloth and praise ourselves for our hard fought wins. Let's enjoy the triumphs as small as a single tooth.
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