I always wondered why my final memories of childhood in the UK all involved trips to the dentist. Recently, however, my mother explained why: we were about to move to Canada - a barbaric country that had no National Health Plan. True enough, during my first few years here there was no medical coverage at all.Then in the 60s came a universal health care plan. This was great except for one omission: teeth. For some reason, dental care was never covered. The other end of the digestive tract, the modern anus, was and is totally covered. If you need help with your hemorrhoids the state will pay. In fact, if by some weird circumstance you have a tooth in your rectum, it could, I'm sure, be removed or treated under the current system.
Any poor soul unfortunate enough to need a tooth in the mouth fixed must come up with the cash or suffer.
When I was young, my teeth were mostly looked after by students at U of T's school of dentistry. This ended when an irate instructor, despite my extended screams, managed to drill a deep hole into my lip, an incident that let me with a blue tattoo-like scar to this day.
Then, in young adulthood, my tooth care reverted once again to me, and I turned again to the school of dentistry while I saved money for travelling. I got as far as Amman, Jordan, before I made a final fatal suck at a temporary filling put in just before my departure by a zealous dental student. There are few things you stop doing so fast as sucking on a bad tooth when the filling comes out.
Raw nerves in there are so intense, you think you've probably tugged at or pulled down a little bit of brain. The tooth rotted, ached and blackened during the rest of my travels. When I returned to Canada I couldn't afford the recommended root canal, so I had the painful tooth removed entirely. This was stage one in what I have come to call the "domino theory of teeth."
After that, the adjacent tooth began to deteriorate. This seemed logical. When one tooth is gone, the others have to pick up the slack. Bicuspid number two went with a popcorn kernel crack. I became very careful with popcorn after that, believe me. I tongued all sustenance carefully, hoping to suss out crunchy bits everywhere.
The subsequent years were punctuated by a relentless series of pops, snaps and screams. When tooth three went with a CRACK at a literary gathering - an unforeseen olive pit - it was so loud that several authors looked up with annoyance from book signings.
Of course, not each break fractures the little chamber where the nerve sits. Sometimes you can break off a cusp - and it will hurt. It will be freakishly painful but the nerve will still be secure. But inevitably, cuspid by cuspid in the domino theory of teeth, one by one the teeth fall away toward the back of the throat, leaving jagged pieces, fine slender slivers of enamel just waiting for a careless chomp to crumble further.
Psychologically, none of this is very heartening, I can tell you. Fortunately, psychotherapy is covered in our health plan, so I can get treatment for my terrible condition, "fear of breaking teeth," but not for the teeth themselves.
The final act in the domino theory of teeth is that part where the last tooth falls into the brain and your sharp thoughts, your grinding, incising thoughts, start being careful, too. Eventually, you lose your bite; your skull is out of kilter. My own period of greatest personal and mental instability coincided with the loss of these teeth.
This is not so unusual. The domino theory of teeth can unfortunately also be the domino fact of health. For all systems are joined. A solid link has been found, for instance, between tooth decay and heart disease. Dentists and their assistants are in the front line of preventative medicine when it comes to keeping tabs on the general health of the insides of a person's mouth. If anything strange pops up in there, they are usually the first to detect it. This can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.
This makes me wish that in the upcoming federal election somebody might please take up the cause of our people's teeth. And I don't say that at all selfishly. My teeth are on their way to good health now, thanks in part to my wife's health plan. But thanks even more to painter Mendelson Joe.
Mr. Joe, as I call him, offered to pay any dentist twice his fee in "Joe art" to get my teeth fixed. Anyone who knows this great artist's work will understand why Dr. David Burman took him up on the offer. So while Burman measured and scraped and primped my back tooth stumps in preparation for their big day, Mr. Joe applied his gentle brush to scenes of Emsdale, in the rustic north. I like to think he painted me new teeth.
The strange thing is, the new teeth seem to have improved my vision. I feel like my whole skull is back in balance. I see the world with greater clarity. It makes me want to bite something.