The pediatric dentist we go to is great; nevertheless, when I told MJ yesterday that it was time to go to her second-ever teeth cleaning appointment, she was pretty terrified. Who can blame her? Nobody in their right mind looks forward to the dentist — oops! Except for my husband, who, given a choice between a full-body massage and an hour of intensive tooth scaling, will choose the latter every time. This exceedingly strange exception notwithstanding, it’s safe to say that MJ was only feeling what we all do when faced with the prospect of the dentist’s chair.
To cheer her up I told her that, when we were done, we would go to the toy store; there’s a lovely one directly across the street. There, we would pick out a small plastic animal to add to her collection of “creatures.” This would be the second time we did this. Last time — after her very first teeth-cleaning — I was so proud of her that she scored a veritable toy bonanza: a plastic zebra, a farm animals floor puzzle, and an absurdly small rubber pig (that she plays with in the tub; miraculously, it has not yet found its way down the drain. I call it “Lucky.”) This time, though, I told her we’d only be getting one thing. After all, she was an old pro.
Myra-Jean wanted to sit on my lap for the cleaning, so I climbed into the chair first. She got up next, then Christine, the hygienist, reclined the chair. A lot. We both lay flatter and flatter, until I was no more than a human mattress. I wrapped my arms around MJ’s fear-stiffened body and whispered encouragement as Christine scrubbed her teeth with a little motorized spinner. She was done in about ten minutes. Piece of cake! MJ even got cherry toothpaste. They had more flavors to choose from than a Baskin Robbins.
I explained to MJ that we were almost done. The doctor was just going to come and check for cavities. “Which you won’t have. You’re a good brusher.” I said this with more confidence than I felt. We hadn’t been flossing her. Too stressful.
When the dentist strode in Myra-Jean turned her head away.
“Hi! How are you today?” he asked. His teeth, I noticed, were fantastically white. Perk of the job.
Myra-Jean stared fixedly at a big bear propped in the corner of the room. I couldn’t blame her. He was totally cute. Still, a dentist mustn’t be ignored.
“Sweetie, can you answer, please?”
MJ turned her head slowly toward him. “Hi,” she said hopelessly, as if to her executioner.
Dr. Joe smiled encouragingly. “This is gonna be quick and easy. I’m just going to count your teeth with this little guy –” he held up the customary Medieval-looking tool — “then give you some tooth vitamins. Can you say ‘ah’ for me?”
You have to understand: We’re not allowed to utter the words “say ‘ah'” to MJ at home. It reminds her of the dentist. When we say it she gets really upset. So, when we brush her teeth, we find other approaches: “Open wide!” “Teeth apart!” “Big mouth!” “Gaping maw!”
To hear Dr. Joe say this to her, then, and to hear her respond with the most pitiful, terror-stricken, high-pitched, resigned-to-misery “aaaah?” imaginable? Just heart-breaking.
Staring hard at the bear in the corner I muttered to myself: “She’ll be fine. She’ll be fine. She’ll be fine.”
And she was. Totally fine. No cavities, and an overbite that — although the doctor described it as dramatic — I am apparently not supposed to worry about for many years.
Whoo! We went to the toy store.
MJ spent a long, long time reviewing her choices. There were as many varieties of plastic animals as there are free-trade coffees at Trader Joes. I saw a coyote I liked, and a very life-like red panda. Myra-Jean fondled a rooster, hefted an okapi, considered a large alligator.
“Remember I said small,” I cautioned.
MJ continued her deliberations. I decided to give her some space. I needed a birthday present.
“I’ll be over here,” I called, as I crossed to the other side of the store.
MJ, stroking a gorilla, ignored me completely.
I was at the counter getting stuff wrapped when MJ strode over, tugged at my arm, and said “I chose.”
I looked down. Clutched in her hand was… a starfish? About three inches across, it was orange, lifelike, and — I’m sorry –completely boring.
“Really?” I said. “You didn’t go with the llama? Or the raccoon? He was so cute! Or the –“
“Mama.” She clutched the echinoderm to her chest and looked at me firmly. “I want him.”
I told myself to stop being a jerk. So she likes the starfish? We were at the aquarium last week. She petted one just like this. Of course she’s attracted.
“OK!” I said brightly to the man and woman behind the counter. “Add one starfish and ring me up, please. How much is, er, it?”
The young man checked. “Five ninety-nine.”
Holy costly crustacean! “Really?”
“Look at all the detail,” offered the older woman helpfully.
Detail? It didn’t even have a face. Aren’t they supposed to have a beak?
“You know,” I said, turning to my daughter, “Mr. Starfish has no eyes or mouth. He’s going to be awfully hard to anthropomorphize.”
She stared at me blankly. So did the counter-people. Whatever. I was proud of her courage today. If she wanted an overpriced sea-cipher who was I to stop her?
“Never mind, sweetie. I like him. Let’s bring him home.”
And we did. Myra-Jean clutched him the whole ride back. Along with her new penguin toothbrush and the hippo stamp and pinwheel the dentist’s office gave her. Let it never be said there’s no swag in children’s medicine.
“What are you going to name him? I asked MJ over my shoulder.
“Just starfish,” she said without missing a beat.
When we got home we all had lunch. Then MJ, her clean teeth, and starfish went to bed.
I called Mike to tell him about his brave daughter. Then I told him about her new creature.
“I think it’s awesome!” he said.
“But it has no face,” I offered, weakly.
“It doesn’t need one,” he said. “Are you kidding? She already sleeps with a scrub-brush and a digital clock!”
This is true. Our child is weird. And wonderful. And totally amazing.
“Maybe because she’d just been at the dentist she wanted something with no mouth so it wouldn’t have any teeth.”
“Sure. Or maybe she just wanted a starfish.”
He was right. It was just perfect. For now. And so were her teeth. Everything was just fine.
I decided to go take a nap. The morning had been stressful. Collapsing into bed, I sank into a dark, fast ocean of sleep. Cuddled with my faceless pillow, of course.