My daughter, Victorie, had an accident in the shower last week. She threw the handheld showerhead against the wall and it bounced back and hit her in the mouth, chipping one of her front teeth. She now has a jagged diagonal for a tooth.
This hit me and my husband really hard. At best, we are average-looking people, but our daughter? She is stunning. I know every parent thinks that about their kids, but our Indian-Puerto Rican-Panamanian child is something to behold. You can go ahead and roll your eyes, but I just know it’s true!
If I were being rational, I could have talked myself out of the pain and the grief I felt over my daughter’s beat-up smile. These are just her baby teeth! She’ll outgrow them soon enough…
“She kinda looks like Lady Glitter Sparkles from the Trolls movie,” I told my husband. I love that character, but if we’re being honest, she’s someone I would only describe as “having a nice personality”.
“It just pains me every time I see her smile,” my husband said a few times in the first day after the shower incident.
Victorie knows her tooth is broken, but she’s OK. We took her to a pediatric dentist the day after and he couldn’t fix it. I nearly cried. Well, he could fix it, but we’d have to sedate our baby girl. She would be too afraid and wouldn’t sit still for the procedure otherwise. Of course, we wouldn’t go for that.
I think the dentist could see our despair. “In the future, when she’s a little bit older and less scared, we can fix it.” A ray of hope. She doesn’t have to go till age 5 or 6 looking like Lady Glitter Sparkles.
“Your tooth is broken, but you’re not,” I told Victorie. I could feel a lump rising in my throat when I said it. Maybe I was saying it more for me than for her. Maybe I was saying it for the chubby little girl inside of me. “You might be pleasantly plump, but you’re still beautiful.” My mom used to say some iteration of that to me all the time. I look in the mirror these days and I still say it to myself.
I don’t know why, but recently, I remembered an experience from middle school. Our thing at that age was to swap photos. I have albums filled with wallet-sized pics of my middle school friends. Once our yearly portraits arrived, we would spend our lunch period penning inscriptions on the back of photos and exchanging them. I had wallets and even smaller ones this particular year. One friend said to me, “The smaller the photo, the better. Bigger is not better when it comes to you.” He said it with a kind of disgust that made me feel ashamed.
That was 20 years ago, but the words, and the shame they caused have stayed with me to this day.
I guess you could say Victorie’s chipped tooth opened up a torrent of emotions. I don’t want anyone to ever make my daughter feel that way. Like she’s defective somehow. That’s what I’ve really been mourning. The loss of her invulnerability as a baby. And the possibility that someone will hurt her for it.
Thankfully, my Victorie is two and a half. She doesn’t really care about her appearance yet.
After the ordeal at the dentist, we took her to Dunkin’ Donuts. I tried to talk to her about the experience, explaining why the “tooth doctor” had to file down her tooth and how brave and strong she was, but she seemed over it. She was more interested in licking the icing off of her donut and running around the shop.
She did bring up getting her tooth fixed the following day though. I explained why it can’t be fixed for now. She seemed momentarily disappointed as she used her tongue to trace the new contour of her tooth. Then she bounced off and forgot about it. God bless her ability to move on so quickly!
That night, my husband and I stayed up processing our grief, our disappointment and our fears.
It struck me that my husband would be well-equipped to deal with this situation. You see, he was born with one arm. So many jokes were made at his expense as a kid that now he makes himself the brunt of all jokes before someone else goes there.
Curious kids always ask him where his arm is. “Oh, I left it at home because it was too heavy to carry” or “my wife asked me to give her a hand and she took the whole arm!” are standard replies.
When Nelson was born without an arm, my mother-in-law was overcome by grief. But then one day she decided to wipe her tears and equip her son with the courage and determination he needed to succeed. That’s why she named him Nelson. After Lord Horatio Nelson, the driven British Navy admiral who succeeded in battle despite a missing arm (and an eye!). My husband tells me that his mom would give him news clippings of any disabled person she read about that was doing extraordinary things. “Impossible is the word only to be found in the dictionary of fools” she would often tell him.
I am grateful to her – she raised the man I love! One of the first things that struck me when I met Nelson was that the lack of an arm was not an impediment. He doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder about his missing arm. It’s part of who he is. I love the quiet confidence Nelson has in who God has made him to be. And I constantly forget that he doesn’t have two arms. Sometimes I expect him to do things that only people with two arms can easily do. I take for granted that he does have a few limitations. He makes less excuses than people with both arms though. I love that about him.
As we were talking about Victorie’s new smile that night, a peace suddenly came over me. I feel like it has settled in my heart now. I could look at this chipped tooth as a curse, or an opportunity. What am I going to teach my daughter about imperfection and disappointment? I can teach her to lament over what was lost, or I can teach her to be resilient. To accept that not everything about her will be perfect. But that she still is worthy of love and respect and admiration. And not just because of her looks, but because of her heart and her mind. And her kindness towards others with imperfections.
Most important of all, I can teach her that her identity in Christ can never be chipped away. She is stunning because God created her in His image, and imbued her with value. Christ thought she was worth dying for. Nothing she could ever do will change that. No blemish to her appearance will ever erase His love.
So much about what my daughter will learn about self-image will come from me. My attitude when I look at myself in the mirror will teach her more than my words. I think it’s time to set that chubby girl free. Free to be imperfect, and beautiful.