About a week ago, Malcolm lost his first tooth. He swallowed it along with a bite of a marinated vegetable wrap sandwich, but he left a note under his pillow explaining the circumstance, and after he was asleep, I crept into their room less like a flitting fairy and more like a blundering, staggering oaf stifling a scream when I stepped on a toy dragon in the dark. I left a one dollar coin, and in the morning, I asked Malcolm if the tooth fairy had been. “She left me a golden quarter,” he told me. “A quarter? Are you sure?” I asked him, in the cajoling way of a parent feigning ignorance but secretly wanting credit for the full dollar. (This tone is similar to the one used at Christmas when saying, “Are you sure that’s all that’s in your stocking?” or “I think Santa might have left you one more, tucked behind the tree.” This sort of thing would tip off any normal human being that something’s fishy about parents and the supposedly magic night visitors, but children are so blissfully credulous that it sounds no alarms and they just go rooting around for more stuff.)
Malcolm’s credulity regarding the magic beings that spirit things into the house survived the night a few days later when he lost a second tooth and I had to dislodge it from under his pillow to give him his money. He half woke, staring at me with the weird blank sleep-stare that unnerves me so much I often burst into uncontrollable nervous laughter when I see it. He said, “But the train-ager is not the one you need.” “Right,” I answered, and when he was back to sleep, I left him another dollar.
This time, I had the tooth in hand by way of exchange. This is the first time a child of mine has had a tooth to leave, and I was uncertain what to do with it. Keep it? That seemed maudlin and macabre at once, somehow Victorian in its simultaneously morbid and sentimental view of childhood. The bright white square that had seemed so prominent in his small gummy mouth as an infant, now seemed miniature, with its shallow root and tidy corners. The adult teeth that had already forced themselves up in his jaw look ragged-edged and gray by comparison, ready for the grim work of a whole lifetime of tearing and chewing.
His little tooth was like the stump of umbilical cord that sloughed off when he was two weeks old. Not something I felt any wish to keep, but something he had shed and discarded that had been a part of his body when he was still a part of my body. The tooth didn’t make me feel wistful, or really much of anything besides a mild curiosity about its hollow root and bloody core. It dried up and sat wrapped in a piece of cloth on my desk for a few days.
The adult teeth are aligning themselves and shouldering into their new space now. Malcolm and I both like to check their progress everyday. I was looking at them yesterday and their shape, their profile, and their faintly gray cast brought to my mind an image from a small graveyard I visited in July on Star Island off New Hampshire’s coast. The Beebe plot is a sunken square of ground at the far end of the island. In the center, an obelisk bears the names of three Beebe sisters, aged seven, four and two, who died of scarlet fever or diphtheria over the course of a month in the summer of 1863. Just to the right are their three small marble grave markers, each with a name, Mittie, Millie and Jessie.
Even at the time, the three small white stones above three small graves reminded me of a gap-toothed child. Rolling Malcolm’s tooth between my fingers, I thought of the parents of those three girls, and of the fear that came as soon as I became a mother. The mortal fear that preceded even love.
I may be more morbid than most, more death fixated. But I doubt I’m any more fearful than any other mother. We feel that way from before they’re born until the day we die. Looking at Malcolm’s tooth, I saw it as a reminder that he is a mortal boy, and that we all, inevitably, must crawl, walk or run closer to our own deaths every day. I can’t shake the fear that comes with being a parent. Odds are, my boys will live long lives, long after I am dead. But these little pieces they slough off as they go remind me, if we do not lose them all at once, then we commit them to the earth bit by bit, tooth by tooth, hair by hair, fingernail sliver by sliver.
Bit by bit, we commit them to earth. I buried the tooth beside a tree.