My first wisdom tooth began to erupt when I was sixteen. I was spending the summer with aunt and uncle in Idaho, and a few weeks into the visit, I developed a deep earache. My uncle was a neurosurgeon and an ego maniac, so he diagnosed my problem and authorized a potent antibiotic for the ear. A few days later we took to the road for a week-long vacation to Reno and as we crossed the mountains, my misery only increased; the right side of my head and face felt like a bomb kept exploding. I sunk down in the back seat of the car and quietly winced as we rolled down the road. The pain went on in various degrees of intensity for another week and then disappeared. I assumed it was just an extra nasty ear infection. It had been the wisdom tooth, and the medicine had nothing to do with the pain subsiding. The tooth just took a break. Over the next five years, the tooth periodically bumped up against my gum, trying to emerge. It finally triumphed when I was twenty-five.
Cutting a wisdom tooth is not a rite of passage as is the sprouting of milk teeth. Most parents, it seems, have the camera ready to document and celebrate the appearance of these sharp little white caps. Sure, the infant experiences discomfort, drooling, biting to soothe the pain, but in return, the baby gets all sorts of loving attention. And later, the child is paid for losing the teeth. But wisdom teeth are just pure hell. You would think attributing wisdom to teeth that they would be worth more. No, it costs $600 to $1500 to have the lowly wisdom teeth removed. In my case, sweet but ancient Dr. Harrison tottered around for four hours digging out two of my four wisdom teeth, taking breaks every twenty minutes to clean a set of toddler teeth or fill a cavity. The next week I went back to have the other two dug out and left again with a bloody mouth full of cotton.
According to the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson, these third molars have been known as wisdom teeth since Hippocrates referred to them as prudent teeth and the Romans identified them as teeth of wisdom, both based on the idea that the teeth appear at the age when a child reaches adulthood. At eighteen, I was anything but an adult. Since in our modern age childhood has been extended well into the thirties, I think we need to rename these molars. I think the premise we might work from is that the pain experienced from the entire wisdom teeth process should bring wisdom. What kind of wisdom, I’m not sure.
I do know that the phrase “cutting one’s teeth,” meaning to learn from experience, is one that applies to my current life. Sometime ago, I lost all pleasure in creating; rather than focusing on the joy of discovery through creation, I allowed myself to suffocate in expectations that are unrelated to what is most important about writing: The experience. So, here I am, cutting my writing teeth again after so many years. Hopefully, the drooling will be minimal.
by Aracelis Girmay
for cousin gideon, who drove us to massawa
Two sisters ride down with us
to Massawa’s liberation celebration.
One sister is the color of injera; her teeth are big and stuck-out.
One sister is a cinnamon stick.
Their almond eyes are the same.
The ink black hair falls beautiful down their backs.
I see that you love one of them & change my mind
many times about which I choose for you.
Months later, I will show their photographs to my father
who will laugh & say he knows,
‘It is this one,’ he will say, surely, pointing
to the woman whose teeth stay in her mouth.
(What man will choose a womaN
whose mouth is stronger than his hands?)
But, cousin, for you I choose the older one
whose teeth might be bullets of ivory;
I imagine that from this mouth:
ax equal to lace, the yellow & lick
of a jar filled with
the sweet of stinging bees.