I, at the age of eleven, had a tooth kicked out of my head. Well, it felt like the whole tooth floating in my mouth, though a stub of it remained rooted in my jaw. I was in the mountains at the time and so for two weeks could not get to a dentist.
At the end of the two weeks, home again, I developed a swelling and throbbing ache. But I’d had experiences with dentists before, and I hated them. Therefore, I said nothing to my mother. Only when the pain grew unbearable did I mention it—and then I couldn’t wait for a regular appointment. On that very day I was sent walking to the dentist. I went in darkness because the dentist would see me after the scheduled patients, six o’clock, the nighttime. It was gloomy weather, and a gloomy Walter who walked through it.
I had cried in the dentist’s chair before. I was trembling now. But I was growing older, and I determined this time not to cry.
When I entered the dentist’s waiting room, I found no secretary to greet me. She had gone home. Instead, there was a single middle-aged woman sitting in that room with wide eyes, gripping the arms of her chair, and staring at me. Noises came out from the other side of clouded glass, swirling waters, the buzzing of a cord drill, the mumble of the man who would be the dentist. I took off my coat. I meant to hook it on the clothes tree, but that was already covered with garments, and so I sat with my coat on my lap, wondering where all the people were who owned those wraps and jackets and sweaters. What happened to them?
The woman across the room kept staring at me. I blushed.
Suddenly she declared, “That’s my daughter in there!” indicating the clouded glass. I tried to smile and nodded a pleasantly as I could to her; but I was struggling with my own fears and thinking of my plan not to cry.
“She has soft teeth,” the woman said, glaring fiercely, as though I had something to do with soft teeth. I didn’t know if this statement also required a nod and a smile.
The woman said, “They break off.” I lost nods and smiles altogether. I blinked. “Yessir! Can’t never make a clean pull of it,” the woman shouted, “but they always break off at the gum.” Her eyes continued very wide. I now seemed in pain deeper than a toothache. I reached for a magazine.
All at once there came from the clouded glass a true, extended scream. It was like a dream, where one expects the thing that terrifies him, and it comes. But this was no dream. A woman shrieked till the glass rattled.
I and the middle-aged woman stared across the room at one another, each frozen in mid-motion, I with my magazine, she clutching the arms of her chair.
She had eyeglasses that were going misty.
She whispered, “That’s my daughter in there. She’s got soft teeth.”
I, prickles going up and down my back, was thinking, “I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry.”
Then the door of clouded glass opened up, and a young woman was leaning against the jam, her face pasty-white except for the tiniest pink dots all over it, and her eyes were rolling.
The younger woman moaned, “He broke it off.” She took several lurching steps forward, then swayed in the middle of the room, not far from me, still holding my magazine.
The middle-aged woman unlocked her knuckles from the arms of her chair and began to rise. “Do you need me, honey?”
“I—“ said her daughter, and began to swoon.
Her mother leaped to catch her, at once producing a piercing sound: “Robert!” But the daughter pitched too hard against her mother to be caught, and they both went down in a heap at my feet, and the glasses of the middle-aged woman flew across the floor.
All of my toothache was gone by now. So was my sense. I stared at the women on the floor before me and pretended to cough.
The outside door opened up, and there stood a very big man. This must have been Robert. With no expression at all, he walked straight up to me. I swallowed. Robert pushed my feet aside, squatted down, picked up the younger woman in his arms, and walked to the door again. “There’s your glasses,” he said, and he left.
I began to point to where the glasses were.
The middle-aged woman pulled herself up to her hands and knees and stayed that way a while, breathing. “Always happens,” she said. I didn’t know if she was talking to me, because her head was down. “Always breaks off at the gum.” Heavily she rose to her feet. No longer tight, now, but very tired she reached down for her glasses, and she went out.
Only when the dentist stuck his head into the waiting room and said, “Come, Walter. Come, in. It’s late”—only then did I stop pointing to the place where the glasses had been.
So then, I was sitting in the dentist’s chair, upright, two hard pads behind my skull, and the dentist was looking in my mouth and making sounds of dismal disappointment, and I was repeating to myself, I will not cry. I will not cry.
But I did. But in the end I did an extraordinary thing with my tear, and a wondrous goodness flowed into the situation after all, transfiguring it utterly.
The dentist said, “Root canal,” and went to get his tools.
I felt the crying welling up behind my face.
The dentist returned with a needle and when he put the point of it to the roof of my mouth, the hard palate and when he pierced the palate and fluid burned above its flesh, I cried one tear from my right eye.
One single, solitary tear came out. No gasp. No sob. One tear. And this is what I did with my tear: I gave it to Jesus.
I said in the deep of my soul, “For you,” and then it belonged to Jesus; and I meant it, too, that my pain and my frights and all my weaknesses were given to Jesus as well. The tear ran down my cheek. But it had been offered. Therefore, that was the only tear that I cried that day.
The dentist could not know; neither could my mother record this moment in the journal she kept of her son; but I willingly enacted my love for Jesus on that day, myself participating in the relationship, giving something important unto it. I matured. I was not only passive. And I realized how mighty and how sweet, how mortally deep was my love for Jesus—and how sustaining. And this: I was someone, too. Not only could Jesus call my name, but I could call the name of Jesus as well. We spoke to one another. Each was significant unto the other. How dear!
One solitary tear.
~Walter Wangerin Jr.