Thursday, May 03, 2007


"What do you mean old," my dentist exclaimed, sincerely shocked, "why, you're not even middle aged ! You could live another fifty years !"

I had proposed, as a counter to her gum surgery, root canal and crown suggestion, that she simply extract my broken tooth. She was, as I suspected she would be, horrified. I sighed and acceded that she was correct. One missing tooth -- the late and infamous #4 whose departure was preceeded by two root canals and a crown and a world of pain -- is depressing enough; my tongue wanders from time to time into the slimy little gap where #4 used to reside and my heart sinks. It's a little memento mori, as if I needed a reminder lately. First my mother, then, just two weeks ago, DK's mother: we flew to Topeka to sit vigil at her bedside (there is no euphemism for gurgle) and in the midst of it DK learned that his old pal M. had died, a suicide, in February -- M., about whose milo field I'd written this almost 10 years ago.

iii. Milo

This is as far inland as one can get.
An old moon sags aloft in hazy air.
The milky way, like a final fling of seed,
winnows above the farmhouse, through the whirr
and whine of locust. Nights weigh less back home.

We’ve scrambled up the dirt road’s weedy bank
to where the thicket opens on a field.
Its surface ripples, restless as a pond’s,
across the dark distance, toward the darker woods.

Close-up, the flame-shaped seedheads rattle, hiss,

-- Are there snakes here, Merlin ?
-- Yes. But I’ve never seen one.

and I’m wading toward a shore of low, black trees,
an alien Ruth breast-deep in homely grain,
as the combine’s waterwheel comes threshing in.

On the morning of my mother's memorial service I sat on my glasses and crushed them. After my mother-in-law's funeral,
chewing a bagel in the temple, I broke my tooth: dicey tooth #3 whose restoration had been languishing at the top of my dentist's "treatment plan" for several years, victim of my general dental reluctance. I was, I have to admit, secretly satisfied by these little rending-of-the-garments equivalents. But, yes, I did go out and buy new glasses; and yes, I did, fearing quietly fractured #3 would eventually erupt into screams of pain, keep last Saturday's's dentist appointment.

I was in no mood to embark on a long, expensive, existentially futile dental adventure. Toothless I came into the world, I thought, and toothless I shall leave. But nonetheless, I apologized to my horrified dentist. "I trust you," I mumbled as best I could around the metal clamp that was protruding from my mouth. "I'm just being nihilistic." She continued her homily, describing octogenarian patients who go on living and chewing for decades, young patients who die in their dental prime. She counseled living each day to its fullest, and, as a corollary, giving poor, old, broken #3 the care and respect it deserved.

There's a church on every street corner in Topeka, from sober Lutheran edifices to glitzy Baptist megachurches to concrete outbuildings with stuck-on, mail-order steeples housing all sorts of tiny, DIY pentacostal sects. There's also the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, home of the ultra-unsavory, picket-wielding Fred Phelps clan and their lunatic gospel of hate and homophobia.Topeka's Episcopal Church, St. David's, has been holding its services at DK's family's temple since it burned down last November. It was likely arson. St. David's was one of the churches that Phelps had regularly picketed.

There aren't a lot of Jews in Topeka, even fewer since its famous Menninger Psychiatric Clinic moved to Texas a few years ago. I watched as Temple Beth Sholom swung into action after Alma's death: generous meals arrived for the family, and the post-funeral reception quietly materialized with one phone call.

It was high springtime in Topeka. We stood in Beth Sholom's section of Mount Hope Cemetary where many former Menninger colleagues -- including DK's father, and now his mother -- lay buried side by side. It was bright, and green and there was a warm wind blowing. The rabbi's words were familiar --

You sweep us away like a dream;
we fade away suddenly like grass.
In the morning it is green and flourishes,
in the evening it is dry and withered.

I sat in the dentist's chair and ruminated: likely the silver filling in poor old #3 was nearing a half century old. My dentist, God bless her, was bestowing me with an life expectancy of 105 years, and urging me to enter each bright, remaining day with attentive care. This was a great and unexpected gift, and I was moved. It's true: between green morning and dry evening there is a considerable stretch of time. Rabbi Stiel had described death as not an end, but as the destination of life's journey. A journey, I thought, as the drill whirred and the stench of burning tooth filled my head, through time. Heavy, encroaching, impinging time. Time that wears us and our world smooth as river stones.

Day by day, we lose handhold, eyehold, tooth-hold, foothold, wordhold, until we finally slide, beautifully polished, into the padded box or into the fiery confines of the crematory retort. And, then added the Rabbi, into eternity: free at last of time, restored -- all of us together -- to the dark, everlasting, Mysterious care of our Creator.


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