Once upon a time there was a mouth. Inside this mouth were teeth. They were small at first but they got the job done. They grew like tender shoots from the ground. Like branches containing the pattern of an older tree. They grew until they grew as far as they could and they pulled up their roots and moved out. They didn’t go anywhere, they were just lost. Gone to become fossils worth about seventy five cents if appropriately staged underneath the pillow of the boy that owned them. A boy like me. They went to the secret place parents collect the cast-off relics of their children. Buried in bathroom drawers, cabinets or make-up boxes with the excess hair from brushes and skin cells forced out of their gentrified neighborhoods. They were pushed out to make room in the mouth for larger teeth. Stronger teeth, more mature and permanent. This is all according to the design. In Yahweh’s world everything has to die in order to make life possible. By the time we are 20 years old every cell in our bodies have been replaced at least once, many of them multiple times. If something in our bodies refuses to die it becomes a cancer for the life around it. So, this loss of teeth is natural and necessary. The new tooth will gradually fill the pit left by the old tooth… except when it doesn’t. Like it did in my mouth.
When two of my babies left they were not replaced by new stronger, mature, permanent ones. When they fell they left two holes. Holes in a small mouth in a small head. Like open graves waiting to be filled. But in Yahweh’s world every hole is destined to be filled. And everyone who looked at these holes knew that somehow - me, my parents, a dentist. These adult people with grown up teeth in their mouths spent a lot of time thinking and talking about what to do with the holes in my mouth. They talked about how much money it would take to fill these holes that for unknown reasons were left empty. They ultimately decided that the solution would be found in machinery and furniture. Tiny machinery that would brace my teeth and move them slowly over a matter of years with brackets and wires into a finer organization. After the space was made, tiny furniture would be placed in my mouth to create the illusion of strong, mature, permanent teeth. There in the space where there was a hole that tragically would not be filled any other way.
The miracle is that it worked. Through the sacrifice and patience of my parents who spent a lot of money and a lot of time investing in this project. After ten years of investing, a bridge was built in my mouth. A bridge that extend over the holes with metal and ceramic teeth. Smooth teeth. Teeth that refracted light the same way my real teeth did. They were the same color and shape as the others, the difference only known by me. These teeth gave me a smile and a face. This face gave me a story (or perhaps changed my existing story.) Still everything Yahweh’s world is meant to die in order to make space for new life, and I was certainly not gentle on my new teeth. Even though I new how expensive they were and I was aware of the sacrifice that made them possible I couldn’t stop myself from using them to open packages and chew on ice. You could say I had also come to believe they were my real teeth. I was irresponsible with my teeth and over time the bonds that tethered them to my mouth eroded and they also fell like the wax wings Icarus’ father gave him. However this time, I had grown. This was no longer my parents project but mine. I was ashamed by how I could no longer keep my parents teeth in my mouth. I couldn’t afford to repair them and I couldn’t handle the pain of losing them. Without this bridge in place the other teeth would break their fences and try and fill the holes them selves. Plus this bridge gave me a face that I identified with. A face that identified me.
A lot of my identity is put in my mouth.
I use my mouth to make a living because in my mouth is a voice and I use my voice to sing music and tell stories and say words about God. I use my face like an instrument and like most thing’s Yahweh's world it just so happens that in this life you often have to depend on your most precarious and vulnerable features. These are the conditions that make mercy most likely to appear. Mercy appeared in my case in the form of denture cream. Yes, Fixodent to be exact, (the one with “scope” flavor is my personal favorite) It’s the number one dentist recommended brand I will have you know. I started using it just so I could get through a performance without losing them and for eighteen years now, I have been smearing a small dot of pink paste on the backs of my dead tooth-bridge to keep my smile intact.
It has been a lot of work to hold onto these teeth. One fell out while I was swimming and I found it glimmering in the bottom of pool after searching for half an hour. One fell into the sink drain at a strangers home while on tour in Boston.
Yes, I dismantled the drain trap and found it.
Yes, I cleaned it thoroughly.
Yes, eventually I put it back in my mouth.
One tooth even escaped my mouth in the middle of the final scene of a production I was in of The Miracle Worker. Fortunately, a beautiful actress saw it on the table and hid it in a napkin and returned it to me. One of the perks of performing with your wife I suppose.
Over the years, I have made peace with my dead teeth and my empty holes. I don’t wear them at home and often I won’t wear them even when I go out. I’m thankful for the the story they have given. I’m grateful for the smile and the face they have given me. They have often been an inspiration for prayer and reflection. Still, I always put them in when I perform. In fact, two weeks ago I was gluing them in behind the sound board at one of the church locations where I work. My friend Russell noted what I was doing and said “You know I can do something about that.” In that moment I remembered that Russell used to be a dentist before he became a financial advisor. I had heard he and his brother (also a dentist) occasionally donate their time and money to help people with dental procedures that they cannot afford. Then, Russell offered to set up a free consultation with a dentist friend who would be willing to donate his time and Russell would donate all the lab equipment and they would give me new teeth. Strong, mature, permanent teeth. Teeth that wouldn’t need glue. It was too good for me to believe. It was the kind of kindness that brings desire and vulnerability to surface. It was an extravagant offer. I said yes to the offer and this week I went to a consultation. At this point it looks like it’s gonna happen! It hasn’t happened yet though, so I thought it would be the perfect time to write this post. Here at the moment when my fake teeth are still loose and wobbling in my mouth like I’m six-years old again. I had to tell this story now to remind you and remind myself that in Yahweh’s world every hole is meant to be filled but not with teeth, real or fake. Holes are not meant to be covered by bridges either, although we can be grateful for bridges too, after all, bridges take us to new places in our story.
Holes… holes are meant to be filled with grace.