My oldest child keeps losing her teeth, one tiny white chiclet after another twisting out and leaving gaping holes behind. She lost one of her top front teeth this week, and I held it in my hand for a long time afterwards, turning it over and examining each angle, remembering the nights it kept us both awake. She was 7 months old and I was 26, finally finishing my bachelor degree despite the exhausted wide-eyed wonder of new motherhood. My husband worked out of town most of each month, so it was just me and the baby, our love story an expanding plot line in my life. I wrote so much about her that first year, each university writing class another avenue to explore the intensity of mothering and the raw vulnerability which follows. I remember strange details from those times, magnified by novelty and loneliness. I remember the smell of her milk soaked pajamas. I remember her smooth cheek against mine as we slow danced back to sleep. I remember the low light in her nursery, the way shadows held us up like prayers as we learned each other’s heartbeat in those bleary, wakeful nights.
And those brand new teeth. I remember the pain of those particular tears. She’d wake up crying 4, 5, maybe 8 times in one night, pain bleating from her throat. Each tooth was another triumph, a sharp and solid reminder that she was growing up, becoming more and more human, less celestial. Less angel in my arms.
These hard-won teeth now fall into my waiting hands and I stare at the little girl standing in front of me, her eyes shining proud with tears, blood dribbling from her mouth. I stare at the teeth and wonder, Aren’t these mine?
She loses them with no thought to the getting of them, because she does not remember those long nights. The pain flitted away with the rest of her babyhood memories, which are now just pictures of an infant she does not know, stories as disconnected as the lone tooth in my hand.
So I hold the teeth, and the girl runs off with her fresh dollar, which she will assuredly squirrel away like all her other money because at 6 years old she is already more responsible than most adults I know. For her 6th birthday she begged for a luggage set, not only for the fun of traveling in style, but for the deeply satisfying task of packing and repacking her own clothes, with no family members rifling through her neatly folded outfits. She starts school tomorrow as perhaps the most mature kindergarten student of all time, better prepared for the ruckus of school than most kids, and still I cannot stand the thought of letting her go.
I want to hang a sign from her neck that says, “This is my darling girl and she is a gift. Please act accordingly.” I want the world to know what a treasure walks in their midst. I want them to adore her and give her all the room she needs to grow. I want them to understand how hard I worked the last six years to raise her. I want to collect my shout of joy when the doctor lifted her into my waiting arms, and surround her with it like a song. I want the world to learn the harmony. I want them to sing it with me.
Her teeth are falling out because she does not need them anymore. They are too small. Insufficient for the task at hand. Her body lengthens, stretches towards the light like the sunflowers in my backyard, those impressive ladies who bow their crowned heads each night and raise them each morning, queens awakened by summer, just like my August-born daughter. My little queen, regal and filial, blood of my blood, heart of my heart, is blooming like a six year old ought to bloom; her curls fall across her shoulder as she writes me love letters, her cheeks flush with pleasure when she runs after a soccer ball, her thin legs bruised with adventure and bravery.
Baby teeth fall out because the roots die. The roots which held the teeth in place disintegrate and so what choice do the teeth have but to break ties and be ransomed for pocket change? After all, they did not come easy. This makes their barbaric end, wrenched from the tiny mouths where they taught a child to chew, swallow, and talk, all the more disturbing. Does no one respect the price paid for their entrance, the work they have done ever since? I nursed those teeth into existence. I held my baby to my chest and nursed her aching jaw, the milk between us a silent exchange of comfort and apology. The world hurts, I whispered to my baby. You didn’t know yet. You had no idea. I’m so sorry to tell you, but the world is not always good. Even our own bodies hurt us. I kissed her hand and sang my prayers, startled at how badly I wanted to absorb the pain for her.
Childhood is a field of wildflowers you only pretend to own. It is a dreamland, an incohesive collection of agony and bliss, tremendous moments of goodness and misery positioned like mountains among the endless stretches of the mundane, days we will never return to, will mostly forget. And if childhood is a dream, mothers guard the slumber. When suffering comes, we do not stand idly by. We kneel. For when we cannot fight, we learn to pray. For the crying baby when new teeth break through. And for ourselves when the roots are gone.
The teeth are mine. But they’re useless, relics of a time that exists only in my memory. No one can account for the hours I spend with my small children. Even them. I alone hold these days, turning them over in my hands like pearls, tiny and smoothed over with time. These years are mine, a gift of pure strength and grit, a dream I am slowly waking from as they get older. I am not done yet; I ache for the depth of our oneness when I held them so close, so often. But they have bigger jobs to do now. Their worlds expand with each breath they take, and what can I want for them except a life teeming with the most sincere joy? And how can I expect joy without suffering? Theirs, and mine.
The teeth are falling out, but new teeth are growing in their place. God teaches us to see the emptiness not as absence, but as an open way, necessary for new life. Today, oldest daughter, I try to remember the same. Pain does not just mean an ending- it also signals beginning. The blood and the twinge, an introduction to a fresh start. I won’t begrudge your grown-up incisors or 6-year molars. I’ll trade you for a dollar and kiss your curly ponytail, watching wistfully as you skip away.