Painting and Prose by Janet Whittle Freedman


Dental Nirvana

In the early 1970’s my dentist sent me to an oral surgeon to have my wisdom teeth removed.  The teeth had tried to appear numerous times, erupting periodically and then retreating into the gum.  “They have to come out” he said “there simply isn’t room for them.”  I knew he was right. The eruption and retreat cycle had also been uncomfortable, giving me a renewed sympathy for babies. 

My husband accompanied me to the surgeon, settling into the waiting room of worn leather chairs and tattered magazines to wait for my post-surgical appearance.  I knew the surgery would leave me with a sore mouth, but I was grateful that I would not be awake for the procedure. Having had three previous surgeries, I was no stranger to anesthesia. In the past it had taken me from wakeful attention to oblivion in seconds and returned me to clear consciousness just as easily when the anesthesia was withdrawn.  There was no knowledge or memory of the gap of unconsciousness. That is what I expected, but this time it was astoundingly different.

While I drifted away as easily as I had on previous occasions, I found myself, not in a void, but at some level of consciousness I had never experienced before.  While my body remained in the dental chair, I found myself in an indescribably perfect place, full of peace, serenity and joy. It was infused with delight but also felt deeply familiar, as if I had found my way to a home I once knew well, a place that had at some point had unknowingly slipped away from me.  I was astonished to realize that any questions I had ever struggled with were suddenly answered, the truths surrounding all that I had ever wondered about or struggled to understand were now completely and beautifully obvious. “Of course!” I thought. “Why hadn’t I seen that before?”  This was a place I never wanted to leave, but the nurse was calling my name, shaking my shoulders, working to bring me back to consciousness.  “NO!”  I struggled to hold onto the peace and truths I had found, but consciousness was like a riptide, pulling me away faster and faster as though from a beloved shore. Perfection dissolved into the distance as I struggled to grasp the retreating threads of what I had felt and known so absolutely in that place.

The nurse won the struggle as I was pulled back into that room and dental chair.  I started to speak, wanting to somehow solidify my experience by expressing, however feebly one could with words, the wonderment of where I had been.  “Don’t talk” she said. “We’ve packed your jaw with gauze and you don’t want it to move so the incisions can heal.”  Only then did I notice the packing in my mouth, the strange scratchiness of gauze, the old world I had been returned to.

My husband drove the long drive home. I sat with the doctor’s ice pack wrapped around my face from ear to ear, staring out the passenger window, wondering at what had happened, trying to describe to myself an experience that was beyond words, past my ability to articulate; longing to touch again the perfectness of that experience and – as much as I loved my current life —  feeling as though I had somehow been pulled out of paradise.