Beware of Dentists Bearing Gifts

I picked this stock image for the casket with strawberries on top. I’m in there.

I picked this stock image for the casket with strawberries on top. I’m in there.

My four-year-old went to the dentist this week for his third of four restorative appointments. It’s been a slog trying to undo four years of poor dental hygiene, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. That light got a little bit brighter today at the end of his appointment, but as is the fear, it turned out to be an oncoming train.

He may might not be great at caring for his teeth at home or perhaps he has bad genetics when it comes to tooth enamel (let’s go with that one), but when it comes to sitting still and letting the dentist do his thing, my middle kid is a pro. Right when we walk into the room, he climbs straight up into the reclining dental chair and pretty much doesn’t move or make a sound for an hour. It’s a sight to behold. I’ve considered scheduling extra appointments just to keep him entertained and quiet for an hour every now and then.

Appointment three went as smoothly as the first two. And at the end, we finally got what we’d been waiting for, a trip to the secret prize closet. We didn’t know the prize closet existed until the moment the dentist mentioned it, but still, it felt like we’d always wanted to visit it. This was our time. Well, almost. The dentist finished his work and “scooted out to lunch” leaving the hygienist to take care of the finishing details like packing the tooth extraction site with gauze and, presumably, leading us triumphantly to the secret prize closet. She managed the first part perfectly, but then she made as if to lead us straight to the exit.

“Um,” I said hesitantly to her back as she was walking away, “I think the doctor said something about a prize closet?”

I pointed in the direction the doctor had gestured. Obviously, I didn’t know where the prize closet actually was because it is secret.

“Oh, yes!” she said. “That’s right.”

I stifled a sigh of relief and did some deep breathing exercises to quiet my racing heart. I was pleased with myself though. Between my child’s exemplary behavior in the dentist chair, which as far as I can tell is completely random and in no way a reflection of my parenting skill but whatever, and the strong stand I took to protect my child’s crack at the secret prize closet, I’d done more than enough great parenting for one day. And it was only noon!

We walked into the secret prize closet and the first thing I noticed was that it happened to be right behind the door the dentist had pointed at (not so secret). The second thing I noticed was that it was more an office with a bookshelf than a closet. The third thing I noticed was an Xbox game in the middle of the prize shelf.

“Huh, maybe this is something you might like,” I said to my son, trying my best to remain nonchalant so as not to tip off the hygienist that we were about to make out like bandits.

“Yeah!” my son said. Or rather mumbled through a mouthful of gauze.



I handed him the game case and we strolled out all casual like. It was only after we settled the huge bill (but who cares we got a free Xbox game!) and made our way out to the car that I opened the game case. It was empty.

“Oh no,” I said. “It’s empty. Well, maybe the case was the prize.”

I don’t know why I said this. I then repeated it to my wife in a text message a few minutes later, which is even weirder. Perhaps I was still in a state of shock from the whole whirlwind—the dental visit itself, news of the secret prize closet, my intrepid fight for our deserved place in that prize closet that was reminiscent of Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn but presumably more successful, and our escape with the Xbox game—but in retrospect it seems ridiculous to think that a dentist, despite their reputation for sadism, would stoop so low as to offer up an empty Xbox game case as a prize. What was I thinking?

I don’t know, but I was suddenly thinking about getting out of there. Fast. My kid seemed surprisingly okay with the disappointment, but he was also slightly drugged. We needed to flee the premises before he sobered up and demanded the game. I wasn’t about to go back in and ask about this free Xbox game that we probably stole. I was exhausted from fighting the power once; I couldn’t face doing it again.

We burned rubber out of the parking lot. But while we waited in traffic, my wife calmly talked me down from the ledge. She suggested that I go back and ask. Even if it was a mistake, she said, it was better to find out for sure than risk the meltdown that was going to occur after the laughing gas wore off and our son wanted to play the non-existent game. I understood her point of view, but there’s one important thing you must remember: I really didn’t want to go back. I make a living avoiding awkward situations and COULD THIS SITUATION BE ANY MORE AWKWARD?!?

Ultimately, I turned around. It definitely didn’t make it less awkward that I walked back in carrying my child and an empty Xbox case about fifteen minutes after we had left the first time. Also, my heart was pounding so heavily at this point everyone could see it pulsing through my shirt like I was a cartoon character in love. So distracting.

“Oh, you again,” the receptionist said. “The cops are on the way.”

She didn’t say that. Sorry. That was my anxiety talking. She was quite friendly and said she would check because she didn’t know anything about the prizes. She came back a few minutes later after, I assume, she and the entire staff laughed about how we thought we were getting an Xbox game, and said that the game disc in question was in their game room in the lobby and my son could come back and pick a different prize.

What a relief. We grabbed a googly-eyed snowman book and got out of there once and for all. My son was totally fine with the whole thing, of course, but I need a few days or weeks to recover.

However, this whole ordeal has taught me one important lesson. It’s a lesson I’ve learned many times, but I always seem to forget. You should always…always look a gift horse squarely in the mouth. Particularly at the dentist. Because if its teeth and gums aren’t healthy there, then you’re in for a load of disappointment down the road. And if it’s hiding an empty Xbox game case in there somehow, it’s really a hundred times worse because things are about to get weird.

For more from Explorations of Ambiguity by Andrew Knott, like my Facebook page and sign up here to get the latest posts and updates right in your inbox! My book, Fatherhood: Dispatches From the Early Years, is available at Amazon.