Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Bright Smile

These stories in this blog that I write started with one purpose and one purpose alone, if this tumor
was going to damage my memories, and I had to hear the stories of my life from someone else, well, I wanted that person to be me. While not everything is spelled out blatantly, there are nods and winks occasionally, there's never misdirection or creativity. It was never meant to inspire, be fuzzy or sad just a journal of both happenings and happenstance, a wandering writing of the wondering mind. Be forewarned this is one of those types of entries.

I'm a smart kid. It's been in this blog a few times that I was valedictorian of my high school and the first in my family to graduate from college. But I grew up in a rough and poor neighborhood where being "nerdy" was nothing to be admired; we (I was part of those we) made fun of the smart kids. The ones we looked up to were the ones who knew how to handle a fight (this may be why I'm a decent runner... how I handled a few fights; with that said I do know how to both throw and take a punch, never once started a fight but I finished a few.) I spent my entire life trying to "hide" that I was intelligent. I got put in gifted and talented program shortly after learning english in the United States. I graduated college with two degrees, suma cum laude, with honors and part of several honor societies but the only people who ever knew that were the people who took classes with me. Every year they would have an honors assembly at the school with all the seniors where they wold announce the awards they would be receiving at graduation. I attended every year except the year I was graduating. It wasn't humility; it was still a guy hiding the fact that he liked learning things at school more than (insert cool fashionable thing here). There was a guy I worked with for almost 3 years, a premed student who is now a brilliant doctor, who only saw my hiding coping mechanisms of pretending to be just as "normal" as everyone at intelligent things. He would say somewhat joking but mostly serious shortly after that awards assembly, all this time we've been working together and I never knew you were one of the smart kids. 

I also grew up with bad teeth. That was true of pretty much everyone in the neighborhood in a street with unpaved roads in Mexico and of almost everyone in my family. Something about the water stained your teeth, made them more susceptible to cavities, and absolutely stained them. I grew up with brown marks on white teeth or perhaps the other way around. I have zero memories of that in my first 8 years of life, neither noticing it on me, or noticing it on anyone else. Childhood pictures in Mexico have a smile that beams from ear to ear....

But then I moved to the United States, a blessing and a privilege in almost every way, but there was one very traumatic element. Most of the kids had much much better teeth and not most, perhaps not many, but enough to where it wore down my smile through elementary and certainly junior high to where I never did it without being a natural smile and even then it often came with an awkward self consciousness. This was true even around people I cared about and who I consciously knew loved me but the smile would shut down quickly because I'd remember a phrase/nickname I've never quite shaken out of my consciousness "crap teeth." Sometimes in junior high "crap" got upgraded to a more strongly rated word. It's something that I've never quite shaken from smiling even now. 

In the age of selfies and me, a guy who has been in far too much media, people wonder why I am almost never in pictures on social media that I myself put up. My brother, good friends tell me I should be in more pictures with Kiana. I joke around with something that's a hyperbolic truth; that I look much better behind the camera. But it developed in high school when I became a yearbook photographer for many reasons but an absolutely certain one was that I wanted to be in as few pictures in the yearbook as possible. I didn't want those teeth showing. I would do some yearbook photography in college and in the years I was a teacher as well. I was best friends with one yearbook editor and married another one...Despite being the first in my family to graduate college, I skipped the graduating class picture in college. Unless the photographer managed to make me smile somehow, almost all my pictures are with closed lips. A college professor, a kind old man, said what I believed he meant kindly in the middle of a conversation in front of others, when you're older you should get veneers cause you have a nice smile but those stains distract from it. I smiled a lot less for several months consciously and when doing natural smiling shut it down faster. Still, looking back through yearbooks I am grateful that my desire to hide from the camera put me behind it where I caught so many real smiles. I'd climb trees and buildings and hide and people would smile when they noticed and that got some good shots of them in the yearbooks.

Later on, less than a year into my first professional career, I'd blow through almost everything I saved into getting veneers on my front teeth, the ones I'd been most teased about. In simple frankness, I didn't know much about dentists so I may have chosen too quickly. When the brain cancer stuff started (and to this day), I stopped going to the dentist for anything regular. There were enough other medical bills to take care of. If you were wondering what my pain tolerance is, I went over a year needing a root canal before I got it done, not coincidentally on the very first month since the cancer journey started that I didn't have a brain cancer appointment. When the brain cancer appointments were further apart, I no longer had medical or dental insurance after the job issues nor had them paid off so the dentist still got neglected (I brush and floss and use mouthwash). It may well tell you the sensitive nature of this that I put off brain surgery for a few months, a root canal for longer than that because of the brain surgery bills but when my front tooth chipped, it was fixed very quickly. You may call that vanity and perhaps that's part of it but it's not the main thing. I mean this is coming from a guy who someone suggested hiding their brain surgery scar with some cosmetic surgery. I tried to grow my hair out for a few months and quickly said forget about it. 

The projection of parenting is sometimes what we want our kids to be too often to make up for our failures, or the damage we received. It was the awareness of my mortality with the diagnosis of brain cancer that me more fully aware of the fact I should be more invested in parenting. It was that possibility that Kiana might not remember me that made me be a better dad since I hadn't met my biological father till I was 15. And it was the ESPN media piece suggesting that I didn't have one that made me realize that while I didn't get one till I was 8, I'd had a great one most of my life.  Other times we parents are are trying to protect them from our bad experiences... I almost cancelled a media piece interview cause Kiana had lost a tooth naturally presuming that my issues with teeth problems would be passed on to her, that she'd hate the camera. She didn't care and smiled at me just as much in that piece as in any other. And while she's not had a perfect teeth career (we had to get her a special toothpase), a few days ago when she went for her 6 month check up she had zero new dental issues which was true 6 months ago as well. But no matter what with teeth missing or not, that kid has never hidden her smile. 

Kiana is also super nerdy and we embrace it. She's part of the chess club I coach and despite being one of the latest learners, she's consistently been one of the better players. Her science project ended up being the one that won her entire grade's competition and went to district. I thought that was awesome but it ended up not just winning her grade but being one of only 30 placers out of projects from several school districts. It's as high as they go at this level but I've joked around forever that if this brain cancer thing ends up with her being a scientists; it'll totally be worth it. They gave her a certificate that said she's a genius (it's something I've always suspected but now it's on a piece of paper so that makes it real, right?). In my neuropsychologicals, I actually still show to be in the 1 percentile so I try to make myself feel better about my damaged brain with that (while overlooking that some memory functions are now in the mildly retarded level). I never once talked bout being smart when it was normal; I was embarrassed. I've talked a lot about since I lost it, a defensive mechanism at best. Kiana has a more balanced approach because when she talks about her gifted and talented program she says well that's just what I am in, I didn't name it. Nonetheless, I am thankful she has a neighborhood, friends and a family where her intelligence is not something to hide. 

Where is this writing coming from today? So this morning one of the veneers brook off and now my teeth look horrible again (only one of them does but it's an all or nothing smile in my emotional scars). And even when they were all in place and people said nice smile, it made me self conscious, a lifetime of emotional scars or perhaps just ones that came at a young and critical age. For a guy who often says that pretentiousness isn't one of my fault, I wondered if my veneered smile itself wasn't a lie. I worked a little harder on memory tests and perhaps the guy who is usually stoic feeling his damage back in his smile, didn't do as well as usual. 

In the big scheme of things though, it's just a broken tooth. The dentist I previously use has retired so I gotta find a new one and see what the damage is both physically and financially. But while I'll probably never be comfortable in front of the camera not ever quite accept that my damaged mind is worth much anymore, I'm thankful that this is probably the best I've ever owned it. I'm thankful that I've gotten to stay alive now 5 years after cancer to watch Kiana's intelligence and her teeth be more than just flashes but more and more of a constant. So for this moment, at least today, I'm glad we both get to share a bright smile. 

1 comment:

  1. I think my biggest fear is that I will chip my tooth and no one will be able to repair it. I think you have calmed my fears a little with your story. I used to have really bad teeth also. I was in braces for 6 years and they still are not totally corrected but not they aren't scary.

    Leslie Robertson @ Masterpiece Smiles