I have always known that this day would come. I have.
But knowing doesn’t make it easier. Not much about grief is ever made better by advance notice though. I’ve learned that one more than a few times. There was, of course, a part of me wholly in denial about it all. A part of me that believed that things would always stay the way they were, that the experiences of my children would be similar enough to keep it going.
I knew they wouldn’t be, but I allowed a part of myself to believe it anyway.
My father, gone over five years now, was the Tooth Fairy. It’s a funny story, actually. He earned the title 11 years ago when my oldest child was in preschool, back before cancer and panicked phone calls in the middle of the night and hospice.
Back then, my son was a curious kid wondering about the occupations of people in our family. In class that day, they’d talked about jobs. Some of the people in the family had jobs that were easy to explain to a preschooler: policeman, firefighter, accountant, writer, grocery checker. My father, though, his was a little more nuanced. It took some more explaining.
He was a dental technician. He designed and created dentures and partials for people who’d lost their permanent teeth. I did the best I could to explain this to my child, and within seconds, he’d figured it out. Grandpa made teeth for people who lost them, so clearly that meant that he was the Tooth Fairy. It made perfect sense to a 4-year-old.
I called Dad that night and informed him of his new profession. He laughed heartily and accepted the position immediately. From that point forward, anytime the kids had a loose tooth or something happened at the dentist, they’d call him. He was the one to talk the nervous child off the ledge over a procedure, and he was the one to explain why they needed to really floss instead of just saying they’d flossed. He was the first one they’d call when they lost a tooth.
Then cancer arrived and took him away from us. We named our fundraising team for the Relay for Life after him. He kept the job, though, after death. He even took the last tooth lost on his watch with him when he left, tucked into his shirt pocket. The kids reasoned that he’d just have wings to go along with the tutu now, so it made sense.
Instead of calling him, they’d leave him notes when a tooth fell out, hoping that he’d write back.
In the span of a few weeks this summer, my middle child lost her last tooth and my now-8-year-old lost his third. My middle child, she had a special connection with Grandpa. She was the content and squishy one as a baby. His death hit her the hardest, as have most things since.
She always knew, though, that for as long as she had baby teeth, he’d be around. She lost her last molar a few weeks ago, and left her last note for him.
I don’t think it’s really hit her yet.
She’s in such a hurry to grow up sometimes that she has no recognition of the things she’s leaving behind in childhood. Maybe it’s better that way. I know that I’m not about to point it out to her.
A few days after she lost her last tooth, her little brother finally lost his third. He was late to get his baby teeth and has been late to lose them too. His roots are long and deep and stubborn. It takes months for him to wiggle them enough to get them out.
When he lost his tooth, he tucked it under his pillow, as all his older siblings always have. But for him, the Tooth Fairy is just the Tooth Fairy. The Tooth Fairy was never Grandpa in his world. He was only 2 when Grandpa died, and whatever memories he might have are secondary ones, constructed from pictures and stories other people tell.
He doesn’t actually remember my dad. I realized this truth, then had to sit with it for a while. Really sit with it. Sit for a long damn time with it.
I knew all along that this day would come — I just wasn’t really prepared for it. The reality of having children who were so young when my dad died is that they won’t all remember him. My youngest was born after he died. To him, Grandpa will only ever be a story.
For a flash of a second, I thought about trying to perpetuate the Tooth Fairy. I thought about recruiting the older kids to tell their stories. I thought about it in a desperate attempt to keep this connection to my father alive. But I was thinking about it for myself. I was wanting this connection, this perpetuation — for me, not for them.
And I can’t do that. I can’t allow my grief and my processing of the loss of this piece of my father to affect them. I can’t put this on them. And I won’t.
I’ll let him go, one more time.
Because this is mine and not theirs, and I need to make sure it stays that way.
Thank you, Dad, for all those years of flying around and dropping off silver dollars and fancy two-dollar bills and packs of gum, for all those letters left and read and answered. Thank you, Dad. Thank you for everything.
You were the best Tooth Fairy in the history of the universe, but even the best have to retire eventually.