–by Wallace Smith
Hanna got her braces. She seemed more excited than nervous—though she was a little nervous—when the day actually arrived. I held her hand and was nearby as the appliances were installed. Her attitude was brighter than what I remembered of my own when I had braces. In her words, “the sooner I have them, the sooner I can get them off!” These words may be good for me to file in the Remember When You Said… drawer, especially when she gets to the point of having to wear rubber bands in her mouth.
Her braces do not seem to bother her (yet) other than one particular place of friction between sharp metal objects and the soft flesh inside one side of her mouth, and the occasional drool. Perhaps that is because she just got the braces glued to her teeth, and next month is the first adjustment, when bone begins to move and the flesh has to accommodate the movement. It is a kind of uncomfortable pain that only those in the guild of receiving orthodontics know, but I would compare it to that feeling of someone scratching a chalkboard and your whole body cringes—except the feeling is entirely in your mouth and constant.
I cannot help her anticipate the discomfort ahead. I can only try to be there for her when she feels it. We can’t keep our children safe from all pain and discomfort. We can only try to be there for them, with them, along the way.
Because of the braces, Hanna needs to be more vigilant in self-care, in the tedious work of oral hygiene that includes much more than just brushing, but is easily an afterthought of most kids and teenagers. Daily care should be more than a quick swipe and spit and rush out of the bathroom, half the toothpaste in the sink (and put the @#$% cap back on the tube!). Daily self-care includes taking time, paying attention to the details in the mirror.
Braces help with more than just the cosmetics of our smile. Tiny adjustments over time align the teeth to function better over the course of life, and the care we give to our mouth and teeth has been linked to better overall heart condition and body health. The awkwardness and expense of these months of oral adjustment may help her internal health as much as her outward appearance.
There are (more expensive) options for “invisible” braces that help people make adjustments that may not be so obvious to the rest of the world during the adjustment period. Perhaps the invisible options keep others from noticing the incremental changes as much, or perhaps they just limit responses such as “braceface,” “tinsel teeth,” or “nice grill” among other attempted insults that for some might be as painful as the monthly adjustments and alignments of metal on bone in flesh (chalkboard cringe).
If only there were the equivalent of braces to adjust other parts of our lives . . .
Sometimes we need or at least can learn from the discomfort of tiny adjustments. The discomfort shapes us, builds endurance. Our self-care (and incremental improvements to our self-care) helps us not just pay attention to the details in the mirror but see ourselves in a new way. There are certain somethings that we can only attend to for ourselves and encourage others to attend to for themselves.
Ultimately, it is up to my daughter to floss. I can not do it for her, but I can encourage her. Over time she may improve and adjust and align her life, and these months in braces may help form a new pattern, a discipline, and an approach to change for the better. Yet the braces are temporary, and her life and health and choices are hers. She will go through deeper pain and discomfort that I can not help her anticipate until she is in the messy midst of it. I can not take the pain of change away, but I can be nearby, with her, for her, along the way.
Remember how the Apostle Paul struggled internally with the ideal disciple he wanted to be and the broken human that he actually was? Wallace relates well to Paul. Most of the time he is intentionally present to his wife Christy and their two daughters, as together with friends they have started a new faith community in suburban Kansas City.