My eyes opened wide and I burst into tears as my front tooth dropped out of my mouth and into my hand. Broken off at the gum line.
Three weeks prior in Madrid, I had cracked the tooth. Nothing special, just an aging tooth after a 30-year-old root canal. I was previewing a film for my students, mindlessly nibbling on my thumbnail. Suddenly I heard an odd noise and thought I had broken my nail. Unfortunately, the nail was just fine.
The young Spanish dentist who tended to me on an emergency basis was wonderful. He did his best to explain clearly what was happening – my Spanish is good, but the medical/ dental terminology wasn’t exactly part of daily conversation. Still and all, there was no mistaking his conclusion: “No podemos salvar este diente hoy.” “We cannot save this tooth today.” The most he could do was to try to stabilize it until I got back to the States to have it properly looked after. Read: replaced.
“Cuando vuelves a los Estados Unidos?” “When do you return to the States?” he queried. “Perhaps a week or two,” I replied, both uncertain and confused. This little episode was unexpected.
I neglected to inform the nice dentist that it was my plan to walk the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile pilgrimage route across northern Spain – a journey that would take a minimum of 30 days.
He assured me that if I were careful with what I ate and drank, the tooth would probably stay put until I returned home. So I cut my food into tiny pieces, fastidiously chewed in the back of my mouth and carefully made sure all potentially damaging ice cubes remained firmly in the bottom of the glass.
But I noticed that each day, notwithstanding my diligent care, the tooth was bailando – dancing – a little more.
So there I was, in the tiny village of Azofra, seven days into my Camino adventure when a single strand of spaghetti al dente threatened to bring my dream to an end.
Despite my valiant efforts to cut the spaghetti into small bits and chew in the back, one brazen little piece worked its way to the front and when I bit down, the already fragile tooth gave way.
“I have to go home!” I sobbed to the other pilgrims who gathered ‘round to see why I was crying.
“Does it hurt very much?” asked one.
“No,” I snuffled through my tears, “it doesn’t hurt at all.” The errant tooth stared back at me from the palm of my hand. “But I can’t walk to Santiago with a hole in the front of my mouth!”
“Why not?” one of the women asked. “If it doesn’t hurt, then why not just keep going?”
I stared at her blankly. That was absurd. Of course I couldn’t keep walking to Santiago, a distance of at least three weeks walking time, with a gaping hole in the front of my mouth. No one walks around like that unless they are…well, unless…well.
Hang on a minute. I had to walk at least 2 days just to get to a town that had a bus station. And maybe 8 days to Burgos to catch a train back to Madrid. If I could walk that far, what, exactly was keeping me from finishing my pilgrimage? Pride? Vanity? Fear?
Yes, yes and yes.
The gathered crowd began to drift away. Nothing to see here.
I wiped away my tears and tried to comfort the poor Italian woman, Ana, who had been walking with me and was so excited to make her spaghetti al dente for our dinner. She felt terrible – somehow responsible. I laughed my toothless smile as I self-consciously moved my hand to cover my mouth – a gesture that became all too familiar in the ensuing weeks.
“Vino,” I said. “We need some wine!” Everything appears better after a glass of Spanish Rioja.
For reasons that I cannot explain, I deposited the broken remnants of my tooth in a zip lock baggie and tucked it safely into my rucksack. In the morning, I strapped on the pack and headed out the door with all the other pilgrims making our way west.
There are many photos of that journey and in each and every one of them I managed to develop a calm, soft-looking, closed-mouth, half smile. When people spoke to me I had a rather unusual habit of resting my elbow on the table and placing my hand lightly across my mouth as if I were contemplating my response.
I made it all the way to Santiago de Compostela – 500 miles and none the worse for the wear.
And the infamous tooth? There is a place on the Camino called the Cruz de Hierro – the Iron Cross. It is a spiritual place where pilgrims often leave a stone that they have brought from home. The stone represents the burden they carry with them as they make their pilgrimage. I had forgotten to bring a stone, but as I stood in that place, I suddenly recalled the tooth, buried in my backpack. I dug it out, said my small blessing and left it there among the stones and ephemera. A very personal contribution to the Camino de Santiago.
12 hours after my flight from Spain touched down in the US, I was firmly ensconced in the dentist’s chair. Because it’s obvious that you simply cannot walk around for weeks with a gaping hole in the front of your mouth!