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Dentist to the Rescue

A lost tooth helped two frantic women find happiness during the Christmas rush.

It’s 6:30 p.m. Friday, December 23. Cookies are baking, apple cider is bubbling, 4-year-old Brinck and 7-year-old Katy are breathlessly comparing their lists of what they want for Christmas, and I’m getting a little frantic. From now on it’s going to be nonstop cooking and shopping and entertaining, the Christmas tree is shedding like a cat, everything needs cleaning, I haven’t wrapped a single gift…

I reach for a package of paper plates and yank the plastic bag open with my teeth. There’s a sharp pain at the front of my mouth, and a strange sensation of something giving way. An object clatters on the tile floor. An earring perhaps? But even before my fingers fly up to touch my ears, I grasp the dreadful truth.

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“My tooth!” I wail. “My tooth fell out!”

My tongue probes at the empty space where my front tooth should be. Where it is, I discover by getting down on my hands and knees, is beneath the oven. I retrieve the tooth—it’s a crown, actually—and as I turn it slowly in my hand, my heart sinks. There, embedded in cement, is the broken-off stub of my real tooth, which for the past 12 years has held the crown in place.

I run to the dining-room mirror. All that remains of my tooth is a jagged nib at the gum line.

This can’t be happening! Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. The church pageant is this afternoon, and family and friends will be here for Christmas Eve supper. How can I face everyone with a missing front tooth?

I call my dentist, Madeline Apfel. Oh, Maddy, I pray, please be there. But all I get is her answering machine.

I call our children’s dentist. I call my sister’s dentist. I call dentists listed in the yellow pages. I even call a dentist in New Jersey.

At the start of the messages I leave, my voice is controlled and brave. But before my message is over I’ve dissolved into incoherent blubbering. Not helping matters is the fact that a newly acquired lisp has made my name almost impossible to pronounce.

“Thlattery!” I hear myself saying. “Thpelled with an eth, as in ‘Thylvethter Cat.'”

As a last resort, I call New York City’s Emergency Dental Service hot line. But on Friday night of a holiday weekend, no one is available to help.

“I’m sorry,” a weary voice says. “You’ll have to call back Monday morning.”

My only hope, I’m told, might be found at one of two hospitals in the city that have an emergency-room dentist on call. My husband, Tom, stays home with the kids, and I ask my sister Laurrie to go with me to Beth Israel Hospital.

When we get there, the resident dentist confirms my worst fears: Although he’s got emergency-room equipment to wire my jaws shut if I’d been in an accident, he can’t help with “routine” work that has to be done by my own dentist. “It could be worse,” he says, trying to cheer me up. “The only thing that’s hurt is your vanity.”

“It’s not just my vanity,” I wail to my sister as we trudge home. “A part of me is missing. It’s as though I’ve suddenly gone bald or found myself naked in a crowd. I don’t want to be laughed at, and I don’t want to be lectured. I want thympathy!”

But sympathy is hard to come by—even from my husband. “Aw, c’mon, Kitty,” Tom says as I come in the front door with the bad news. “It’s just a tooth.” Easy for him to say—a man who’s never had a cavity in his life.

That night I sleep fitfully and wake exhausted. As the morning drags on, I grow more gloomy and self-absorbed. The Christmas pageant is just hours away. What a sorry soul I must be to allow a silly missing tooth to put a damper on one of the happiest nights of the year.

It’s nearly noon when the telephone rings.

“This is Maddy,” the woman says, “I just checked my answering machine and got your message from last night. Do you still need help?”

Maddy! Maddy Apfel, my dentist!

“I can see you at 2:30,” she says. “We’ll see what we can do.”

Maddy’s office is a five-minute walk away, and as I head toward Fifth Avenue, I think about the woman waiting for me. Maddy is unmarried, a striking woman with wide-set eyes and a luxurious mane of blonde-streaked hair. And as far as I know, she’s the only dentist in New York City who cares enough to drop everything to help a patient in need on Christmas Eve. Just the same, I apologize for inconveniencing her.

“You know, Kitty,” she says, clipping a paper bib around my neck, “I’ve got tons to do. I have company coming for dinner, my apartment’s a mess, my tablecloth needs ironing, I haven’t wrapped a single gift, and I was beginning to panic. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Your call has helped me to put everything into perspective.”

Maddy grins. “In a funny way,” she says, “just knowing you need my help is the best Christmas present anyone could give me.”

As I lean back and open my mouth, I mull over Maddy’s words. My need…a gift? But then, why not? If Maddy gains satisfaction from helping me, my need was indeed a gift. I begin to relax for the first time in days; in fact, I’m almost glad my tooth fell out. In a way, this whole episode has now helped two frantic women put things into perspective.

For the next 90 minutes Maddy hums along merrily to Christmas carols on the radio as she reinstalls the crown. She says I’ll have to return again for more work, but at least I’ll have a front tooth to get me through the holidays.

At precisely four o’clock I slip into the church pew between Tom and Brinck. “Everything okay?” whispers Tom.

My smile is all the answer he needs.

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