"Can you give me my smile back?"

20th Jan 2008 (Yes I still have the date written in my diary). It was a very cold winter morning & sleeping in my warm blanket in the hostel room was the one thing that I was dying for. But every single day, since the start of that year, I was loaded with patients in clinics, followed by afternoon lectures and evening studies.

I was posted in Prosthodontics dept where we had to complete 5 CD (Complete Denture) cases to qualify for the university final exams. And I had three more cases to complete, in a month's time, to qualify. That meant a lot of work in clinics and I knew this time would arrive.

In a hurry I finished my morning coffee in the college canteen and rushed to the dept to find a CD patient. I waited for almost 2 hours outside the dept, waiting for a 'good' ridge patient to start my treatment and finish another CD case in a week.

Finally, someone came to my rescue. Down the corridor, I could see an old lady wearing a salwaar kameez (an Indian traditional dress) heading towards the dept door, where I was desperately waiting. A young man was accompanying her and was trying to make her walk quickly.

(All the conversations from here on have been translated. All the talks were in the regional language and I have tried my best to give the reader a similar feel of what eventually happened.)

"Please make a denture for her so that she can eat. And tell me how many times I have to get her here. And how much time will it take today?"

"Son, you don't have to worry. I will walk back home. Doctor will take care of me", she replied to her son.

I intervened, "It will take 4-5 appt, each lasting for an hour."

"Ok then I will go for work. Please give her a good set of dentures so that she can eat properly."

"But son, I want these dentures for..."

Her son interrupted, "Yeah yeah I know! You want to smile again. I know. Now please start your treatment."

Her son left, leaving me with my new CD patient, Mrs. Shehnaz Khan.

72 years old and a height of about 5.5 feet, Khan looked up at me with those grey, beaming eyes which were very positive about the dentures that she would receive in a week's time. She instantly gave me a toothless smile with her wrinkles covering up most of her face.

Without wasting any time, I took her to my dental chair and started with the case history and examination.

This was quickly followed by selecting the impression trays and preparation of the preliminary impression. While I was doing all this stuff and heating the impression compound on the support table, my right eye told me that my patient was looking at me all this while. May be she was amazed at the way I was playing with the impression compound.

I loaded the impression tray and turned towards my patient. She was still looking at me with those grey eyes.

I placed the tray in her mouth and in fifteen minutes, I recorded both the upper and lower ridges. The only thing that remained constant all this while was the look I was getting from my patient. I couldn't help asking her,

"Is everything all right? Do you want to ask anything regarding the procedure?"

All I got was a toothless smile and nothing more. Little puzzled, I continued with my procedure. She was still looking at me. I was done with her work and was happy that it was over because I won't have a face staring at me after this.

I again called her after 2 days for border moulding. Her son left her outside the department; I took her to my chair and started with the treatment. She was again looking at me. I then got a bit irritated.

"What happened? Why are you looking at me? Is there anything you want to ask me?"

All I got was that toothless smile again. I decided to ignore and complete my work quickly. I finished with my upper jaw recording and was half done with the lower jaw. She had a very healthy ridge and that was the only good thing for me in this case.

After 3 hours, I finished with both the final impressions and was about to inform her of the same, when she finally broke her silence.

"He used to look like you."

I looked at her face, puzzled.

"Yes, he used to look exactly like you."

I asked, "Who?"

She replied, "40 years back, Aftab's father used to look exactly like you."

I didn't know what to say. Aftab was her son who dragged her to the dept. She was talking about her husband. I just smiled.

"Even he was energetic, ambitious and caring, who had a lot of respect for women. Not like my son."

I didn't know how to react. I gave a short smile and added "hmm". I was such a workaholic that all I could tell her was that her work for that day was done and she would have to come again after 3 days. She smiled, agreed, got up from the chair and left the dept.

My third appt with her. I started with the jaw relation recording. After an hour of working, Mrs. Khan slowly reached out for her bag, put her hand inside and pulled out a black and white photograph.

"See I told you, he used to look like you. See this picture."

And I was taken aback. More than looking at him, I was looking at my patient 40 years back. She was extremely gorgeous at that time. Long black hair with grey eyes and a toothy smile.

"He fell for my smile" She said, and started blushing. I stopped my work and just started looking at her.

"He saw me at the village fair. Tall, fair and handsome young man, who came with his friends. We met at the paani poori stall. He wanted to talk to me and was trying his best to get into a conversation. But I just walked away."

For a moment, I kept my work aside and asked her with a grin, "Then what happened?"

“Nothing happened after that. I saw him again at a Daawat. I liked him, but in those days, we could not say that to each other. I used to get letters through his sister, which said that he really loves me and wants to marry me!”

“He worked things for us, and in a year’s time we got married! All these 40 years, he always said that he loved the way I smile and he loved my white, shiny teeth.”

While talking, her voice slowly started getting low.

“The most depressing day of my life, and when I cried, was when my teeth started becoming loose. I felt that I was losing what was my most prized possession, my smile. And that he would stop loving me because I would soon become toothless.”

“But like always, he supported me. He told me that he would still love me and my smile, because it is the love in the smile that he wanted, and not some set of teeth. Like you helped me walk to the chair, even he held me by my hand, and took me to the doctor, comforting me all the time that it is just a tooth that is coming off”

“That is when I realized that love is such a deep feeling. He was with me during every tooth extraction. He would get me a kulfi after every extraction, and I would love him for that. He would apply an ice pack on my cheeks every night and would make sure that I would never have a painful night.”

Wow! This was turning into such a beautiful story that I wanted to hear all day!

“My son was wrong. I don’t want teeth to eat. I don’t want to eat all kinds of food items. My time is over. I want my smile back. Can you give me my smile back?”

Her last sentence shook me. Can you give me my smile back? I didn’t know what to answer. All I could say is that, yes I would try my best to give you your smile back. I asked her if I could keep her photograph to give her a similar shape of teeth. She agreed.

My jaw relation got completed. And I started working really hard on the teeth setting. I went to a store in the city that would give a similar shade and shape. I worked all night on the teeth, aligning it in the way it was in the photograph.

The day finally arrived when I had to deliver the final denture. My patient came in a bright red dress, which reflected her mood. She looked very excited and her grey eyes had a bright beam.

Since the ridge was healthy, the fit was perfect; though a bit of adjustments were needed. I finally handed over the mirror to her. She looked at her new set of teeth for the first time. She didn’t say anything. Just looked at her teeth and smiled.

I finally asked her, “Did I give you your smile back?”

She looked at me, smiled with a toothy grin, and said, “Yes my son, I feel I have got my smile back!”

I replied, in an excited tone, “I am sure Aftab’s dad will love your smile now!”

She looked at me when I said this, got up from the chair slowly and just before starting to walk, said,

“Son, he is not with me anymore. He left me a year back. He was suffering from cancer, and the only thing that gave him relief all past 10 years was my smile. In his last few days, he told me that he would miss my smile the most.”

“This new set of teeth is my gift to his soul. I am sure he must be looking from up, and loving me even more now... God bless you son!”

She started walking towards the dept door, leaving me speechless. I quickly walked up to her, held her arm and helped her to the door, just like Aftab’s dad. We reached the door where Aftab was standing to take her away. Before her frail body faded into the corridor, she looked back at me, with the same grey, beaming eyes.

She never came back. She never saw me again. She didn’t even come back to take her photograph, which is in my diary till today.

Maybe she didn’t want that photograph. She wanted her second son to keep it with him.

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