Staring into the grainy image on the computer screen, the X-ray confirmed what we’d guessed for some time. The roughly half of Devan’s adult teeth that had arrived were finding it hard to jockey for sufficient space, and those still lurking in the shadows would have the same challenge. She would be fitted for and – for some unknown number of months – wear a “spacer,” along with braces on a subset of her top teeth.
This was no medical crisis. Indeed, aside from the discomfort I wished I could spare her, and the bill I wished I could spare us, it was hardly a moment worth fretting any further.
Yet there it was, the peculiar form of vertigo that is unique to parenthood.
A gracious technician began laying out the series of appointments to follow. But I had stopped listening. My gaze drifted to the tweens and teens milling about us.
How the hell can I possibly be sitting in an orthodontist’s office?
Having quickly processed the developments, Devan rested her chin in her hands, braced her elbows on the desk, and began rattling off a reasonable but lengthy set of questions.
How long. How much would it hurt. How much school could she miss coming to these appointments. What about popcorn. Jolly Ranchers. Pretzels. Gummy bears. Would Kian meet this same fate. Would her other adult teeth come in straight when this was all over.
I don’t know.
I hope not a lot.
Not as much as you’d like.
I don’t know.
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know….
It seems like that phrase falls off my tongue these days when it comes to my daughter. That is a humbling place to be when – as of tomorrow – I will have been at this parenting business for nine years.
When Devan was a baby, we shared a nanny with our dear friends Maribeth and Efrem. Our daughters were born exactly one week apart, and were essentially raised as sisters for their first few years of life. This arrangement, conceived as a practical response to the staggering cost of full-time child care, yielded infinitely more than we could have imagined.
Our nanny was an old-school, 60 year old woman named Fredericka Curry. To the many Washington families she guided into and through raising children, she was Miss Freddie.
The four of us – individually, and collectively – knew exactly nothing, except that our lives had just changed profoundly.
Miss Freddie knew babies.
Though she came highly recommended from a series of families we knew, it took a while for us all to get used to each other. Certainly, some of her methods could be off-putting. We eventually adjusted to her habit of grading our infants at the end of every day. Neither of them bested a C-minus for the first several months. She never minced words, and while she loved our girls, she let her work and dedication stand as the reflection of that love. She cuddled, but never coddled.
Miss Freddie got a kick out of our haplessness. While she fed, changed, bathed, and strolled two babies for five days a week without breaking much of a sweat, we staggered through our nights and weekends, two (and often more) adults, puzzling and fretting and spilling and tripping through the bewildering hours, all in the name of caring for one human roughly the size of an olive loaf.
In the early days, we lived week to week and didn’t think too much about what was to come. We didn’t really need to. As Devan and Leah grew, Miss Freddie would simply announce as fact the next milestone on the horizon.
Time to introduce cereal. Oatmeal before rice.
They’re ready for baby food.
She’s about to get a tooth.
These soft little baby shoes have to go. This girl wants to walk.
Gotta get Leah out of that Miracle Blanket.
Time to lower the crib again. Girlie is about ready to scale the side.
Let’s buy the little potties and see what happens.
Each edict caught us off guard. Incredulous, uninitiated, and clinging to any crutch that had ever worked, we resisted the changes Miss Freddie knew were already upon us. She was always right. We were sheepish and grateful. We did well when we learned to let go.
We let go of Miss Freddie when the girls were about three. The world’s most deserving retiree, she left us when we were hitting our stride as parents. We had mastered the basics, and then some. We knew what a certain cry signaled, and when a missed nap would rain hellfire down upon us. We knew Dreft was a joke, but Orajel was not, and that – like the Windex in the Greek Wedding movie – almost every ill could be addressed, at least in some fashion, with Aquaphor.
And yet, parenting is like repeatedly getting a masters’ degree in what abruptly becomes a dead language. You think the months and years of careful study and practice will produce larger dividends, but not much is transferable from one phase to the next. This is probably why parents with older children cannot resist doling out all manner of tips and wisdom to new mothers and fathers. We invested so much in accumulating a body of knowledge that no longer has any practical application in our own lives. If we don’t share it, it’s as good as having the combination to your junior high locker permanently committed to memory.
We’re also wistful, at least a little, for the Orajel days. The older your child gets, the less predictable and more individualized those milestones become. For nine years, I have learned as I went along. But as the stakes grow higher, quick fixes are harder to come by. There is a tried and true cure for diaper rash. I’ve yet to find an effective balm for when she’s excluded at recess, or when first blood is drawn by the mean girl in class.
And I don’t have Miss Freddie to nudge me into each new reality. I often wonder what she would make of her former charge, had cancer not stolen her rightfully earned years of putting her feet up, at last. But since she spoke only truth and never pulled punches, I can hear her saying the following, not necessarily in this order.
She’s halfway to leaving you for good.
By the way, we’re running low on milk.
And I’m guessing Girlie needs some braces.
Once again, though I wouldn’t want to hear it, Miss Freddie would be right.
Today, a school holiday in the District, my mom and I took Devan and Leah to the American Girl store in the Tyson’s Corner mall. The girls had their own saved money to spend, and they weighed the relative merits of the wares. I tried to give them a little space, though I lurked behind the displays watching them like a hawk. They would drift in separate directions for a time, then look for each other, and for me. Without being self-conscious about it, or even conscious of it, they occasionally held hands.
I still have her, I thought, at least a little while longer. And right now -today – I know she thinks that a day shopping for miniature outfits and getting milkshakes with her Grammy, and Leah, and me, is about as good as it gets.
So maybe I know more than I want to admit. I know she is closer to driving than to diapers. I know that very soon she will need me in wholly new ways and recoil at me in many others. I know that the first dominoes to fall will be days like today. I know I have to enjoy the now, not cling to it.
There’s a lot more vertigo to come.
The braces are still a few weeks away. In the meantime, the orthodontist is creating the spacer from a mold they just took of Devan’s 8 year old mouth. From what I understand, I will be given a “key” that I insert into this medieval torture device, which I will turn at the instructed intervals to force her mouth to expand, so her teeth can line up alongside each other. The way grown-up teeth are supposed to.
Whoever developed this approach had to have a healthy appreciation for irony: if you weren’t already cursing the fact that life is coming to crash your happy nine year-long party, you – the mother – get to wield the crank to create the space that’s necessary, and inflict a fair amount of pain on your child in the process. And I’ll do it, because that is what needs to be done.
So here, on the verge of the halfway mark, I’m relishing the last days of my daughter’s childhood smile. Not the baby one, the gooey gums that gave way to little Tic Tac teeth dropping neatly (though painfully, see supra, re Orajel) into place. But the smile that came together over the last four years, jumbled and imperfect, crowded but carefree. It’s the one that still declares “Family Cuddle!!” in the morning. It’s the one that beams with pride as she masters another Taylor song on her guitar. It’s the smile that tries to tell me, if I’d only listen, that I don’t need to know more than I do right now, or how to parent any girl other than my own. And that girl – wondrously, crushingly, impossibly – is nine.
I will figure out the rest.
That’s what the next half is for.