Goodbye Tooth by Barbara Sherf

cowboymission_editI said farewell today to what has been described as Tooth #8 to those in the dental community, but to me it was my right front tooth that had given me a winning smile for more than 50 years.
With eyes squeezed shut and tears streaming down my cheeks, I knew the second it was out and tears again streamed down my face as I asked family friend, Dr. Alan Krochtengel, if I could take the tooth with me.
Alan had thought I was crying from the pain, but those tears were more about the closing of a chapter of my life and the clarity in knowing when to fold.
As he handed me the bloodied tooth, we both saw a small fracture that was likely sustained during a 2008 horseback riding accident in the Wissahickon. Valley. The tooth was a painful reminder of that last ride my father and I would share.
For the record, the accident had not been the horses’ fault. I had brought Sunny into a full gallop along a demonstration trail cleared of rocks and downed limbs by the Friends of the Wissahickon, as part of a pilot trail maintenance program designed to make it safer for bikers, riders and hikers. One thing that could not be cleared were the gnarled tree roots; some apparent and others hidden just below the surface of the soil. It was one such concealed set of roots that brought, Sunny, one of five horses who were part of the Philadelphia Saddle Club, to an abrupt halt. It seems the space between his hoof and shoe got caught in the web-like roots, with the shoe tearing off and sending him to the ground and me flying over him.
As I lay there in shock and assessing my injuries – concussion, broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder- Sunny regrouped and limped over to nuzzle me and apologize.
“It wasn’t your fault, boy, I’m so sorry,” I said looking to see that his hoof had been badly butchered.
My father, riding Wyatt, was behind us and immediately dismounted, helping me to rest on a large rock just off of the trail. What if I had come down on that rock, I thought, as my mind raced to formulate a plan for getting to the ER and my father and the two horses safely back to the barn.
At the time of the accident, both front teeth had come loose, but they had not come out and for that I was grateful. But over time, it was clear Tooth #8 had to go.
Two painful and expensive root canals over the years, followed in July by oral surgery, had not done the trick and I was ready to fold,
Reclining in the dentist chair waiting for my mouth to get sufficiently numb, tears rolled down my cheeks at the memories of times in my life I had folded. Alan came in and wiped the tears away with the pink bib clipped around my neck, telling me that it won’t hurt and that he was in agreement with my decision to take the tooth out. He did not know why I was crying.
Back at home, now swollen but still numb, I carefully washed the bloody tooth before placing it in my jewelry box, where it now serves as a symbol to me of knowing when to say when.
I had recognized my father’s progressive dementia in the months leading up to the accident and his 80th Birthday. When I witnessed him bring the wrong horse into the barn the morning of our last ride, I knew these outings had to come to an end or one of us or the horses would be hurt. The previous week we had ridden under a stone bridge heading to RittenhouseTown, and I shouted for him to duck in order to clear the stone pedestrian bridge hanging over us. While he had ducked, he had misjudged when to lift his head, and I cringed upon seeing a 2 by 6” black velvet flap peel away from his helmet. It was time but neither of us was ready to fold.
Since 2003, my father and I had gotten together once a week to enjoy the trails, followed by a beer and sandwich at a local pub. The excursions had healed the rocky relationship we experienced following my parents divorce when I was in my teens.
Recovering from my injuries, I had the time to write a book titled “Cowboy Mission: The Best Sermons are Lived…Not Preached.” The self-published paperback held essays about our love of horses and Dad’s years as a teen cowboy, riding at Sally Starr’s ranch and in Cowtown Rodeo. I wrote about how he earned more money riding a bull for eight seconds on a Saturday night than he did picking tomatoes all week on the South Jersey farm for Campbell’s Soup Company, he and his best friend used as their rodeo playground.—riding anything with four legs; mules, cows, and work horses.
In the book, I penned an essay about my decision to dismount following a runaway horse incident in which my two riding companions urged me to stay on the horse. But my gut told me the horse was too wound up to ride safely, and so I swallowed my pride and walked a mile or so back to Monastery Stables. It was the first time I had ever dismounted like that, and yet I knew it was the right thing to do, just as I knew that despite three dentists telling me the X-rays looked fine, there was something wrong with the tooth and it needed to go. It was the same gut feeling I had knowing that I would be the one to have to stop to our weekly rides and I was learning to listen to that voice.
So after the accident, I told my father that my husband wanted me to take a break from riding. In truth, he did want me to stop, but never gave me an ultimatum. Dad didn’t know that and he was distraught over the news, but he said he said he understood, and I sensed perhaps he was relieved.
On some level my father knew of my concerns about his bringing the wrong horse in from the pasture, or lifting his head too soon, or getting lost driving to and from the barn. However, I knew he wouldn’t fold, so I stuck to my story and allowed him to ‘save face’ as I took control over ending our rides
On March 8th, Dad is comes up on the one-year anniversary of his transition to the Veteran’s Memorial Home in Vineland, New Jersey. I had spent 6 months getting the paper work together, and when a bed became available, I bolted like that horse. Dad had fallen in his townhouse in January and had hit his head on the tiled bathroom floor. There was a big snowstorm. I was not able to get to Cherry Hill. It was time.
In order to ease him into this new chapter, I stayed at a local hotel near the facility for three nights, and spent time getting him used to the change. Passing out copies of our book to anyone with a remote interest, I shared my father’s stories with the staff and residents, introducing him as Cowboy Charlie, a term I had had embroidered on a denim shirt he wore. The residents and staff settled in and listened to the stories from the book that he reads daily. He is a bit of a celebrity and enjoyed the limelight.
If I had not had the accident, the book would most likely not have come about, nor would another chapter in my life, serving as a personal historian and founder of Capture Life Stories.
Still, when I call Dad, I have to remind him that ‘it’s me, Barbie, your riding partner.’ When I visit, I pull out the book and we look at the pictures, and there is a glimmer.
And then, more often than not, the guilt sets in. Maybe he would have been better off leaving the planet doing what he loved most –riding horses. Maybe I should have let the natural order of things flow. Maybe we folded too soon. Where is that crystal ball?
The bad tooth was another reminder of a chapter in our lives that has closed, and I knew reclining in that dental chair that writing the epilogue will be more painful than the pulling of any tooth.