Tuesday, May 10, 2011

This too shall pass, Tim

It was a bad time for Tim as this month began, at least bad within his personal frame of reference. He had a fever for four days and missed the overnight class trip. After four days of feeling crummy, he finally felt much better but had to stay home from school anyway per the doctor’s orders, so on that fifth day he was bored silly and frustrated by the awareness that all his friends were back from the trip and having fun at school without him. Last Monday, he was finally able to return to school, which was great – but then Tuesday, as had been planned weeks ago, it was off to the orthodontist to have braces put on.

I was so relieved to finally have Tim’s long-anticipated orthodontic treatment under way that I hadn’t given much thought to how it would actually feel to him. I don’t think he necessarily had, either – given the propensity of kids his age to live in the moment – and I suppose the fact that about fifty percent of his sixth grade class already has braces made both of us see it as an everyday thing.

In fact, I have to confess that I was looking forward to that first braces-installation appointment a little bit. These days, I look forward to anything that involves sitting in a waiting room with nothing much to do. Waiting at the airport for a flight to depart. Taking the car to Jiffy Lube. The kids’ haircuts. The Registry of Motor Vehicles. I’ve come to treasure those rare places where so little is expected of me other than sitting and waiting. Knowing Tim’s appointment would last a couple of hours, I knew I could catch up on a whole weekend of newspapers.

Besides that, Tim’s orthodontist’s office is a unique place to sit and wait. I think of it as the Disney World of medical practices. Every single employee I’ve ever met there is friendly, cheerful, and articulate. The waiting room has a coffee station for parents and Xbox video games for kids. Standard giveaways for patients include t-shirts, movie nights and water park excursions. I settled down happily with my laptop, logged on to the Internet via the office’s free wireless access, and waved Tim off as he headed to the dentist’s chair.

Two hours later, I realized my expectations had been a bit glib. I had one miserable boy on my hands. His teeth didn’t hurt, he told me as I repeatedly asked; he just felt so uncomfortable with wire laced throughout his mouth. The idea of eating anything didn’t appeal to him at all, and he spent an unhappy afternoon back at home.

Later that day he contemplated a bowl of oatmeal and his eyes welled up. “I’m going to eat oatmeal for the next two years?” he wailed.

In those few words, I saw the problem. He was assuming the way he felt at that moment, that hour, that whole day even, was how things would be for as long as he had braces. Even after twelve years of life, he hadn’t yet truly assimilated the transitory nature of time, the awareness that feeling bad, no matter what form it takes, doesn’t mean you won’t soon feel better.

“No, not for the next two years!” I told him. “You’ll be ready to eat regular food soon! You’ll get used to the braces. You’ll feel better.” After all, I pointed out, his friend Austin had been in braces for months, and did Tim ever hear him complain about how miserable a situation it was? Of course not, because the misery passes.

But, as most adults know, easy to say; sometimes harder to believe. When Tim was an infant, I never believed he’d someday sleep more than two hours at a time. When he was a toddler, I never believed he would someday talk. When Holly refused to give up crawling long after her first birthday, I feared she’d never walk. It wasn’t that I had unreasonable concerns about my kids’ development; it was just hard for me to remember that every stage passes, just as Tim was having trouble believing the initial discomfort of braces wouldn’t last for the full two years he was scheduled to wear them.

But it did pass, of course. A week later, he already feels normal in braces. He’s learning to brush his teeth carefully and avoid eating meat off the bone. He’s ready to reassure those friends who haven’t yet started their orthodontic treatment that it’s really no big deal. Oatmeal for the first day or two, he tells them, and then you’ll be fine.

So I hope it’s a lesson he’ll transfer to other situations: discomfort, pain and unhappiness pass. (So do tranquility, elation and triumph, of course, but no need to rush that lesson.) Braces was one way to discover that, and I’m sure it’s something he’ll continue learning, just as I continue learning it still. This is a start, though, and I can only hope he’ll long remember that two days after getting his braces on, he started feeling better.

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