I notice his gold ring, gold watchband and a maroon tie peaking out from the shirt under his white coat.
It happened when my dentist went on vacation. A much needed one, but a little excessive for the amount of time he would be gone, 22 days. Because during that time I needed to see him for a checkup and cleaning. The office had called asking if I’d see someone else while he was gone. I was overdue for a cleaning, and said yes.
So this morning I was awakened from a very vivid dream about my father by the phone ringing and Helen, my dentist’s receptionist, telling me that they could see me in one hour. They had a replacement dentist. I move fast and I’m in great shape at sixty, but they were a little abrupt with the allotted time and I was not happy about having to hurry. One hour to shower and dress and drive there. (I didn’t get my hair blow-dried to my satisfaction.) But I made it, and they set me up in the dental chair.
As usual, first I saw Christy. She’s my hygienist, has the same name as my second daughter, though she spells it differently. Her husband has been in Iraq, it seems forever, and I’m always nervous about asking her how he’s doing. My mother is a widow, Christy has a son, and I’m just sensitive to that stuff. I guess I would immediately know if something horrible had happened.
She’s always cheerful and does an excellent job on my teeth. Obviously you can’t talk when someone is probing inside your mouth, but I get a question out now and again just after she finishes suctioning, and then she’ll talk about her husband and what he’s doing while my mouth is full again.
This morning, something strange happened. She had cleaned some of my top teeth and told me it was time to rinse. When she removed the buzzing brush, I automatically turned my head to the left to spit. An old reflex. There was no bowl there with the tiny metal spigot of water running in a half-circle. They don’t have those anymore. We laughed about it and she handed me a small paper cup filled with a cinnamon tasting liquid—the rinse.
A few moments later Helen comes in and they are talking quietly. I learn that Christy’s mother has arrived—an emergency situation. She is having lots of pain in one of her teeth and naturally would come right over and see her daughter who is in the business. Christy apologizes. She’s got to go check on her mother and then she’ll come back to finish my cleaning.
I’m fine about it. I’m a nurse. If my mother or one of my children needed me, I’d be right there.
I lie back in the chair and close my eyes for a while. I didn’t get my coffee—it’s decafe every morning—but still the aroma and the routine gets me moving. This dental chair is recumbent so my feet are up; I’m comfy. I have a book in my lap. I always have something to read with me, but I close my eyes. I doze off and on.
Once I open my eyes and look into the hallway. There are no doors on the examining rooms which all open onto this hallway. People flow in and out with x-rays and lab reports, bringing appointment cards and those tiny tubes of tooth paste that you always get to take home with you.
The replacement dentist is standing there. He has his back to me. He’s wearing a very starched white jacket, well not exactly a jacket, it falls to his knees and has a slit up the back. It’s more like a lab coat. The sleeves are three quarter length so that the fabric won’t get in his way. If he were closer I might even make the crack about didn’t he get the dress code email today? This dental practice does a color coded thing. All the hygienists and receptionists, even the dentists, wear the same color scrubs—but it alternates—maroon on Tuesdays, beige on Fridays. There’s a pale blue.
The replacement dentist turns a bit in the hallway—I can’t hear him talking, but he’s standing there like he’s conversing with someone, his hands held together at his waist. His hair is a soft brown, longer than I’m used to seeing. He has it combed back along the side and neatly trimmed around his ear. I notice his gold ring, gold watchband and a maroon tie peaking out from the shirt under his white coat. Is that his nod to the dress code? Are the rest of them wearing maroon today? I didn’t notice, but I know it’s not Tuesday. Maybe when he comes in later to look at my teeth I’ll ask him about his glasses. They look to be those new flexor type—all plastic lenses with no frame, very lightweight. I’ve been thinking about getting a pair. I doze.
After a while Christy is back. She finishes my cleaning, gives me my new appointment card and new toothbrush and tubes of paste and leaves. I know in any given amount of time, depending on how busy he is, the dentist will be in to see me. He’ll look at my teeth using that probe with the mirror on it. He’ll ask me if I have any discomfort, comment about when the next set of mouth x-rays will be done and then I can go.
I close my eyes for a while. And then I hear him walk in. He’s already behind my chair when I open my eyes. I can hear him open the chart which Christy has left on the table at the back of the room.
“Havey,” he says. “I know the Haveys.” His voice is deep, but has tenor qualities to it. It’s a lovely voice and I’m a little annoyed with myself that I am drawn to it suddenly. His coat makes a crispy, starchy sound as he moves and when he does my skin tingles. Now I’m arguing with myself. It’s the same sound my husband’s stiff white shirts make when I hug him.
“These Haveys were back in Chicago.” He flips a page in the chart.
I sit up straighter in the chair, which is hard to do because the very nature of these apparatuses is to have you lie back. “I’m from Chicago,” I say. “My husband is the son of Ed Havey.”
“That’s right. I knew that.” The voice pulls at something in me.
He doesn’t answer me. He continues to read the chart. I want to turn around and look at him, but that wouldn’t be proper. He’ll get to me and check my teeth soon enough.
And then he says, “So do they still call you Beth.”
Now something moves in me. My heart jumps, quivers. The way he asks it—it’s not really a question. And the word Beth in his mouth—it feels different, to hear it, a resonance or some other context that I’ve never heard before with the sound of my name.
I hurry to answer. “Yes. I love my given name, Elizabeth, like in the chart, but yes, everyone calls me Beth.” My other dentist must have it written down somewhere. Nickname, Beth.
“And I see you’re a nurse. I’m so happy to see that. I would have thought you would be influenced by your mother’s sisters—be a teacher or at least write.”
His voice is leading me. It demands that I answer even though these are not the questions that a replacement dentist would ask. Maybe I briefly decide he knew my people back in Chicago. Maybe I don’t. “I’m not practicing nursing right now. I actually am writing. And I was a teacher. That was my first job. But I taught English. Like they did. Like my oldest brother, John. He teaches at Georgetown. He’s a PhD. A published author.”
“That’s a wonderful thing. You both have done so well. And Bill?”
“You knew Bill, back in Chicago?” I’m thinking that maybe if he finally comes around and I can see his face I will know that he’s closer in age to Bill. Maybe he even went to school with Bill, my younger brother.
“I didn’t know Bill. Not as well. So he’s–”
“Oh, in the music business. Out in LA. He’s been there forever. Except for a job in New York for a number of years. We are very close.”
“And then there’s your amazing mother.” My mother is 92. Now how would he know her. Now I have to turn around. I struggle in this recumbent chair to twist my body and look at him. He has his back to me, sitting on a stool in front of the desk, still bent over the chart, one elbow resting, the right hand turning the pages. I turn back. The chart. He’s so into the chart.
“I know I’ve had way too many cavities,” I say abruptly, apologizing. “I had to have four of my molars capped. I’m sure it’s all there. I’m better about my teeth now. I am. But my father would not be very happy with me.” I always say this.
“My father was a dentist. That’s why. I should have perfect teeth and I don’t.”
“Your father is very happy with you.” And then he gets up and comes around, wheeling the stool with his foot. He stops it at the side of the chair, near my feet. He sits and looks at me. The first thing my eyes focus on is his tie, bold in color against his white clothing, but soft real silk. And the glasses are real glass, highly polished with gold wire side pieces. His trousers are wool with a very fine grey stripe in them and his shoes are leather and highly polished. My other dentist wears tennis shoes. This replacement dentist is about 45 years old. He has my chart in his hands.
“I was making a sandbox for you. Or did I finish it,” he says.
“You finished it.”
My heart is pounding in my ears. I’m not sure I am hearing him correctly, hearing myself.
“You kids wanted a dog.”
I rush on. “I was way too young to remember. But this woman called me when I published an article about becoming a nurse and feeling closer to—to you. Because of the medicine connection. She was one of your patients and she said you were going to get me a puppy.”
There are tears in my eyes, they are running down my cheeks now. I brush them away hurriedly because I don’t want my vision blurred. I want to be able to look into his eyes and hold them there, watch how he moves his head, what he does with his hands, hear again the crispness of his starched coat and every word intoned with his amazing voice. I want to ask him questions, but I’m afraid to move, to say a word; I’m terrified that Christy or Helen or someone will walk in and he will just disappear.
“I would have gotten you anything you wanted.”
“In a scrapbook, I have the pumpkin you drew me,” I say. A stupid comment. There are so many more important things to talk about.
“Your mother is doing okay.”
“She talks about you more and more. She says she knows she’s getting ready to see you. Oh, but she’s so old.” My voice cracks and the tears are worse now. He is so young, 45, his skin clear and unwrinkled, his body straight. He left us when Bill was just 3 months. John was six. I was three. My mother has osteoporosis. She is shorter than he would remember her, wrinkled and grey. And then I say, “But her hair stayed red for longer than anyone there ever was.”
He smiles. It’s the same smile from the photograph—the one that sat on the drum table in our living room when we three children were growing up without him. He’s got this very soft smile and he’s wearing a maroon tie and his wire-rimmed glasses. The photo was taken not long before he crashed over in a chair in that same room, dead from a massive MI—heat attack. Now I’m shaking, my hands, my legs still outstretched in the recumbent chair. He’s just the photo on the damn table. He’s going to disappear.
“Your teeth are fine today. You are fine today. And you have three wonderful children.”
“Your grandchildren. They didn’t get to–”
“It’s okay, Beth. Really. You have to see that. I’m just here to reassure you.”
“May I touch you?” I finally ask him. I’ve been afraid to ask him.
He smiles and shakes his head as if to say don’t ask too much. Then he says, “I see you like to read.”
And then it happens. “Dr. Pfordresher, can you check on Christy’s mother again. Her pain is worse.” Helen, damn her, is standing in the doorway.
“He can’t leave. He hasn’t looked at my teeth yet,” I say boldly.
“Your teeth are fine today. You are fine.” He’s repeating himself. People in dreams sometimes repeat themselves.
“Don’t go.” I say it loudly, boldly. I’ll cry out if I have to.
Helen has walked away down the hall.
“Tell your mother, I’ll be there.”
I am sobbing now. I cannot help it. I fight to make it stop so that I can watch him, how he rises from the stool, gently pushes it back against the wall, how he walks behind my chair again, setting the chart on the desk. I am up on my knees now, turning my body to watch him. He’s moving toward the doorway.
“Dad!” It’s not a cry for help, not an angry cry. It’s more a pleasant, joyful escape of sound, something that I cannot ever remember doing as I was so young when he died. Three-year-olds don’t remember. Now I have said his name.
He turns back to look at me, a sixty-year-old woman holding him in my heart.
“Beth,” he says again and lifts his hand as I have seen him do thousands of times in my dreams. And he walks away, down that hallway.
I gather my purse, my book and stumble out of the chair. I forget my appointment card, my toothbrush, those little tubes of paste. I wander down the hall looking for him, questions for him pouring through my mind like water. Why did you die on us? Do you know everything about our lives? What do you think of this country now? Did you know that now medicine could have saved you? You could have lived to be my age or older.
Everyone is wearing pink today. They smile at me strangely and I know they are wondering why I am wandering around looking in all the exam rooms. He’s not in any of the rooms. I even check the break room, but he’s not there. Of course he wouldn’t be.
I had to go to the dentist today. And it was just my day of magical thinking.
Dr. Albert George Pfordresher DDS of Chicago, Illinois died of a massive coronary in his living room on June 4, 1950. He left a widow, my mother Virginia Pfordresher, and three children—John C. Pfordresher, a professor at Georgetown University, William F. Pfordresher, a song writer and music producer, and Beth—who wrote this piece. She thanks Joan Didion for the phrase “magical thinking.
This is a repost in honor of my father and Father’s Day. You might also like: FINDING MY FATHER Even though we never had the opportunity to talk about careers, my father influenced my career choices.