Why Hurt, Little Tooth?

This story was first told by Rabbi Corinne Copnick at a storytelling conference in Toronto, Ontario and later published on http://cryo-kid.blogspot.com.

Why Hurt, Little Tooth?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

I’m going to tell you a story – a true story about my father who was a Montreal dentist. I first told this story at a storytelling session, where one creative artist after another got up and told a story. We made them up. To relax. For fun. Because, after two days of workshopping, it was a time for sharing. And now I want to share my story with you.

At the storytelling session, just before my turn, a young student was telling a story about chickens, and the story preceding her story concerned the financially hard times we were experiencing in Canada in the early nineties.

But only half of my mind listened to the students’ tales. I was spinning my own reverie, the other part of my mind taking me back to the the 1930s, to the “real” depression years. I was thinking about hard times, about chickens…about my father. He had so recently passed away.

The chickens I was remembering were the ones my father got in return for fillings in the jobless thirties. Then people asked, “Are you working?” instead of “Hello, how are you?” If you were working, you were obviously all right.

In that very real depression in 1936, the year I was born, my father was accepting not only chickens, but their offspring, eggs. He would receive a wide assortment of other small items (usually grown in people’s back yards) bartered in return for dental work. His impoverished clients could not otherwise pay. My father had been providing food for his own little family in this way since 1933, the year he graduated in dentistry from McGill University.

He had actually been accepted into medicine, quite an achievement at a time when McGill accepted few Jews, especially a poor boy like my father – who sat with his hands covering the elbow holes of his jacket.

My father, the son of a junk peddler, was the only one of eight children to make it to university. This he did by dint of several scholarships and also by holding three jobs at the same time. He peeled potatoes at the amusement park (late night shift), worked as a longshoreman on the docks (summer), and served as a guide on a Montreal tour bus (weekends).

But he couldn’t accept his hard-won entry into medicine. In those days, a Canadian medical graduate had to do a two-year, unpaid hospital internship after graduation. This my father could never afford.

Instead he went into dentistry, which didn’t require the roadblock internship. Although he was very proud of his surgical skills, what I remember most about my father was his compassion. Quite simply, he cared about his patients. He was the kind of dentist who brought morning tea and toast to a disabled patient he was worried about. Once I saw him give back money to a woman who paid him in handkerchief-wrapped quarters and dimes.

“You’ll pay me when you have a little more money,” he said softly. And when his patients didn’t have any, they could bring him some bread or home-baked cake or garden peas – or a chicken.

We ate a lot of chicken. In those old-fashioned, caring, depression days, my father’s office was in our home. In 1939 just before he voluntarily joined the army and went to war, I was just a little girl, but I remember playing with toys in my father’s waiting room. I remember watching the stream of dental patients come with food and go out with fillings.

I remember the incredulous screams of joy that came from his office late one afternoon. My mother came running, and, for a long while after that, I heard sounds that, even to my little girl’s ears that didn’t know yet about miracles, signaled that something momentous was taking place here, in my father’s office.

As I peeked in the doorway, I could see that an elderly woman who had come with a chicken was sitting in the dental chair. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and they were also making joyful pathways down the face of the sister who stood, clutching her hand, beside her.

My father also stood, transfixed, his voice husky with emotion as he asked the elderly woman questions pertinent to this moment none of them would ever forget.

“You can see?” he asked in a hushed tone.

“I can see, I can see,” the woman smiled through her tears. “Oh, dear God, I can see!”

Her sister had brought her to my father’s dental office because she had been suffering from an agonizing toothache. To go to a dentist cost money she couldn’t afford, and she had waited and waited until she couldn’t bear the pain any more. How could one little tooth hurt so  much?

Finally, she came to my father. A kind man who would accept whatever she could spare, people said, and so she came with her little offering of food. She walked in, guided by her sister, because the elderly lady was blind. She had been unable to see anything, not anything at all, for several years.

As my father tried to alleviate this terrible ache with his dental arts, as he extracted the rotted, blackened tooth that poverty had kept in the old lady’s mouth, she began to shriek her joyful disbelief. The tooth had been pressing on an optic nerve. For all of the several years the woman had been unable to see.

In my father’s dental chair, as the tooth was removed, as the pressure on the nerve was taken away, she began to see. Oh, not all at once! At first she could only see shadowy glimpses, floating by in black and white. But in the days before color and clarity once again began to fill her world, she could see images – beautiful, long-lost images. She could see the shape of things to come. She could see that the world was a wondrous place where miracles can happen. And that there were people like my father in it.

It was not long after this incident that my father began to feed his family (now there was my sister) with a monthly check from the army. And in the newsletter printed by the Canadian army in Canada, and also in England where my father was stationed during World War II, a poem written by him appeared.

The poem was called, “Why hurt, little tooth?” It didn’t mention the elderly lady. It didn’t mention the miracle. I was only a little girl, but even I knew that the little tooth didn’t hurt any more.