Editorial: Taxes should help on dental care

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NECESSARY DISCOMFORT: Dental care is about keeping people healthy and unafraid to smile.
NECESSARY DISCOMFORT: Dental care is about keeping people healthy and unafraid to smile.

I am grateful, for limited reasons, that my mother was vain. She couldn't pass a mirror without pausing to admire herself, a habit many young guys have today I've noticed.

That sexist hurdle - the stereotype of female vanity - has been well and truly hurdled.

Unfortunately, the children of narcissists don't necessarily relish the same things. She loved being photographed, and played up to the camera. I hate it, which is in a way ungrateful.

As her only child I was documented on an old Box Brownie camera, which produced tiny snapshots, as my mother's constant work in progress.

If there was a monument handy I was ordered to climb up it and pose while strangers stared and small boys poked their tongues out.

I had to stare in the sun's direction without squinting. Try it sometime.

On my first day at school she called two girls, strangers, to come and pose with me, pretending to be friends.

Such things were done because she wished they'd been done for her; she would have thrived on it, and she meant well, but the road to hell is paved with the well-meaning, and her heaven was my hell.

I have never been able to look at a photograph of myself with pleasure, or see myself in the mirror without unease.

A cornerstone of my mother's vanity was her teeth. They were pleasantly even and white enough, and she cleaned them twice a day. Even as a young woman that made her odd in a time when brides had their real teeth pulled out and dentures fitted to save their husbands' money.

They would never need to go to the dentist again, and probably went through life with the same falsies, which often slipped when old people were talking. All the adults my mother knew put their teeth in a jar by the bed at bedtime, and it was never going to happen to her - or me.

I remember my father sloping in on a visit guiltily as she detected, with loud cries of disgust, his new false teeth. She heaped more scorn on a boyfriend of hers who turned up with dentures.

They were both, I guess, no longer fit for breeding purposes. The boyfriend was dumped as swiftly as if he'd been a serial killer.

Inevitably she did for me what she thought was best, whatever I thought, and I was going to the school dental service regularly before I'd even started school.

There was no pain relief: you were punished for your fillings with pain, and afterwards consoled with blobs of mercury rolling around in old drill packs.

The lesson stuck. I was a diligent visitor to the dentist for check-ups even when I had to pay for them myself.

I'd been tutored by an expert on how losing your teeth changed your face shape, and how awful people looked with their false teeth out.

All the same I have the teeth of my generation of fluoride-free water, with huge amalgam fillings that fall out now and then, great chunks of gravel that have to be replaced at ever greater expense. But the whole horror show of my smile is mine. I am a virtuoso's sample card of nasty procedures.

Dentistry is a small hell, one that fewer and fewer people can afford and no one looks forward to.

I hate to see young people with smiles full of rot and extractions, marking them for ever. I don't remember a time when that neglect was so visible and so widespread: it seems that extractions are all some people think dentists are good for, but it should only be a grim last resort.

For those who knew about it, there has just been a nationwide week of free dental care from some dentists for people on low incomes.

Ziggy Brown of Te Horo was one of the lucky ones. A father of six, who lost his job this year, it's obvious why he'd have little money to spend on himself.

Four of Brown's teeth were pulled out because they were too far gone, and he got six temporary fillings too. Dentist David McKelvey said this would have cost him $1000 otherwise.

That was a feel-good story on one level, but not on another.

I'm wondering how Brown will pay for the six temporary fillings to become permanent, and suspecting he'll find it too hard.

This isn't about vanity, though vanity helps, but about keeping people healthy and unafraid to smile. These dentists were generous, but we can't expect charity to help everyone in need of dental torture.

There should be free dental care for people who can't afford it, surely. Do we - taxpayers - really begrudge the cost?

Rosemary McLeod is a journalist and author.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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