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When I lost my first tooth, I swallowed it by accident. I know it happened over the summer because in my memory I was at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey. I was sitting on the couch in the living room in between dips in their above-ground pool and my post on the curb in front of the house, the station from which I was to report any ice cream-man activity. I had been tonguing the tooth for a week. Literally hanging by a thread of gum tissue, the tooth had already flipped once, and I had run to my grandmother in a panic. My grandfather offered to “take care of it” for me. I forced it back in place with my tongue and joined him on the couch to watch Tom and Jerry.
I had been sneaking strawberry fruit roll-ups, unwrapping them quickly and rolling the red sheets up into mounds that I would hold in my cheek, jamming the wrappers into the couch cushions until I could dispose of the evidence safely. Mingled with spit, the red deliciousness went right to my brain. After a few seconds, I only had to shift the wad to the other cheek to renew the sensation, to get my fix. Sometimes I’d steal a nibble as I pushed the gooey ball across with my tongue. As Jerry outsmarted Tom, I broke a piece off and swallowed it—along with my tooth.
What happened next is one of my most embarrassing memories. One that I’ve only very recently come to terms with sharing. Next to me on the couch, my grandfather heard me gulp. He saw the look on my face and knew what had just transpired. He shook his head. I should have kept it our secret, but instead, I told my grandmother. I wasn’t thinking that telling her would bring me so much shame.
For the next twelve hours, she watched me like a dog that swallowed her engagement ring. I was not to go to the bathroom alone until the tooth appeared. In the eleventh hour, she won her prize with the help of her assistant: a coat hanger. I don’t remember clearly, but I bet my older sister dimed me out when she noticed the beads of sweat rolling down my forehead. My grandmother must have forced me: GO SIT ON THE TOILET.
The tooth was presented to my mother—my grandmother proud, my own head hung low. She placed it inside her jewelry box, where it remains today.
As the memory of this incident surfaces, my grandmother is perched on a hospital potty chair. I have stolen away from my shift in the emergency room to visit her upstairs and have found her surrounded by hospital staff, who are trying to get her to sit down. I planned on spending my lunch break sitting with her; instead I am sitting on her, trying to keep her from standing, pushing her way out of the room.
She settles with me, and now the two of us are splitting my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Me in a chair, her on the john. She’s not looking at me, she’s ashamed. But when I get the sandwich near her mouth, she opens, takes a bite. Then I take a bite, we start again.
This hospital stay, if it had to come, could not have come at a better time. My extended family is angry because my parents and sister and I had decided to have Thanksgiving on our own. My mother didn’t want to share her new grandchildren. My father didn’t want to look at the empty seat next to my grandmother where his own father should have been. Neither would directly admit this, and feelings were hurt. But when my grandmother got sick, people who were trying to give one another the cold shoulder were forced to communicate, for her sake. The tie that binds us together is that we have all been peed on this week by my grandmother, and not one of us cares. I hope the new bond will outlast the infection that sent her here.
The following day is a much better day, one I spend lying in bed next to her in her blue hospital gown, sweating in my yellow paper isolation sheath. I play her some tunes: Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. I imagine the meaning they once had to her, to my grandfather, who couldn’t carry a tune but loved to listen. I wonder if they had their own playlist. I hate myself for never asking. My own parents would slow dance to Elvis: “I can’t help falling in love with you………”
We lie there in bed and sway, moving our heads. She pats my hair to the music. “These are the good guys,” she says. (I hear my grandfather, who’s not here but still says, “Not that shit you listen to.”) We sing, and at the moment I am missing my grandfather, she finishes a line before me, “I’ll be seeeeeeeing you.”
Not yet, you old bag. Not yet you won’t.
Carly Regn is a graphic designer, bee enthusiast and nervous bike rider based in Philadelphia, PA.