Yesterday was our fourth time in the orthodontist’s office. Maybe fifth. Elias walked in with ease, the way he generally moves through the world. Calm and enthusiastically. And then without warning he said, “My stomach hurts.” Looking up at me with a slightly gray face. My own stomach dropped. “Oh God, no. Is he sick? Is he nervous? Did I miss something?” A million self-incriminating thoughts go through my head as I attempt to keep my face expressionless and my eyes calm. We talk about it for a few minutes. “I think you’ll be okay.” I say more confidently than I feel.
Every time I think we’re out of the dregs of winter sickness another one of us gets waylaid and I just don’t think I can take it anymore. A wave of panic ripples through my stomach. He turns and starts playing with a puzzle. I try to compose myself. I realize I’ve been holding my breath. I try to breathe without much luck.
“Okay, Elias. We’re ready for you.” The receptionist calls. 8:00 on the Monday morning after February break — I remember her asking when I made the appointment if I was sure I wanted to schedule it then. After a break. On a Monday no less. I recall thinking, “I don’t know anything about this stuff … If it’s a bad time, why are you offering it?” But I made it anyway with my chest getting tight from self-doubt. And of course, now, I spiral into negative thoughts about my crappy mothering, thinking to myself, “God what was I doing making an appointment like this today?”
He slides into the chair. Giving me a stare that says, “My stomach really hurts!” And since he is the puker in our family my pale face inquires silently back, “Are you okay?!” He just looks at me earnestly and I’m not sure what to do. So I ask if his stomach is okay. The doctor and the nurse pause and look at him. Elias smiles back at them, gives me another stare down and then easily sits back.
The tray of metal equipment, dental contraptions and gauze blocks him from me. I want to hold his hand and coo at him but I cannot reach him. So I sit and watch from afar. I’d have been okay if he hadn’t had the stomach thing happen. I would have focused on his excitement. But now I’m afraid. His body is calmly reclined back. My own body rigid and tense. Watching. Waiting. Still holding my breath.
We listen as the orthodontist explains again what’s going to happen. He pulls out the palate expander that has been made for my son’s mouth and I feel like I might faint when I see it. If Elias had gotten nauseous, nervous or complained, I probably would have keeled over. But he didn’t. He sat with his nervous tummy and inquisitive eyes as the whole procedure took place. Elias has been waiting for this day — when he gets to join the exciting right of passage — being an elementary schooler with some sort of orthodontic device in his mouth! He’s been incredibly excited and it appears no stomachache is going to stop him now.
As they smear the cement onto the metal brackets, I break into a claustrophobic sweat. I look down at my clammy palms, I look at the ceiling hoping beyond hope that he doesn’t wretch or gag when they put it in. If he does, I’ll freak out and make them yank the thing from his mouth. I’m ready to leap in and rescue him from choking and I’m thankful now for the nurse and the tray and the equipment blocking my son from me; preventing him from seeing my frightened eyes and hyper vigilant watching. I talk positively and encouragingly. He gives me a thumbs up. We all marvel at how brave he is. No one more than me. And then it’s done. Just like that. I am given a key and shown how to place it into a tiny hole and give it one crank down each day. Expanding his palate. Giving him the room he needs for his teeth to come in. Making more space.
It’s a horrific looking thing. He thinks it’s awesome. After I drop him off at school I sit in the car shaking from the whole experience, from having been sick, from my disappointment about our non-break break, from life in general. All of it. And I cry a sad and tired cry that makes me cough with that pestering lingering cough. “Damn you cough.”
After school Elias laughs and laughs about how at lunch time he discovered if he says the word “chicken” while eating, it will expel any food chunks trapped between the roof of his mouth and the metal. Who knew? My moody almost 13-year-old giggles like a toddler when she hears him try to say words and my heart floods with so much love and gratitude. Our car ride to swim team practice is filled with laughter and spit and happy tears from this crazy thing in Elias’ mouth. The sound of my children in hysterics makes me smile and silently cry at the same time. Life does that.
My kids are braver than I am. Most kids are. Sometimes I get pissed-off when I hear people say, “Kids are so resilient.” Because the cynic in me thinks, “What are you saying? Kids are resilient so we can shit on them and then hope for the best?” But that’s the trauma survivor in me speaking. It is the small, wounded person who is still doing her inner work. Trying to reconcile that I get frightened when I get sick and cannot move my body. Knowing that I am so incredibly claustrophobic that I cannot have my children cover my face with their hands. And acknowledging that if it were me and not Elias who had to have that expander cemented to my teeth and placed upon my palate for months and months I’d have never been able to endure it. Just the idea of it being in my own mouth makes me feel like I’m being trapped and the thought of it makes me feel like I’m being suffocated.
But Elias? He’s absolutely delighted. He loves this idea of being stretched and he loves that he’s the only member of our family with this experience. It’s his very own.
I’m so sad lately I don’t quite know how to rally. It’s hard not to feel suffocated by my feelings and sometimes I just want to quit and let myself be consumed by my own thoughts and emotions. Trapped by them. I’m trying hard to hold a space for them but life feels more like a cold metal contraption wrenched into my mouth with a claustrophobic grip than a nifty device, affording growth.
Pema Chödrön advices that we start where we are. We start with the palate we are born with. If necessary, we get an unsightly expander and we are given a key. I will take the little blue key, place it into the lock and turn it every day. I’ll look at my son’s happy eyes and whisper “chicken” to myself when the turning gets tough and I’ll think of my three brave children, laughing and laughing in the back of our minivan at Elias’ inability to form words. I will remind myself of his enthusiasm for this uncomfortable thing that, in time, will give him so much more room — as long as we show up every day and keep turning the key.
Take care. Much love.