Tag Archives: pain


WARNING: Contains dental nightmare triggers.

I was sitting in the beautifully vintage cabin of a friend’s little inland waterways boat having a second helping of blackberry crumble. It had been made with blackberries picked from the riverside the previous day.

I heard, or more felt, an ominous crack from the inside of  in my mouth.

“That,” I said out loud, “is not the sound a blackberry should make.”

By Tuesday, it was clear something was up and I ring the dentist. They had nothing until the following week so I booked in a check-up hoping I could last that long. Ten minutes later, I poked at the tooth with an exploratory little finger. One side moved. The other didn’t. I felt queasy.

I rang the dentist again.

“I really, really think something is not at all right with my tooth and I need to come in a lot sooner.”

They found me a place on Thursday, two days later.

On Thursday, the dentist gently probed the worrisome tooth then, ominously, said that he was “just going to numb the spot up a little.”

He prodded and tweaked for a minute then asked for a micro camera from the nurse. Then he did a sort of Scotty-from-Star-Trek sucking in of breath. A kind of ‘The-tooth-cannae-take-the-strain-Captain’ sort of sucking.

“The tooth is cracked,” he said, “and it isn’t good.”

He showed me. The camera revealed, in squidgy high definition, a geological faultline opening across a massive filling. The tooth had cracked deep below the line of my gums and the nerve was visible.

“We have three options,” he said. “Some truly heroic dentistry that no orthodontist would recommend; an implant, which would start at” – and he cited a truly ludicrous sum of money – “or we take it out and put a bridge in between the remaining teeth. That would be in four or five months, once the gums and bone have settled.”

“When would you take it out?” I asked.

He popped out to look at his diary.

“Now,” he said. “I’ll just numb it up a bit.”

No, I thought. I don’t want to lose another tooth. I can’t bear this.

“Okay,” I said. “Go for it.”

More injections. I closed my eyes.

“You may hear some clicking,” the dentist said.

I did. The clicking (and snapping and breaking and popping and cracking) went on for some thirty seven minutes. I kept my eyes shut. At one point I began to feel something and went “Urrrghhhh!” until he paid attention and shot me up with more local anesthetic. The nurse kept the suction pipe running and wiped away at my mouth a lot. Credit where credit’s due – I was wearing a white shirt and didn’t find so much of a speck of blood on it.

Whilst I lay there, eyes closed, doing a lot of yogic breathing and trying not to panic, I began to feel sorry for myself. I didn’t want the tooth to go. It was my tooth. It suddenly felt enormously important. I felt a little tearful. Then I thought of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man*, as people of my age group always do at these times. I imagined the local anesthetic going wrong and horrible pain shooting through my skull at any moment. I thought of men and women strapped to chairs undergoing worse in dirty rooms or clean offices with plastic sheeting spread over nice carpets. They would sit there and suffer this until they either told their interrogators what they wanted to know or until their captors grew bored. Does a certain kind of person ever grow bored of inflicting pain, I wondered? I breathed more slowly. I had a choice here. I was the lucky one. I felt rather ashamed.

Later, I wondered why my tooth was hanging on so determinedly. It was as if it didn’t want to go. I found I was talking to it, as the dentist broke it three and dragged it out of my jawbone. Please, let go, little tooth, I told it. Please let go. It’s okay. It’s over. We’ll be alright.

Suddenly, the pulling and grinding stopped and didn’t start again. I dared to open my eyes.

The tooth was gone.

I went home and mourned a little then took very powerful painkillers and two kinds of antibiotic.

“Poor daddy,” said little elf (five).

*Really, REALLY don’t watch this if visiting the dentist makes you uncomfortable.

Dante, Ugolino and a father’s terrible, terrible loss

Attentive readers will know that I recently began to tackle Dante in easy stages. The idea of Dante had been taunting me for a while and I finally I bought Ciaran Carson’s translation of the Inferno at the London Review Bookshop. The translation had had some good reviews and the conceit of leaning on the tough rhythms of the English of Northern Ireland for what turned out to be a dynamic, compelling rendition appealed. It isn’t perfect and some sections struggle to achieve the (presumed) flow of the original but the pathos, horror and humour of the poem are irresistable.

At the same time, I found my own Virgil in the unexpected form of Jorge Luis Borges’s circular expositions of his lifelong love affair with the Divine Comedy in Seven Nights (which I blogged about earlier in the week). Borges advises us to forget critics, history and linguistics and succumb to the aesthetics and passion of the verse, to enter the Comedy as an emotional experience, Carson’s translation undoubtedly delivers that.

But it isn’t the only one. I’ve started working through Longfellow’s version (which I’m carrying around on my iPhone) and awaiting the conclusion of that effort is a dual language text, the fruits of the massive Princeton Dante Project. The complete text of this translation, by the scholar Robert Hollander and his wife, the poet Jean Hollander, is available on line along with audio readings of the Italian. Borges learned to read the Italian of the original – not to speak Renaissance Italian but to read the Italian of Dante – and I plan, with the aid of all this, to try a little of the same.

But to the poem! The first lines are hypnotic enough:

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,

Or in Longfellow’s edition:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

For someone caught in the thorns and thickets of middle age like myself, it’s an irresistible image and the journey unfolds at breakneck pace from that point onwards.

There are too many marvels and terrors to describe (and a great deal of Florentine politics that Borges wisely advises us to ignore in the first instance) but this is a parenting blog and two of the denizens of the Second Division of the Ninth Circle, the Frozen Lake reserved for Traitors to their Country (Hell is an impressively coordinated bureaucracy, a Dewey Decimal of torture, agony and the thousand and one varieties of the pain of eternal separation from the Divine) particularly caught at my heart.

In Longfellow:

Already we had gone away from him,
When I beheld two frozen in one hole,
So that one head a hood was to the other;

And even as bread through hunger is devoured,
The uppermost on the other set his teeth,
There where the brain is to the nape united. (Canto XXXII)

A man is set frozen into a hole in the icy waste, a hole he shares with another fixed in the ice a little below him. He gnaws savagely and unceasingly on the skull and brains of that other and pauses only to tell Dante his story. His name is Count Ugolino and beneath him rests one Archbishop Ruggieri.

Ruggieri and Ugoline were allies and ‘traitors to their country’ both until they fell out. Ugolini and – in Dante’s account – his young sons were locked in a tower by Ruggieri and his henchmen and starved to death, Ugolino watching them die, one by one, before his death and damnation as both punished and implement of punishment for Ruggieri.

I’ve lost parents, friends, workmates and family but I don’t think it is possible to imagine the pain of losing a child. Like any other parent, I hope I never will and whilst I’m not the praying kind, such prayers as I have are always with those who have have had to live through such a terrible event. Ugolino’s sufferings as a father are surely the equal of anything Hell has to offer and Dante is unstinting:

I saw the three fall, one by one, between
The fifth day and the sixth; whence I betook me,

Already blind, to groping over each,
And three days called them after they were dead;
Then hunger did what sorrow could not do.”

Dante is silent as to whether a greater, more dreadful sin takes place and Borges calls us simply to note his silence. Ugolino’s agony is the point of his story.

The Inferno has survived for seven hundred years because Dante, like Shakespeare after him, relentlessly, tenderly, shows the solipsist in us all what the life of another is like. I suppose that’s why this episode and much else in the text haunts me to such a degree and it is good that it does.