Jack is upset. “My mouth hurts Mommy! And there’s a bump!”
“Can you show me where baby?”
He takes my finger and places it on a wet, tender-firm lump all the way in the back of his mouth. Immediately, I am transported back to memories of teething babies. Those little swellings would form, followed soon after by sharp, ridgy dots of white, visible on smooth pink gums. Aaron and I would run our fingers over the ridges, fascinated by the tiny tooth emerging.
“It’s a tooth!” I told Jack excitedly.
I did not expect him to burst into tears.
Nervously, I begin to ramble, trying to make it better. “No Sweetie. This is so exciting! “You’re getting a molar! Those are the big teeth all of the way in the back of your mouth! Your molars are your grownup teeth! So, you know what this means?!!!”
He shakes his head slowly, sniffling, his face wet with tears, nose running.
“Your other grown-up teeth are coming! All of your baby teeth are going to get loose and fall out and your grown-up teeth will come in! The bump on your gums means that this will probably happen really soon! You get to put the teeth under your pillow!” I struggle to keep my upbeat tone though I am distracted by how bizarre my “reassurance” sounds.
Jacks eyes grow wide. His face is pale.”Will it hurt?” he asks.
“Maybe a tiny bit. ”
My voice takes on this high-pitched, falsely chipper tone. I sound insane to myself.
“Mostly it’s kind of fun. I remember wiggling my teeth back and forth all day long. And it would hurt a teeny bit, but for some reason I kind of liked it and I just couldn’t resist pushing it with my tongue more and more and more, until it would just pop out! And then you get to put your tooth under your pillow and the tooth fairy comes and takes it away! And she just might leave you some money!”
Jack starts shaking and crying so violently that he can hardly breathe.
“I like the teeth I have!” he moans, “I want to keep them!”
I’d never thought terribly hard about this process before, but with each excited word I uttered,as I desperately tried to drum up Jack’s enthusiasm (Who doesn’t want to lose a tooth?!!!) it became clearer and clearer how terrifying bizarre it actually is–
sharp edges of bone
bursting through tender gums.
the slight taste of blood in your mouth.
the exhilarating sting
as you tease a piece of your body,
once rooted reliably
to simply detach.
My shoulders tense as my mind fills suddenly with images of the tooth dreams that have plagued me for years. A quick google search reveals that dreams of teeth are common and completely unoriginal anxiety dreams. Common they may be, but mine are painfully vivid and leave me wide awake, filled panic and horror and deep shame.
What I always think of as my first tooth dream,though technically more of a “gum dream”, is seared permanently on my mind.
I remember sitting up breathlessly in our house on Van Vorst St, in the room I shared with my sister. I frantically examined every corner of my mouth with my tongue to reassure myself that the dream was not real. I remember focussing my eyes on the familiar sight of Molly asleep in her bed surrounded by stuffed animals, to calm myself.
But most of all, I remember the details of the dream.
I can see it still.
It is a sunny, summer day. I am walking slowly down the path in front of our house when all of a sudden my mouth feels full.
there is this terrifying pulpy presence in my mouth.
this odd sense of emerging bulk.
heavy, wet, alarming.
I push the damp mass from my mouth with my tongue and I watch it fall heavily to the sidewalk.
Lying there is a large, pink chunk of my gums, mesmerizingly moist and spongy. It glistens in the sun, like a dropped chunk of watermelon.
I take another step and again my mouth is full. Again I spit out a wet hunk of flesh. It happens with each step and I remember reaching the end of the pathway, where our front walk met up with the sidewalk, and looking back at the ghastly wet trail leading up to the front porch and feeling overtaken by terror.
Over the years I have had similar dreams regularly. In them I am invariably in a place where I am supposed to seem normal and responsible– work, a family function– when I notice, to my horror, that one of my teeth is loose. The discovery is always marked by horror and shame that mounts as I find myself unable to leave the tooth alone. I can’t stop fiddling with it with my tongue, both repulsed and fascinated by the way it gradually becomes looser and looser until suddenly,
it just breaks free.
It’s no longer a part of me,
but a hard wet presence in my mouth.
A terrible object with smooth sides
and sharp edges
that slice my tongue.
There is always an awkwardness in the dream as I try to figure out what to do with the tooth and how to hide the mortifying gap in my mouth.
The alien feeling of the toothless gap,
deep and empty and vulnerable,
a part of you never before exposed to air,
and the compulsion to jam your tongue in there
to protect it’s sensitive newness.
What if these dreams, so common in our culture, are really a memory of trauma?
A memory of the anxiety that Jack is experiencing right now.
Right now, as he attempts to wrap his mind around the idea that parts of his body can just fall off or that new parts can force their way in.
Somehow we push it down.
We make it normal.
We tell ourselves that a fairy and a shiny new quarter will make it all okay.
The memory lingers.
Lately, every night it’s the same thing:
“Mommy, close the door,” Jack whines, “So the monsters can’t get in.”
I don’t know where this new fear has come from. I can’t put my finger on exactly when it started, or what it is that sparked it. All I know is that now it has become routine to make a show of closing the door securely so that Jack feels secure enough to relax into sleep.
I was lying in my own bed, watching the shadows of the passing cars drift across the ceiling, contemplating Jack’s new fear and whether or not it was worth being concerned about, when in a flash,
I recalled The Big Ooh.
I can still see Zeke laying in our bed, his little hands clutching the blanket tightly, where it was tucked beneath his chin, eyes wide and staring.
“Mommy,” he would say, in a whisper. “I saw The Big Ooh again.”
We live in a building that is right off of Flatbush Avenue, a busy street in Brooklyn, where it is never truly dark or completely quiet. Aaron’s bicycle hangs on a hook near the ceiling and and as the cars rush endlessly by, headlights shine over handlebars and through the spokes of the wheel, creating patterns of light and shadow, which ebb and flow endlessly past.
Zeke watched the shadowy shapes roll across the ceiling night after night, and to him they became something alive:
The Big Ooh.
He was vague on the details of The Big Ooh. He seemed less frightened by her than intrigued. He told us that she had red eyes and that he only saw her at night because during the day she was busy “taking care of her children”.
And, with a jolt, I remembered something else too.
When I was a little girl, there were these “people” that lived under my bed. I wasn’t exactly afraid of them, but I was always very aware of their presence and that awareness made me a little uneasy. I’m not sure if I ever mentioned them to anyone, but I have very vivid memories of lying awake in bed thinking about them and being almost paralyzed by my profound awareness of their presence. I remember taking deep breaths and resolving to be brave enough to hang my head over the side of my bed and peek down at them. It would take me a while to summon the courage, and my glances were always brief and breathless.
They would lie with their backs to me, their stomachs on the floor, heads propped up on their elbows. They were fuzzy and gray; shadowy. They looked as if they were made of fog and hairballs and dust. And I knew they were under there, but I also knew that they would never come out.
My memory of them is as vague as their lazy silhouettes were, but they remain one of the oddest and most exhilarating memories that I have, because my rational adult mind tells me that they couldn’t possibly have been under there. But I still remember them.
I saw them.
And I never had an “Aha” moment where I realized that my overactive imagination was spinning dust bunnies or lost socks into mysterious lethargic beings. Their presence was never explained away, and I can still remember the way they looked, the way I saw them as a child.
I have since asked Zeke about The Big Ooh and he has no memory of her at all. I suppose that whatever Jack imagines is lurking behind the door will fade away too.
And as they grow and their childhood fears disappear, so too will the world where magic is possible. Danger will be all too unavoidably real and even a door that is firmly shut will not make them feel safe.
As their mom, I desperately want to protect them from any and all danger, and to keep them safe within my tight and reassuring grasp.
But there is a part of me that wants them to hold on to the indistinct creatures of the night, somewhere deep inside, even if they can’t really believe in them anymore.
To remember that once, you believed.
That is a gift.