At The Root of It ~ Heather Corrigan



I can trace this tooth’s history back to Indonesia.  I was living there two years ago when I came down with a toothache in this, my largest remaining molar.  I’ve had poor teeth my whole life so I knew this was more than a simple cavity: the ache began quiet and slow, a dull yet persistent bass beat below my left ear.  It was only a matter of time before it bloomed into the full orchestral nightmare of an abscessed nerve, which never goes quietly.  A dying tooth is like a vaudevillian taking the stage, relishing the theatrics of a drawn out death scene.  The actor plays this, his role of a lifetime, to the hilt, thrashing and bellowing across the stage for all its worth. 

It was this same tooth, seemingly resurrected from its now two-year-old root canal, that brought me here to this swank dental clinic in Abu Dhabi.  The porcelain crown over my Indonesian root canal had cracked, and though the pain was no longer intense, I knew it was time to visit what would now be the fifth foreign city I’d been to a dentist in.  It’s not as if I’m trying to beat some obscure record of suffering.  These things just kind of happen when you have soft teeth coupled with a passion for travel.    

Dental emergencies are also not uncommon when you haven’t had dental insurance in fifteen years, which was one of the reasons why I was in Abu Dhabi in the first place.  Technically, I didn’t have dental insurance here either, but I did have medical insurance, a rent-free apartment, and an income disposable enough to throw at my oft-neglected teeth.  For the first time in my life, being an English teacher was not a low-paid, yet noble vocation for literary paupers; it was a respectable career. 

The waiting room at Abu Dhabi’s highly touted American Dental Clinic did not disappoint.  Like most places in the United Arab Emirate’s opulent capital, the dental clinic with its teak-carved chairs, silk pillows, and marble counter tops did not appear to be hurting for money.  It was a far cry from my elderly dentist’s office in Baltimore—a wood paneled waiting room with a framed lithograph of blue crabs and a signed poster from the Baltimore Raven Cheerleaders.

After the dentist x-rayed my tooth, he surveyed the boulders of amalgam fillings that had gradually supplanted my teeth over the years and suggested dental implants.  It wouldn’t be cheap, he said, but they would be the perfect solution to the unsightly grey fillings and missing teeth I’d had pulled over the years.  Of course my pulled teeth, those truly rotten to the core, could have been saved by root canal surgery, but I’d refused to spend any more money on expensive dental procedures after my 22nd birthday.  Not only was my tooth debt close to exceeding the down payment for a house, I was young and eager to begin a life buoyed by youthful optimism rather than dictated by the cost of perpetual decay. 

Dental implants, stressed the dentist, were unlike a dental bridge in that they were permanent.  He showed me pictures of handsome, toothy men and women with ivory strong incisors that looked like they could pulverize the femur of a gazelle.   These were the kind of teeth I’ve always wanted.  And here in this shiny office, I seriously began to consider dental implants: a sparkly new row of teeth costing more than the used Volkswagen Golf we’d just bought.  Teeth like these, the dentist promised, would last a lifetime.  Or, I surmised, at least longer than our Volkswagen, which had already started leaking pools of coolant all over Abu Dhabi’s posh new roads. 


The Indonesian word for teeth is gigi and a local dentist is simply referred to as Dr. Gigi.  This, of course, translates as Dr. Teeth in English, which sounds far cuter than it should beThe dental offices in my Javanese neighborhood in Yogyakarta two years earlier didn’t have quite the same finery as Abu Dhabi’s dental clinic.  In Indonesia, it is not unusual to see a homemade sign distinguishing the dental practice from the ubiquitous noodle restaurants. There were indeed a number of Dr. Gigis scattered throughout the city, but when I approached one in our neighborhood, I hesitated outside the small office pretending to examine a family of geckos nestled beneath the roof.  I couldn’t go in.  Not because of the geckos, which I adored, or the possibly flu-ridden chickens tottering past the yard’s bougainvillea.  It was the Novocain—or lack of it—that worried me.  What if they didn’t have any out here in these parts?  How could I expect local dentists to have ample tubs of Novocain on hand if I couldn’t even get Diet Pepsi at the local supermarket?

For someone with a morbid fear of dentists, especially ones with anemic bands of chickens roaming dangerously close to the waiting room, this was far too daunting a proposition.  I called the U.S. embassy and they referred me to a dentist in Jakarta who was popular with many of the expats living there.  He was also an eight-hour train ride away, and the last train I took to the capital city was like most travel in Indonesia: not without incident.  My train was waylaid when the one ahead derailed, forcing us to take a bus through a lushly scenic forest, which would have been enjoyable had I not worn high heels and had the bus not broken down alongside a field of water buffalo just as a late morning monsoon thundered down on the roof like…well, a herd of buffalo.  Suffice to say it ended like the best laid plans in any developing country: six hours late, covered in mud, and wondering for the third time that day if you were coming down with Dengue fever.  I decided instead to fly. 

Flying domestically within Indonesia was probably not the best idea either, particularly in lieu of an Adam Air plane that had taken off from eastern Java two months earlier and had yet to be found.  But my jaw was pounding so I purchased a ticket from Garuda Airlines rather than Adam Air, quietly pleased with myself for being clever enough to avoid the low-cost airline that had (allegedly) crashed into the sea.  I told myself I was being proactive.  I’d also applied my not terribly scientific rationale of statistics: what are the odds that two planes will crash within three months?  Besides, a round-trip ticket and hotel cost $130, which was less than a tooth cleaning at most U.S. dentists.  I don’t know if this would have been considered medical tourism but ordering room service while watching reruns of One Tree Hill on satellite TV felt downright decadent.   

The dentist, a middle-aged Javanese man who’d gone to dental school in Michigan, was pleasant and seemed competent enough.  He was gentler than my previous dentist and seemed to genuinely dislike inflicting pain, which I found surprising.  Once the x-rays confirmed my dying nerve, he began the first of what would be three separate appointments, drilling and packing the abyss of that back molar, and even repairing a few cracked fillings and small cavities along the way.  I won’t go so far as to say it was a delightful experience, but after years of being unable to afford dental care elsewhere, it was oddly satisfying, like getting new flooring for a dilapidated home after years of tentative mincing on rotten floorboards.

Yogyakarta’s Adisicupto Airport was so close to our house I could gauge the time of day by which airbus swept across the rice fields, almost eclipsed by Mount Merapi’s towering volcano.  I could have walked there, and would have, had the expansive rice paddies standing between our home and the airport not belonged to the Indonesian Air Force.  Verdant fields lined with coconut palms, it looked like such a pretty place for a stroll. I wandered past the military guard’s box one day with my discreet matchbox-sized Nikon when a soldier who looked no older than fourteen appeared from behind a coconut tree.  He smiled, shook his head sheepishly, and jerked a semi-automatic weapon larger than a kayak back in the direction from which I came.  I could swear I saw him blush girlishly.  It was, like many sights in Indonesia, jarringly incongruous.


The day before I was to fly out for my last appointment, I was awoken by a call from my Indonesian friend, Mely.  “You okay.” she said, stating rather than asking, as I was obviously okay.  It was the early morning Garuda flight returning from Jakarta, she said.  It had crashed at Yogyakarta’s airport just before 7:00 a.m. 

I popped out the door and squinted across the rice paddy where the military airfield and the city’s airport were but all I could see was morning’s pink mist swirling at the base of Merapi.  It was still and beautiful.  I was shocked, and quite frankly, embarrassed, that I’d managed to sleep through a sizeable plane falling from the sky less than a mile from me.  I recalled hearing sirens, but attributed it to one of the million baffling sounds I’d hear in Indonesia every day—a military drill? earthquake warning? mosque call?  After almost two years of being a foreigner in Indonesia you learn not to ask so many questions for everyone’s sanity.        

Later that morning I’d learn that it was indeed sirens.  A Garuda Airlines Boeing 737, the first of many Jakarta/Yogyakarta routes scheduled that day, had overshot the runway, tore through a metal fence, and burst into flames in a surrounding rice paddy. While 118 people managed to survive the crash and stumble to safety, twenty-one people near the cockpit were killed in the fire.       

Later, I’d learn more things: how the Yogyakarta runway was only a quarter the size of what runways should be, and how an inept pilot had, inexplicably, approached the airport at twice the necessary speed, despite pleas from his copilot to abort the landing.  Mostly, though, I’d recognize the absurdity of my belief in accidents never happening in two’s, especially in a country like Indonesia where things like plane crashes and train derailments don’t happen in two’s—they happen in threes, fours, and fives.  In fact, they are disturbingly commonplace in a country where corruption and bribery are deeply entrenched.  In a country where a pilot responsible for crashing a commercial plane and killing 21 people would later be allowed to fly cargo planes following a revoked two-year sentence for criminal negligence.    


I’m ashamed of the following: the morning after the crash, I still flew back to Jakarta on a Garuda flight to finish my root canal.  On the way to the airport, my taxi passed by the small hospital around the corner from my house.  Outside the hospital were a handful of policemen and soldiers, and most prominently, a large whiteboard with names of the deceased.  It was a small list, less than five names, I think, because most of the victims had not yet been identified due to the severity of the fire; many victims had to be identified through dental records, though it was later reported that temperatures inside the burning fuselage may have even exceeded the point of incineration for teeth, something I found astonishing.  It defied my long-held belief in the indestructability of strong, healthy teeth.

The airport was neither crowded nor empty, and besides a slightly larger police presence than normal, it looked like any other day at Yogyakarta airport.  At the departure gate, I stood with the handful of passengers taking pictures of the plane’s wreckage still visible at the end of the runway.  This, too, surprised me—how the wreckage actually was just wreckage, a jagged pile of blackened scrap that didn’t even remotely resemble a plane anymore. I bought a newspaper and a coke.  And upon takeoff, when my plane flew over the crash site, I squinted down at the crash scene, a dark Rorschach inkblot growing smaller and smaller until the green of the fields took over.

At the time, I convinced myself I was brave for keeping my dental appointment.  After all, life went on for millions of Indonesians.  Who was I deny the relentless march of the mundane, like eating breakfast, getting dressed, or fixing a broken tooth?  This rationalization was not accurate, however, because bravery had nothing to do with it. The real reason I got on that plane was fear and hubris.  I was scared of toothache pain, of Dr. Gigis and sickly chickens; of dirty needles of Novocain, or worse—no needles of Novocain.  I was scared of losing my last great monolith of a tooth, and with each twang of nerve, I’d picture another part of myself falling away. 

And bound up in that base fear of physical pain was a faith that, somehow, death in a fiery crash would not happen to me.  I’d envision myself in the plane crash; it was hard not to, particularly after seeing graphic news footage of sirens and terrified people spilling from a smoking fuselage.  I pictured myself as one of those people erupting from the plane, scorched by smoke but alive.  I survived the crash because I had fortuitously chosen to sit near an exit door, an exit door that opened in an emergency unlike the one near the front of the plane where most of the passengers had perished.  In my scenario I was a survivor for my foresight in requesting the right seat and having the wherewithal to leave it unencumbered by my belongings in the overhead bin.   Pushing aside evidence to the contrary—my usual inclination to sit as close to the cockpit as possible to avoid long lines and a slavish attachment to my laptop—I survived my imagined role in this real tragedy.

Flying over the charred remains of Garuda’s airbus on the way to a dental appointment, however, just felt horribly wrong.  Perhaps, if my plane were to fall clumsily to earth and scar yet another splendid rice paddy I’d have felt differently if I were on the way to donate a kidney or two.   But, this clearly was not the case.  I was having a porcelain crown placed over a root canal because I didn’t want it to hurt or look unsightly.  I remember feeling a rush of anger for my shitty teeth, my father who gave me these shitty teeth, but most of all, my spinelessness and arrogant conviction that my flight would reach its destination just fine.

When I returned to Yogyakarta two days later, most of the wreckage was cleared, though the grass was still burnt and flat.  Landings at Adisicupto Airport felt less like a landing than being strapped to a massive hunk of concrete and dropped from the sky.  Because of the short runway, touchdown was bumpy, fast, and jarringly abrupt.  By then I’d learned to keep my mouth closed before the wheels touched down so as not to bang my teeth together. The nose of the plane stopped just before the end of the runway and gingerly turned back towards the hangar.  Unused to my new crown, I ran my finger along the porcelain edges; it felt hard and smooth like stone. 


It was in Abu Dhabi where I learned the root canal was botched anyway.  Reaching through a clutter of high tech computer equipment, the dentist delighted in pointing this out to me in a vivid digital photo.  Of the three canals, one had been left unattended, which would explain why I would still feel a twinge of pain from time to time, deep in the back of my jaw.  He tried to fix it himself but the root was so twisted his tool broke off in the errant canal.  Unable to retrieve the fragment of tool, he waved it way.  Nothing serious, he assured me—just a small piece of titanium that would remain in my canal indefinitely.  He urged me to visit a top root canal specialist in Dubai with even shinier equipment that could vibrate the piece out.  This sounded frightening and vaguely obscene so I declined.

I didn’t get the dental implants either.  For the first time in my life, the idea of perfect teeth made me feel old, rather than covetous. There was no such thing as “permanent” teeth, after all, and besides, even if there were, what was the point of having a Hollywood smile that would outlive me? My desire for expensive, new dental implants felt grasping and delusional. So I switched to another dentist in Abu Dhabi, an Iraqi woman who trained in Baghdad.  She was thoroughly unfazed by my lousy teeth, what a U.S. dentist once referred to as a “living graveyard.”  My botched root canal didn’t bother me so I decided to leave it alone.  Rather than replace the crown, my new dentist opted to fill the tooth instead, “just in case.” 

It is not pretty, this yellowish stained behemoth of a tooth, but I’ve grown fond of it.  Occasionally I feel the mildest rustle—it is more like the ghost of a toothache than a toothache—at the base of my jaw, something my dentist referred to as a kind of phantom limb pain, the body’s muscle memory of something no longer there.  I like to think that it is less a memory than a reminder: a reminder of my courage, shame, and most of all, the futility in believing that anything can last forever. When I feel a rare twinge, I am taken back to a breeze sweeping over a charred field of rice paddies, volcanoes, of planes rising and falling.  I think of resilience and decay and all the thrumming chaos of Indonesia, enduring and permanent as teeth.