A dental emergency sent me down Memory Lane last week.
Thirty years after my father capped my upper left wisdom tooth with a gold crown, the crown fell victim to an old-fashioned gumdrop candy, the kind Daddy and I sometimes enjoyed together. Dental crowns generally last 10 to 15 years if well-maintained; 20 years or more isn’t exactly rare, but definitely better than average. My father was a better than average dentist.
In the two decades since he passed away, many of my father’s former patients have shared fond memories and anecdotes with me. At least a half dozen have told me that their new dentists, upon first examination, remarked, “Your previous dentist was obviously very good,” or words to that effect. My mouth is just one of hundreds that still hold testimony to my father’s handiwork.
The crown fell out on a weekend, and as I considered whether to wait until Monday morning to call my dentist, memories of a few late-night emergencies came to mind. I remembered the time one of Daddy’s friends called from a neighborhood bar, asking to pick up the key to his office. “Buddy (not his real name) has a bad toothache, but I can take care of it if you let me use your tools. We don’t want to bother you.” Of course, Daddy got out of bed, met the tipsy pair at his office, and pulled the tooth himself.
My father was known and loved for his chairside manner as well as his proficiency, due to his habit of softly singing or humming while he worked. Countless people have told me, “I miss your dad. My current dentist doesn’t sing to me.” Some of his patients would even make requests as they settled into the reclining chair, including one woman who loved to hear him sing “Lemon Tree” because he reminded her of Trini Lopez. My favorites were the old standards like “Blue Heaven” and the Japanese folk songs he and Mom would play on their ukuleles at home.
After a recent “Sharing Mana’o” about Daddy, I received a warm email from a patient who took her young son for his first dental visit in 1970. “Your dad was patient, cheerful and kind to him every time we went. He treated my son as if he was the most important person in the room. Every single visit, my son ran ahead of me and said he wanted to be ‘first’ to see and be treated by Dr. Yogi.
“After all these years, I remember those visits with your dad. No one really liked to go to the ‘dentist’ but he was special. And years later when I went to another dentist, he asked me who did my dental work. I proudly said it was your dad. I was told . . . ‘he did a great job.’ “
Daddy did have a wonderful way with children and rarely showed impatience or irritation, even with the most difficult kids. He always said it was Tommy (again, not his real name) who taught him the importance of tolerance.
Tommy was probably the most rambunctious young patient of my dad’s entire career. We could hear him approaching as his mother dragged him, kicking and shrieking, down the hallway of the medical building toward our door. In the office, he would throw tantrums until summoned to the chair by my father, whose gentle but firm manner usually calmed Tommy down.
Once, when asked to open his mouth, Tommy said he had to go to the bathroom. My dad lifted him off the chair and he ran to the restroom, returning after a few minutes. As soon as he was reseated, he asked to go again. And again. Daddy obliged, figuring the 7-year-old was just extra nervous that day. After three trips to the bathroom, when Tommy said he had to go yet again, exasperation got the better of my father and he said, “Then you’ll have to pee right here because I’m not letting you out of the chair until we’re done.”
Smirking, the kid unzipped his pants and did just that, even managing to get some on my dumbfounded dad. After that day, Daddy always gave his young patients the benefit of the doubt. And Tommy, perhaps feeling as though he had won the game, never again used the bathroom as an excuse and actually became a pretty compliant patient. I hope his new dentist appreciates the groundwork my father laid.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.