Mothers’ Teeth

I have bad teeth. I’ve lost count of the number of root canals. Last week, I had another tooth extracted, following a failed root canal. I wasn’t aware that root canals could succeed or fail, but when tooth pain continues after it’s been drilled and the pulp extracted and the antibiotics administered, your root canal has failed, and you are sent to the next level of concerned dental professional. Every new dentist asks about my dental history. I have developed a short-hand explanation 

“I have six children,” I say, “and after every pregnancy, I’ve had at least one, but up to four root canals. I brush my teeth three times a day; I floss twice daily, at least. I haven’t missed a six-month dental check-up in over fifteen years.” 

The dentists usually say something along the lines of “Oh,” followed by an awkward pause. They doubt my truthfulness. Their distrust lingers in the exam room, heavy like the lead apron on my chest while I open wide and bite down on the cardboard film for a few more pictures. 

I understand their doubt. My mouth makes no sense. How one can claim excellent oral hygiene and still have a mouth which looks like mine on an x-ray? Instead of the neat lines of teeth, grayish and soft, with healthy roots in strong bones, like the x-rays my kids have, I am a hodge-podge of white splotches, fillings and crowns and fake teeth, drilled into re-grown bone. The x-rays are invariably ugly and puzzling, but my gums are glowingly, beautifully healthy. They don’t bleed when poked or prodded. They’re not receding. There is no evidence of gum disease, even if dentists have stopped counting the number of my cavities. Instead, they count the number of teeth which haven’t yet required work. We’re down to the single digits. One of my former dentists told me the gums are the true indicator of oral hygiene. It was shortly after my last child was born, and I was feeling particularly demoralized, undergoing another round of root canal, cavities, and a bonus abscess within a cracked root.

“Your gums look great,” he said. “Teeth, you know, a lot of that is genetic and environmental. Did you have fluoridated water where you grew up?” He paused. “Your gums, though, their health mostly depends on how well you take care of them and you’re doing a very good job.”

***

Several years ago, I visited a woman for whom I babysat throughout my teen years. She had birthed ten children, though one died in infancy. Mrs. Lawson was a woman I considered strong and wise, having raised a huge family, by all appearances successfully, with minimal chaos and maximum order. She was intelligent, organized, and an enigma. We sat down to tea, and she asked me when I’d last seen a dentist. It was recently, in fact. At that point, I had three children, still within spitting distance of normal family size. My third was about one, and with his babyhood, I’d needed two teeth worked over. Mrs. Lawson advised me in her vaguely Southern drawl that I needed to be careful with my teeth.

“Having so many babies can be difficult on your teeth,” she said. “My dentist told me your body will draw out the calcium needed to build your child from your teeth. She said repeated pregnancies will leave your teeth weak and inclined to decay. Be sure to keep up your dental care.”

It was motherly advice, kindly given, by a woman who had watched me grow. But I was surprised and puzzled by her words. Not so much because of the advice itself – though I wondered how she presumed to know I would be having “so many babies,” even as time proved her correct–but because she said specifically and unapologetically that her dentist was a woman. I could not fathom that Mrs. Frederick P. Lawson would choose a female medical professional for any reason whatever.

The Lawsons lived in the suburban Maryland neighborhood where I grew up. They were something of an oddity in the late 1980s and early 90s. Aggressively evangelical, Mr. Lawson was a successful real estate broker, who peppered most conversations with, ‘Praise Jesus!’ even when talking to our Jewish next-door neighbors. The Lawson kids, dressed in matching floral dresses, would canvas the neighborhood, delivering handsomely packaged apple butter, and spreading the good news of Lawson Realty. The agency sold the most houses in Daisy Ridge, our tract subdivision of Rockville. Eventually, Mr. Lawson built the largest independent real estate brokerage in Montgomery County. No one was sure how they were so successful, or how their smiling kids in their Laura Ashley dresses and well-crafted bows were so well behaved, all “Yes, ma’ams,” and “No, sirs” to the neighbors with whom they spoke as they stood next to their father in his seersucker suit and fedora hat. 

For reasons I still don’t know, Mrs. Lawson took a liking to me when I was around thirteen. She was pregnant with her fourth child, and she called our house seeking my sixteen-year-old sister. Catherine had babysat for them once or twice, but she did not like the experience.

“They’re weird,” she said. “It’s too quiet. And the kids never complain, even about the chores.” 

When I told her Catherine wasn’t in, she asked me, “How old are you?”

“Twelve,” I replied, “but I’ll be thirteen next month.”

“Do you ever babysit?” she asked. There was a note of fluster in her voice that I remember even all these years later.

“I watch my brother a lot,” I said.

“And how old is he?” 

“He’s four,” I said.

“Would you be willing to babysit Friday night?” she asked. “From five till around nine. We’re just a few blocks from your house.”

I told her I’d have to ask my mother. My mother was surprised at the request. She and Freddy Lawson had a history of several tense exchanges during my parents’ house hunt. When we first moved to Daisy Ridge, we lived in a rental house owned by another military family. Our lease ended, but my father’s tour at the Pentagon was re-upped so we weren’t moving away. My mother decided Daisy Ridge was the neighborhood in which she wanted to plant her roots, regardless of my father’s army career. She undertook the effort of finding a house herself, without a realtor. She knew which houses were coming on the market before anyone else. Mom-friends throughout the subdivision fed her information. At a neighborhood gathering, Mr. Lawson, in a tone mixing awe with disdain, told my mother, “I guess you’re good at this; maybe I should hire you.” At the time, Lawson Realty had no women agents, but here he was admitting he might make an exception for her. Her inside knowledge and his disdain had been confirmed the year before Mrs. Lawson called me, when my parents purchased our house directly from neighbors with neither benefit of nor commission for any realtors at all.

I don’t remember whether my mother talked to Mrs. Lawson, or if she had any qualms about her twelve-year-old watching three children, aged seven, four, and two, but she allowed me to go. Over the next five years or so, I became the regular Friday night babysitter for the Lawsons. By that time, they had six children, a parallel I note now, but do not comprehend.

Elin, the oldest child, was so responsible that she barely needed a babysitter. She could cook dinner, change diapers, and tell me where to put the teacups. She also told me in the same helpful voice where the ‘switches’ were stored, thin plastic rods that were kept in a hallway closet, but explained they were “only for our parents to use.” Amelia, second in line, was spunky, funny, prone to singing silly songs she made up on the fly, with goofy dances to accompany. Megan, the third, was sweet, wide-eyed, astonishingly cute. Freddy, Jr., Ryan, and Christine, who was a tiny newborn the last time I babysat for the family, followed in the good order and discipline over ensuing years.

Within Daisy Ridge, there was a mystique about being the Lawson’s babysitter. A giant, homeschooling, intensely Evangelical family, dressed in matching wholesome clothing? People wanted to know more.

When asked how their family functioned on the inside, I usually responded, “I don’t know.” Because I didn’t know. There was something different about them, but I couldn’t put the pieces together into a clear story. It was normal enough except when it wasn’t. I was 13, 14, 15, 16. I played with the kids, fed them, made up rhymes and played imaginative games. We did dishes, folded laundry, cleaned up toys. Normal stuff. And then not: knowing I wasn’t a member of their church, the kids called me “a papist” and asked me why I worshipped Mary instead of accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I took the question as curiosity, like I was an anthropological find for them. Mrs. Lawson praised my organization and diligence. She liked that the kids behaved for me, that I rarely gave bad reports at the end of the night. “She’s a good example,” she’d tell the girls in my hearing. “Studious and industrious and godly.” I wasn’t sure the state of my soul, but I maintained the illusion. I craved her approval.

The girls found my last name hilarious, an endless joke.

“Elizabeth Mariani,” Amelia would say, stating my name simply.

“Yes,” I’d respond.

Then she’d shout, “Elizabeth, Marry-Ahnni!”

And I would say, “But who is Ahnni, and I’m way too young to marry him, anyway.”

Elin, Amelia, and Megan would collapse into giggles, repeating the command at random intervals when they were supposed to be going to sleep, starting the laughter train all over again. I’d rub their backs, singing lullabies till they dropped off.

One night, after a particularly raucous Mariani session, as the girls were finally dropping off to sleep, Elin, asked me, “Elizabeth, when you get married in real life, can we go to your wedding?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Do you promise?” she asked.

“I promise,” I replied.

I was probably fifteen. I didn’t mind making the promise, but I told them I had to finish high school first. And college. And probably graduate school, too.

“We’re not going to college,” Elin told me one day. “Girls don’t need to know stuff like that in order to run a family in a godly way.”

“But it’s always helpful to know stuff,” I replied.

“That’s what the worldly claim,” said Elin. She spoke with the authority of a wizened grandmother. “But education in girls becomes defrauding, like immodest bathing suits. Ladies become domineering, and that’s not how God intended for them to live. It makes everyone unhappy.” She was ten at the time.

I didn’t ask further questions. I had come to understand the rules of the Lawson house: the man was the head of the household, and the woman was the heart of the home. In their kitchen, Mr. Lawson had a cabinet filled with treats, just for him. The kids weren’t allowed in there; Mrs. Lawson wouldn’t consider eating from it. Because Mr. Lawson was the man, he deserved respect and his favorite cookie whenever he wanted it.

In households like my own, the cookie bin was a free-for-all; it was loud and chaotic, and people fussed and argued and fretted over wants and needs, in a constant fluster of papist disorder.

***

The summer after I started babysitting for the Lawsons, I attended a summer camp for creative writing. From my earliest memory, I wanted to be a writer, first Laura Ingalls as portrayed in the 70s television show, then Anne with an ‘e’ Shirley of Anne of Green Gables. I wanted the life of imagination, but the desire struck me as dangerous to admit. It felt too vulnerable, the risk of failure too great. The camp instructor, a middle-aged man who told a room full of 13-year-olds at lunch about his ongoing divorce and mounting bills, wrote “Fine” and “OK” on my work. It was the same kind of bland praise my parents muttered in passing, if they praised me at all. It was a stark contrast to Mrs. Lawson’s effusive and specific approbation: “studious and industrious and godly.” I felt warm in her presence.

At our tea, all those years later, Mrs. Lawson said to me, “Isn’t it is the most wonderful thing, to devote your life to raising a brood for Christ?”

***

I have tried to be that mother, the one whose life is joyfully fulfilled. Keeping up with laundry and groceries, cleaning scrapes and hurt feelings, managing school projects, and soccer schedules. For a while, I was good at it, at least I think I was. When the children were young, when the sheer number of little people and their physical needs demanded my whole attention, I juggled and coordinated, curating their tiny lives, developing their brains and bodies with zoo trips, libraries, playgrounds. They ate balanced meals. Their birthday cakes, baked from scratch, were elaborate creations, shaped into dinosaurs and lady bugs, decorated with frostings made bright and cheerful with colored gels purchased from the baker’s supply shop.

I didn’t choose to be this sort of mother because of religious fervor. It just seemed the way to be: after spending the first 26 years of my life achieving in school, in work, in marriage, it felt like relief to pour myself into caring. Loving my children to the point that I would cut myself open for any one of them, bleed myself dry, lop off a limb or a brain and all my wants and needs, if only it would make them healthy, whole, at peace. This was my impulse.

Until it wasn’t. Until I began to see the slip ups, the mistakes, the ways I failed the children, missed their needs. My oldest was bullied for a year, taunted and rejected throughout the first and second grades because he wasn’t allowed to play the video games the other boys in his tiny class played. I missed it entirely. It wasn’t until his sweet, six-year-old-self refused to go to school one morning that I became aware that something might be wrong. And even then, it was my husband who saw a problem and got him to talk. Ten years later, on the cusp of manhood, that experience still shapes his character. You wouldn’t know it to meet him now. He is healthy, athletic, has friends, but I see it in his humor. He is funny, quick-witted and dry, but it’s the humor of someone who’s known hurt he couldn’t comprehend.

I am present and devoted, but it’s not enough because there is never enough in this kind of mothering project. I am too invested in #5’s life. #6 needs more attention. #1 needs more guidance. #2 needs to more balance in her life. #3 cannot cope with conflict. #4 seems to be doing okay at the moment, which means she’s overlooked, until (God forbid) she has a crisis and the attention deck gets reshuffled.

 ***

Shortly before the latest tooth decided to rot from my head, I decided to switch dentists. In normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a big deal. People switch dentists and doctors all the time, for all sorts of reasons. The problem, however, was that Louisa, the now-former dentist, was also my friend. I told her my decision via text. This isn’t as cowardly as it seems. Our friendship was conducted almost entirely over text. We occasionally met for coffee or to run-walk-chat with other mothers. Otherwise, we did everything over text: coordinated carpools, swapped jokes and recipes, offered advice and support. A full friendship, conducted and ended through the blue blurbs of iMessage.

Louisa was first person I befriended when we moved to the area. She was almost a godsend. With my history, I needed a dentist in a new place, and there she was. Our kids were in the same grades. They went to the same school. We attended the same church. Our husbands were both physicians, working for the same university system. Petite, elfin, with wild, frizzy hair, she seemed welcoming and funny. She introduced me to her friends, invited me into the running group she started. We read the same books, discussed the same articles. She seemed like a long-lost sister, sympathetic and caring. At some point, little bits of information, shared in the confidence of friendship, turned into subtle insults, launched when least expected. I barely noticed at first, frequently excused them.

The first direct affront I remember occurred just over two years after we’d met: “Lucy [her daughter] asked me what you do,” Louisa texted me one afternoon, “She said, ‘All the girls’ moms do something… Emily’s mom is an accountant, Lily’s mom does computer stuff; you’re a dentist, but what does Maeve’s mom do?’”

“I didn’t want to tell her that you’re just a mom,” Louisa continued, “So I told her you’re a writer, since you did take that class.”

“I’m not a writer,” I replied. “I’d like to be, maybe. but I’m not there.”

“But I don’t want her to know that being just a mom is an option,” she replied, “so she’s going to think you’re a writer.”

Another morning, she texted me asking what I planned to feed my family for dinner that evening. “I’m out of ideas the kids will eat,” she wrote. “Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am not actually a stay-at-home mom, even though my kids’ lives are basically identical to kids with moms who stay home. It’s just too much to keep up this pace—full time mom and full time professional.”

This became the crux of our friendship, a contest in competitive mothering. Who was better? Whose kids were smarter? More athletic? Whose kids were going to be more successful, win more prizes, get into better schools, make more money, influence more people?

I gloried in the competitive game. I suspect I maintained the friendship because I was confident I would win. She was obsessed with her children’s grades, checking them multiple times per day on the school system’s mobile app. “You should get it,” she texted me, “the app lets you email teachers directly with questions.” She developed a persistent compulsion to know my children’s grades. One month she texted me five times, “concerned” about Lucy’s test grades in the third grade, “Lucy got an 85 on the math test, but Maeve got a 100,” she’d say. “What is Maeve doing to study? I clearly need to change things up with Lucy.”

I didn’t know what my daughter was doing to study. I didn’t know she’d had a test, and I didn’t know she’d gotten a 100. In a household with six kids, they’re in charge of their own homework. If they need help, they ask someone, most often one of their siblings, who will explain anything better and faster and less distractedly than I would.

There was something creepy about another parent knowing my kid’s grades before I did. But Louisa’s creepy habits cemented my position as the better, less neurotic mother. I was willing to accept that.

***

Six years after my tea with Mrs. Lawson, my mother called me, out of breath, shocked. 

“Have you heard anything about the Lawsons?” she asked.

I had not. I last called them some four years prior, when I had left a message for Mrs. Lawson, asking if some of her children might be able to babysit my toddlers during my father’s funeral. She never called back. I never thought about it again.

“Ed Klein told me there was a lawsuit filed against the church the Lawsons went to,” she said.

Ed Klein was my mother’s next-door neighbor of nearly thirty years, the Jewish man subjected to Mrs. Lawson’s ‘Praise Jesus’ routine on a regular basis. After my father died, my mother and Ed became brisk-walking partners with a group of seniors on the streets of Daisy Ridge.

“Ed says the Lawson girls accused their father of abusing them and the church of covering it up. Physically and sexually. He asked me what you think? Do you think it’s true?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d have to see it.”

She emailed me the civil complaint which was making the digital rounds of the subdivision. I read the accounts relating to ‘Grace Goe,’ the pseudonym Amelia had used to file the lawsuit. I knew it was Amelia, the second oldest, based on her birth date and description. The accusations were detailed and precise.

A chill ripped through me and settled in my stomach. I knew it was true. Like a flash, I was inside a memory with a clarity never experienced before: Amelia, probably around eight years old, telling me exactly what she reported as an adult in the lawsuit. And I remembered my response to her, something so colossally stupid that as an adult I am appalled at my teenaged self.

“My dad put his toes in my privates,” she had said, in her typically spunky way.

“Huh?” I said.

“I was rubbing his feet,” she said, “and he put his toe inside my privates.”

“It must have been an accident,” I said.

At the time, I didn’t understand. I remember hearing the words and watching them float through my head. I couldn’t form them into a coherent concept. I remember my stomach dropped in vague recognition that something was off. I knew of sexual abuse. I’d watched Afterschool Specials in the mid-80s, like tons of other kids my age. But in those shows, families where abuse occurred were grungy and chaotic. They weren’t wealthy and well-behaved in matching Laura Ashley. Abusers weren’t successful and powerful and praising Jesus on the manicured lawns of suburban D.C. I was entirely naïve and compliant, willing to take authority on its appearance of authority. To the Lawson parents, I was the perfect babysitter.

“No. It definitely wasn’t on accident,” she said. “He did it on purpose.”

“Just shut up, Amelia!” Elin suddenly interjected.

‘Shut-up’ was a forbidden phrase in their household. That Elin, obedient, complaint, sweetly responsible Elin, used that phrase should have been another clue that something was terribly wrong. Instead, the girls started bickering. I changed the subject and put it out of my mind.

Reading through the allegations, I remembered more of what I’d seen with blinding clarity, like sunshine hitting your eyes when you step out of a dark building. The plastic switches used to ‘spank’ the kids. Their upper thighs covered in black and blue eruptions, where the plastic had whipped them. For sassing, for fibbing, for being little kids in a big and confusing world.

I felt sick from the remembering. But there was more.

I remembered one Friday evening, the summer when I was 14. Megan, about three, had angry purple whip marks across the back of her upper leg. The welts were raised, almost blistered.

“Is that from Tuesday?” I asked Elin.

“Uh-huh.” She responded. “She lied to my mom, so Mom had to switch her.”

I babysat the previous Tuesday afternoon. While giving Megan a bath, I had removed the mother of pearl ring my grandmother gave me for my Confirmation a few months before. At some point when I wasn’t looking, a curious three-year old had picked it up and dropped it in the toilet. When I couldn’t find it, I became upset, but just a bit. I told Mrs. Lawson. First, she lectured me that it was “a thing,” and I shouldn’t be attached to the things of this world. Then she and the kids set about looking. Megan promised with all preschool sincerity that she hadn’t touched the ring. Over and over, she promised. I went home without the ring, feeling grumpy and ashamed. The next day, Mrs. Lawson called me. She found the ring, she told me. “I tried to think what a three-year-old would do with a ring in a bathroom,” she told me. “I stuck my hand down the toilet, and sure enough, that’s where it was, sitting at the bottom of the bowl.”

I thanked her and felt relieved. I saw Megan’s leg a couple days later. I knew I shouldn’t have said anything. The ring wasn’t important enough for the welts on Megan’s legs. I whispered, “I’m sorry” to Megan that Friday night, when I tickled her back, as she dropped off to sleep.

Sitting in my basement, years later, a mother of six myself, I accused my teenaged self. How did I not see the hell these kids were subjected to? What had I been thinking? Even when they turned to me for help, confided in me because they knew I was from the outside world, I failed them. I hadn’t thought to tell my parents. Even if I had, I’m not sure what they would have done. I had mentioned something to my college-aged sister, but my description had been confused. “I don’t know,” she’d said. “That’s weird.” Afterward, I boxed up those memories, walled off sections of my brain so that I could remain free in my naïve compliance.

A few months after Amelia told me about her father’s molestation, Mrs. Lawson called to tell me she’d no longer rely on me for regular Friday night babysitting.

“You’ve reached the age,” she said, “when you are too busy with school and your own life, and you’ll become unreliable.”

I was confused. I couldn’t remember missing any scheduled babysitting engagements. I’d always been reliable, responsible, letting her know well in advance if I had a conflict.

Decades later, I understood.

According to the complaint, the girls continued to tell people they trusted about the abuse for years. Their housekeeper finally brought them to the pastors of the mega-church they attended. This was several years after Amelia told me. The pastors appeared to cover up the accusations systematically. Mr. Lawson paid for the entire pastoral staff and their families to take an expenses-paid vacation at South Carolina resort. Mrs. Lawson fired the housekeeper just as she fired me. The kids were cut off from anyone they trusted, and the abuse continued.

Allegedly, but clearly so.

***

For the first few years, my competition with Louisa existed in a comfortable stasis. Until it didn’t. One morning Maeve collapsed in a sobbing heap on my bed, refusing to go to school. 

“What’s the matter?” I asked her.

“It’s Lucy,” she sobbed. “She’s so annoying. She always follows me around, doing what I’m doing. It’s like she wants to be me. She won’t stop asking my grades—all day! But then, she also wants me to mess up. Like she’s just waiting for me to make a mistake so she can brag about how great she is.”

I texted Louisa, gently requesting that Lucy stop asking Maeve her grades throughout the day. It was against the school rules anyway.

Louisa replied, “My daughter is a very competitive girl. She needs to be the best. Right now, she sees Maeve as the best – at least in school – so she’s aiming for her.”

Aiming for her? Like she’s a nine-year old target who must be done away with, for the zero-sum superiority prize of the third grade?

Their teacher called me. “I’m concerned,” she said. “There’s an abnormal amount of competition between Lucy and Maeve. I know they’re both strong girls, and I know they have a lot of overlap with school and Irish dance – there are a lot of opportunities to compare. But I feel this competition is coming from one direction, and it’s directed at your daughter. Maeve doesn’t seem to be handling it well. I’ve moved them to opposite sides of the classroom. I’m trying to limit their interactions at school, but I wanted you to be aware.”

I was aware. Maeve started therapy. She couldn’t confront school without anxious meltdowns. I kept this development entirely secret from Louisa.

Louisa called the school, believing that Maeve was bullying Lucy, avoiding her and not including her in games she wanted to play. She wanted Maeve talked to.

Lucy started therapy. Louisa let me know this. She was pretty sure Lucy was being so competitive, so badgering toward Maeve because her grandmother had died, and it was a grief reaction. Grief was an acceptable reason for a kid to go to therapy. Anxious meltdowns and hypercompetitive tendencies were not. Coping with a double-full time perfect mother was certainly no reason for counseling.

At their first feis, the name for Irish dance competition, Maeve beat Lucy in every contest. The results are brutal and clear: kids are ranked, their names posted on the wall for all to see how they placed according to the judges who evaluated them.

Louisa took it hard.

“I don’t think Lucy should be around Maeve right now,” she texted. “Lucy needs friends who enhance her self-esteem, and Maeve doesn’t do that.”

A few weeks later, Maeve sat in the chair at her dental check-up, her mouth wide open, sunglasses protecting her eyes from the glare of the examination light. Louisa chatted while checking her teeth.

“You did so well at that feis, Maeve,” she said.

Naturally, Maeve couldn’t respond, so I replied for her. “Yeah, she really likes Irish. She’s dancing everywhere, all the time these days, huh, Maeve?”

There was an undertone of tension between us mothers. I tried to diffuse it, while still staking my kid’s claim. To what, I wasn’t clear.

“Yeah. Lucy likes it, but I think she likes ballet better. We’ll have to see…So, Maeve, are you taking the grade exams at Nations Cap?” she asked. Nations Cap was an upcoming competition.

“What are grade exams?” I asked. I hadn’t heard of them.

“They’re like standardized tests for dance. They’re offered at some competitions. Lucy’s friend, Cara was invited to take them. It’s part of the process of qualifying for your Irish teaching license. I understand they’re by invitation only. I thought maybe you were invited.”

And there it was: the taunt. Directed squarely at my kid, sitting in the chair, vulnerable and small, her mouth agape while her teeth were prodded.

“Maeve is nine,” I replied, “and since she only started dancing six months ago, we’re not thinking about her career.”

I said it lightly, but my brain seethed. In the parking lot, I sat in the car before driving home. I texted two trusted friends, one who knew Louisa, one who did not. I relayed the scene as close as I could. Did what I think happened really happen? Am I making it up, filling in assumptions? I needed outside confirmation to clarify my sight. Maeve waited in the back seat, increasingly impatient, “Can we just go?” she asked.

A couple weeks later, I cancelled the older kids’ appointments, and didn’t reschedule. I sent Louisa a text, informing her we were switching dentists. I blamed it on insurance.

“We have the greatest respect for you as a dentist,” I wrote, “but being out of network, we’re spending too much time dealing with insurance, tracking and coordinating payments. I’m sorry, and I understand if you find this situation upsetting. I really value our friendship and appreciate everything you have done for our family!”

***

About a year after my mother emailed the Lawson’s civil complaint, I was cleaning out my desk drawers. We were moving back East. Within the desk, I found a note from Mrs. Lawson. The paper was creamy and thick with her monogram embossed on the front. It was crumpled and frayed the way notes become when they spend years furrowed in the back of a drawer. Mrs. Lawson’s smooth penmanship filled the card. It was dated two years earlier, a couple of months before the girls filed suit. By the time she wrote the note, she must have known it was coming.

I had forgotten receiving it. It had arrived at a time of crisis in my young family. At that moment, I felt like a reflection of my teenage self, desperate for order and approbation. Mrs. Lawson updated me on her children, most of them adults by then. Her words conveyed complacent maternal pride, the kind you’d expect when children are mostly grown. She wrote about my children, something like, “I keep the Christmas card of your precious children in my Bible and pray for them daily.” She recalled what a blessing I’d been to her, with my diligence and godliness. I’d forgotten I sent her our Christmas cards. She ended the note much like she had our tea three children and several root canals before: “It’s the greatest blessing,” she wrote, “to raise a brood for Christ.”

Looking at the rumpled card, I remembered I sent Mrs. Lawson a reply, a card I bought at Target filled with my scratchy handwriting. I thanked her for her note and for her influence during my adolescence. I said something about their marriage demonstrating mutual support and care. My blindness had been so durable and willful, my betrayal toward those girls so thorough. I crumpled her note and threw it with the rest of the moving trash. The note is gone, but the shame lingers still.

***

At the first check-up with the new dentist after leaving Louisa, they found five cavities. I’d seen her six months before, but she hadn’t noticed any. The hygienist, scraping and prodding and counting decay, stopped her sociable chatter as concern heightened. She typed notes in the online chart and emitted a shrill laugh when the dentist entered. “All five cavities need to be filled,” he said after his examination. “A couple look like they’ve been there a while, but I don’t think we have any root canals yet.”

Despite such decay, my gums remain healthy.

Author/Illustrator

  • E.M. Mariani holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.

  • Stills from the 1924 silent film The Hands Of Orlac, directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt. The film is one of the first to depict transplantation as a moral and artistic conundrum. Veidt plays Orlac, famed concert pianist, whose hands are damaged beyond repair in an accident. Orlac's wife (played by Alexandra Sorina) pleads with the surgeon that hand transplants be performed, but the surgeon explains that the transplanted hands will be those of an executed criminal. The film then examines Orlac's moral and creative crisis as he comes to believe that his hands are no longer the instruments of beauty but of corruption. The film was remade five times in one form or another over the 20th century, with each version emphasizing a different aspect of the "identity transfer" that some suppose to accompany transplantation.