When she was 75, a dentist advised her to get dentures. I lived three hours north by then and I swear that this news was more devastating to her than when, two years later, she would call me to say she had just a few months to live. “I feel I have no choice,” she said, about the dental advice. She was newly divorced from my father, something long overdue, for all the unhappiness she had caused him. Fiercely reserved, she rarely shared her innermost feelings, but she did keep me apprised of each appointment. I could not imagine what it must have been like for her to sit in the familiar dentist chair, awaiting the removal of her teeth.
The dentures were a good fit and natural color, she had selected well. She didn’t take them out at night, trying to simulate real teeth. A month after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she called me to say goodbye, declaring her end was near. I cried for an hour, shocked and also moved by her openness. In the morning, she was still alive when I arrived, but barely conscious. I relieved her caregiver and took up residence. She lay like an upturned, very-wounded bird on her narrow twin bed. Breathing was laborious, but the noise that filled the apartment was the dentures clacking. When the hospice nurse appeared for her daily check-in, she told me to take the teeth out, it would be easier on everyone. I suppose she was reminded of the wind-up gag teeth sets. I knew my mother would be mortified to think she lay in my view with her mouth sunken, skin folding in where the teeth should be, her face distorted. It took all the courage I could muster to remove them. I’d never seen her without teeth. The silence was peaceful, and soon after was permanent.