Smile Behind the Mask

By Katiedid Langrock

May 23, 2020 5 min read

"Let me see," my 7-year-old said. I smiled at him.

"Mama," he said, "your mask is on."

"Oh! Right." I lowered my mask.

Our local orthodontist's office had just opened up after being shuttered for COVID-19. I went in for an appointment that was meant to happen two months ago — to have my new Invisalign retainer fitted. It is part of my COVID-chic attire: gray hair and a retainer. The perfect addition to the not showering, hairy legs and nine-day-wear pajamas.

My son inspected the clear retainer in my mouth.

"Why'd you get it?"

"Because my front two teeth are crossing each other," I explained. "It's making me self-conscious when I smile."

"So you're going to deal with that weird thing in your mouth just to smile?"

I was immediately brought back to my childhood — to all of the years of teeth trauma. First there were the braces on my front four teeth, which I endured long before any other kid in my grade had braces. Then there was the permanent retainer in third grade, or what I lovingly refer to as the "friend annihilator." Or the "spit sprayer." Or the "loser anointer." Or the "no-one-will-talk-to-you-so-you-sit-at-a-table-in-the-cafeteria-alone torture device." That last one didn't really roll off the tongue, but my spit sure did. You get the idea. In third grade, the friend annihilator was placed in my mouth, and there it was meant to stay for years. Something about an overbite or an underbite or biting too many kids in preschool. I can't remember. But the point was, this thing stunk. It made me lisp. It made me shower people with such an extraordinary amount of spittle that it would appear as if anyone within 5 feet of me had just walked through a rainstorm. And it prevented me from eating solid foods — any solid foods. So I, a previously perfectly respectable second grader known for her peanut butter and honey sandwiches, was now a third grader relegated to yogurt, pudding and baby food. You know what's not cool when you're 9? Eating baby food out of baby food jars in the cafeteria. You know what you can't throw when there's an epic food fight in the cafeteria and you want to participate? Baby food. Hurling one of the glass jars at the head of a fellow student surely would have resulted in suspension. A year in, my mom insisted that the spit sprayer be removed because I — and I quote my mom here — had "no friends." The permanent retainer was chiseled out of my mouth and replaced with a wire retainer and then more braces and then a clear retainer that looked an awful lot like the Invisalign in my mouth now. I shiver as I recall all the trash cans I dug through after accidentally throwing it away. And still, 20 years later, I'm back.

"Yes," I told my son. "I'm gonna endure all this just so I can smile."

"Why bother?" he asked, pointing to the mask hanging around my neck. "It's not like anyone is going to see your smile anyway."

This pandemic is hard on the kids. So hard.

Yesterday was my son's last day of first grade. He should have had a ceremony and a party and cupcakes. Instead, we were told a specific time to drive by the school so teachers could give us a bag of all the stuff he'd left behind in his classroom.

The teachers cheered, but my son was somber in the back seat. Teary-eyed. I told him to roll down the window, to put on his mask so he could say goodbye to the teachers.

He held up his mask.

"Why bother? They can't hear me through this weird thing anyway!"

He was outraged. And hurt. And sad. And I finally had an answer to the question he had asked me when I got my Invisalign.

I turned to him and tapped on my plastic retainer.

"You want to know why I endure this weird thing even though no one can see my smile?" He looked up at me. "It's because this will end, bud. I promise you that this craziness will end. People will be able to see my smile again. And when they can, I want to be ready."

On the last day of first grade, my son lifted a weird thing over his mouth just to say goodbye. We endure a lot for the chance to smile at someone.

Katiedid Langrock is author of the book "Stop Farting in the Pyramids," available at http://www.creators.com/books/stop-farting-in-the-pyramids. Like Katiedid Langrock on Facebook, at http://www.facebook.com/katiedidhumor. To find out more about her and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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