We took our two oldest kids to meet with an orthodontist, found out they will both need braces, and left with an estimate that made my knees weak. Norah is nine and Tristan is 12, and yeah, it was pretty obvious that they would both need braces. Mel and I both had braces as children, and our children more or less inherited our crooked smiles. But I always assumed our insurance would cover more than it did — which as a father of three, I’ll admit it was a pretty naive (but hopeful) assumption. I should know better by now that dental insurance for a family of five feels a lot like struggling to make a monthly insurance payment only to be punched in the crotch each time we visited the dentist.
Anyway, Mel and I discussed how we were going to pay for it, how much our insurance would cover, and as we did, all I could think about was my mother. I was 12 when I got braces, same age as my son. This was three years after my father walked out. He didn’t pay child support, so he certainly didn’t help with my braces. Mom worked days at the local power plant, and evenings cleaning houses. At Christmastime, she worked Saturdays at a music store.
Late in the evening, she arrived home wearing paint-stained sweat pants and a T-shirt. A plastic bucket filled with yellow rubber gloves, toothbrushes, Lysol, and a scrubbing brush was in her right hand. She’d drop the bucket, fingertips wrinkled from scrubbing toilets. Then she’d step out and return a moment later with the dress she wore to her office job at the power plant slung over her forearm. There were times when she woke me up for school moments before she left for her first job and then came home late in the evening, just in time to hold me accountable for my homework and make sure I had dinner.
I don’t know how much braces cost in the early ’90s, but I have to assume whatever it cost, it was too much. I can still remember mom late at night sitting at our kitchen table, bills fanned out, right hand holding a calculator, her left elbow bent against the table top supporting her forehead. She was always exhausted, and understandably stressed.
Not that I, as a 12-year-old boy, appreciated her sacrifice. I felt like those braces were a personal attack. I didn’t wear my headgear or elastics, and each time I met with the orthodontist I argued with him to take them out. I can still remember my mother waking me late at night, her eyes bloodshot from working more hours than I’d ever worked. In her left hand would be my headgear. “Put it on,” she’d say. And I’d grudgingly roll out of bed, and slide that uncomfortable apparatus over my head, and then spend the next several hours sleeping uncomfortably as my teeth were tugged into alignment. I’d love to say that in moments like this I appreciated my mother’s insistence that I wear my headgear so I could have straight teeth as an adult, but I didn’t. I honestly hated my braces, and my headgear, and my orthodontist, and at times, my mother.
I had no idea, or regard, for how much my mom was sacrificing to afford me this luxury.
But now, at 36, I have a pretty nice smile, and I have my mother to thank for it. So after we got those quotes for my children’s braces, and I got over the sticker-shock, I went into the bedroom, and called my mom.
We talked for a moment about the kids. She went on about her retirement, her heath, and my stepdad. Then I told her about the estimate we received from the orthodontist, and she laughed. It wasn’t a “sucks for you” kind of laugh. It was more of an “I’ve been there” kind of laugh.
“How did you ever afford my braces?” I asked.
She let out a long breath, and said, “It wasn’t easy.” She told me about how my father refused to help, saying, “Not that it should surprise you. Somehow I made it work because I knew it was important.” When she said “it was important,” I knew what she really meant was “you were important.”
There was a pause and then I said, “Well… I know this is long overdue, but thank you for doing that. And I’m sorry for being so difficult about all of it.”
She laughed and said, “You’re welcome.” Then she told me that I’d have had a pretty crooked smile if she hadn’t. “I knew you’d appreciate it eventually.” Then she laughed and said, “I will say, I assumed you’d probably appreciate it sooner than now.”
I apologized again, and then she told me something that made me feel a little better about this whole getting my kids braces situation, “And don’t worry about your kids. If I figured out how to pay for braces, you will too.”
It’s funny how sometimes it takes having children to become thankful for the parents you had. Mom and I had our differences during my teen years, no doubt about it, but when I think back on all those sacrifices she made for me, how much she invested in me, I cannot help but feel loved.
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