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My infected bicuspid, far right, with its crown

A lancing, jaw-cracking lightning bolt of pain awoke me. From contented sleep to eyes wide open, I gritted my teeth--what the hell was happening? With the intense epicenter in my lower jaw, I knew it was my bicuspid, tooth #29. My dentist, Dr. Mark Tarica, a brilliant and caring dentist, had put a crown on it two months before after filling it in two sessions. He told me how it'd been a dental anomaly, a cavity that had missed his X-rays. The fact I had had braces on the tooth that blocked the X-rays and I hadn't had a cavity in thirty years was a part of the mix. Now something was wrong with it again.

Wincing, wondering what I could do, I glanced at the clock. It was after 1 a.m., the first hour of Saturday. Go to the emergency room? Wake up my wife? Writhe in pain until 8 a.m.? Could I even stand it another few minutes?

I remembered I had emergency Vicodin for kidney stones. I hadn't had stones in six years. I stumbled into the bathroom to look--nothing there. Then to kitchen. Found them. They'd expired in 2006. I found a newer bottle of 800 mg. ibuprofen prescribed to me for something I didn't remember, but it sounded strong--one every eight hours. I took one.

Back in bed, waiting for the pill to work, I reflected on a number of things. One was how I'd called my dentist at 3 p.m. the day before to say my tooth felt suddenly sensitive. I hadn't been in pain then, but it worried me. Wasn't the tooth fixed? "I was afraid of this," he'd said. "You had so little tooth there when I put on the cap, and it was always a gamble." He had an opening on Tuesday. Clearly, on Saturday morning in pain, I couldn't wait until Tuesday.

Within fifteen minutes, the ibuprofen bit away some of the sting. When it became a mere echo, I fell asleep. When I woke up, I took another, then called Dr. Mark. The message said for an emergency, call his beeper number. It'd been years since I used anyone's beeper. There were still beepers around? And did he watch black-and-white TV too?

I called the number, and I received a beep beep beep. What was I supposed to do? I gave my number, hoping that was all, then I hung up. He called back minutes later, on the line with his brother, Dr. Sam, who was also a dentist. When I explained what happened in the night, Dr. Mark said he'd hoped against this, but not to worry. Although they were on their way to a conference, he had an instant plan. He'd call in a prescription for an antibiotic, and combine that with my high-strength ibuprofen, and he would see me Monday--unless it was so bad, he could meet me Sunday at his office.

Thus for two days, I kept the pain at bay as best I could. I'd found a slightly newer bottle of Vicodin--only one year past expiration date--and when the ibuprofen would wear off before the eight hours, I'd take a Vicodin. The days were spent between a low roar and a high one, until I realized I could take the pills just before they wore off.

Still, I felt lousy, and it made me think about people who woke up lousy every day. I thought of the protagonist in Marsha Norman's ‘Night, Mother, who was depressed daily. I thought of my mother who is having a hard time breathing and needs assisted living. Here's a woman who'd been bold and independent her whole life until now. Her skin itches, she gets winded in just talking for a few minutes, and she walks very slowly. Is it an exercise in humility or just a realization that life's silver lining turns to lead?

When I went into Dr. Mark's office and after a few X-rays, I learned there was nothing he could do himself, but that I had to see a specialist. He explained I had two main choices. At minimum, I needed a root canal. That could cost up to $2,000. As he explained, I could spend that money, but then the crown might break off a few years down the line because there was so little tooth that it was attached to.

A few months before, I'd been willing to risk that instead of having the tooth pulled and getting an implant which, with a crown, would cost around $4,500. He now said why spend money on a root canal when I could put the same money toward an implant? An implant, though, meant I wouldn't have a tooth there for three to six months as my jaw healed around the steel post. What troubled me most, though, was the tooth, its roots and even most of the nerve were perfectly fine. I didn't want to be the Bionic Man yet. I needed another opinion.

Thus I called my orthodontist, Dr. Joe Cannon, who was at home but was willing to come by in an hour. Dr. Mark was happy to wait and so was I. When Dr. Joe arrived, Dr. Mark's brother Dr. Sam was also there, and the three of them pored over my X-rays like physicists looking at the results from an atomic collider. Dr. Joe had a fresh solution. He said he hated getting rid of a perfectly good tooth if it could be saved. He said with three braces, he could lift the tooth--"extrude it"--and then Dr. Mark would have more tooth for a more solid crown. So that's what I'm doing.

Thus, to deal with the pain, I ended up getting a root canal by an endodontist recommended by Dr. Mark, and today, the pain is totally gone. A nerve that had been as thin as a whisker was simply removed and replaced with a post. While I'm in a much better frame of mind, I've realized a few more things. One is that our bodies are finely tuned systems where even the smallest thing--a kidney stone smaller than a grain of sand or a tiny little nerve in a tooth--will turn us into fallen elephants.

Second, as I stood in a long line to get my prescription filled, it occurred to me how organic we are. We eat little pills, chemical packets, and they zip into our blood stream and make our existence a little better. Some people are happy with just okay, something bearable.

Third, there's no root canal for the soul. People who are depressed have no clear easy solutions. There are people who wake up not grateful for Folgers in their cup. They're not happy they woke up.

Fourth, while I have health back, enjoy every second of it. Exercise. Keep the body in tune.

Fifth, another twenty-five years, and I'll be my mother's age. Do something.

Sixth, the bill for the root canal was $1400. Ouch--more pain! Actually, at the time, I was happy to pay that to stop the hurt. Now that it's later, I'm thinking, "One hour's work, $1400." I'm in the wrong business.

Seventh, doctors who care like Doctors Mark, Joe, and Sam, are special. Over the years, they've become friends. These are people I'm grateful for in my life. That's what life's about.

If I learned this much just from one tooth, imagine what I have yet to learn from a mouthful more.

And it's back to my comic novel.