I was sitting on the uncomfortably hard dentist chair, staring deep into the soul of the bright white light above me. It has been a while since I was last in this exact position, staring at the depths of the almost exact white light.
You know, I hate going to the dentist with a passion. I hate everything to do with it. My stomach churns when I smell the sterility of the tools and equipment. I feel a lump in my throat when I see the dentists motioning for me to sit on that horrid hard dentist chair. The only warmth from this place are those little crinkles in the corners of the dentists’s eyes as they presumably smile at me, voice muffled by the mask they’re wearing.
Everytime as they probe and dig deep into my mouth and as I stare hard at the white light, my thoughts always wander to this exact slice of memory from my childhood.
My earliest memory of going to the dentist is when I was 6 or 7. I was clutching tightly to my grandpa’s shirt from behind as we rode his old motorcycle to the dentist in town. I lived with my grandparents in a small town called Teluk Intan when I was young, and most of my childhood memory of travelling to places revolves around this rugged bike and clutching to someone’s shirt from behind.
So I was clutching to his shirt, and I could hear my grandma yelling from the house as we rode down the tarred road. “Remember to not let her come back until the teeth are removed!” she’d yelled in Hokkien, loud and fierce. I was terrified of my grandma; we all were. She was the iron matron of the household. She was strong, big and abusive. She held the order that was much needed in a household of 5 young children.
I remember one time when I was 8, I had fallen down in school and my right knee was scraped quite badly. I wrapped it with tissue and hid it for days from my grandma, for I knew she would punish me if she’d known that I wasn’t careful. My wound ended up terribly infected and is now a permanent 50-cents-sized scar on my knee.
If you thought the Tiger Mom was bad, you clearly have not met my grandma. She would cane us if we got anything less than 90% in school. She threw me out of the house once and I had to sleep in the darkness of the porch cos I was quarreling with my sister. My sister had it worse though, she was thrown into the dark alleyway behind the house instead. That was probably how she’d developed her fear for rats and roaches. We were no older than 5 or 6 at this point.
So I was at the back of the bike, choking back tears for I knew if my grandma had given such clear instructions, there was no way in hell that I could have escaped this. I contemplated jumping down from the bike and running into the abyss of the palm oil plantation, but I was scared of snakes and I was too much of a coward to make that jump. I would’ve survived though, since I was quite a chubby kid and my fats would’ve been quite a good buffer.
The remaining ride to town was painful and I felt that awful knot in my stomach tightening with each second. At the traffic light, I nudged my grandpa and told him I needed to poop. He either didn’t hear me or had chosen to ignore me as he stared ahead, waiting for the light to turn green.
The butterflies in my stomach intensified as the big black and white sign of the clinic appeared in the horizon. I remember vividly how the interior of the clinic was lined with wooden linings on the walls, a typical decor in old 80s and 90s clinics in small towns. I would come to really hate this sight for the next 3 times I visited this clinic again.
We sat on the wooden bench in silence, my hands clasped nervously together. My grandpa’s face remained stoic as I tried pleading one last time right outside the dentist’s door as the nurse called me in. My grandpa is a man of few words and is often quite a grump, so I knew this would go nowhere.
That same bright light, that same uncomfortable chair. Blinking back tears, I stared deep into the light’s soul as the dentist extracted 3 teeth. I could feel the blood oozing out before he jammed cotton pads wrapped with gauze in my mouth.
My grandpa patted my head when I came out and offered a slight smile, a rare gesture from a man that emotionless. The ride back home was a complete contrast to the one barely an hour prior. I didn’t have to poop anymore and the knots in my stomach were gone, replaced with an overwhelming sense of pride for having gone through the worst ordeal of my 7 years of life. As the wind grazed my face and hair, I smiled and winced at the pain and smiled some more.
My grandma was very nice to me for days after that. She would cook porridge for me and diligently added Marmite into it for taste. She allowed me to stay 30 mins past bedtime so I could watch the TVB drama with her while my siblings and cousins had to go to bed. I remember thinking to myself, wow this is what being a grownup feels like.
This particular memory came back to me as I sat staring at the white light last week. This time, however, this memory was laced with bitterness and sadness. I’d received a picture from my mom last month of my grandparents. My grandad had to amputate both his legs last year and my grandma had to take care of him since. That big, strong person I’d once feared had disappeared completely, replaced with a sullen, pale -looking stranger with sunken cheeks, much skinnier and much older. Age is catching up with both of them, and I felt that griping pain in my chest when I thought of that man who’d patted my head, and that woman who’d fed me Marmite porridge.
20 years later, I’m still on that damned dentist chair, still fighting back tears but for a different reason now. I guess some things don’t change… and some things do.