Brace yourself

Took my 7-year-old to the orthodontist in the woods today for round one.

The office of Cooper Chockley, where the kids distract themselves on iPads and the parents drink espresso and bottled water. Portraits of all the success stories smile back at you from elegantly framed photos. “See?” they seem to say. “It is so worth it.”

The office is a country cottage kind of place, in a secluded park it shares with dentists, Realtors and other elegant professionals. It’s just east of Vensel Creek, near All Saints Anglican Church and Calvary Cemetery.

A student of the Tulsa Race Riot swears there are bodies buried back in behind here, past Calvary and across the creek. It used to be easier to go in there and walk the banks, where he would study the earth for signs of mass graves. But now the only access is through Tanglewood, a new community with well-postured trees glowing with autumn foliage and a median sales price of just over $700K.

“Look!” my kid yelled from the backseat a mile back. “It’s the Shakespeare theater.”

He was spotting the tree-lined wing of a three-story manse painted white and studded with dark timbers. A club owner lived there in the ’90s, a girl I was hanging out with at the time told me, and he may still. It did look a bit like the south London Globe, but I’ve no idea how he knew that. No matter. I took it as a good sign. Better than him peppering me with questions about his mouth that I could only answer, “Well, when I got braces …”

Inside, after he made me swear that we had not parked in a space with a wheelchair on it, Lucas poked around on a computer screen, where all patients young and old check themselves in. A woman answers phones and keeps the people with drinks in the drinks zone, but otherwise it’s a streamlined environment and you’re on you own.

The four Cooper Chockley values, framed to a wall in the coffee bar, are Quality, Guest Experience, Guest Education and Time Management, in that order. The message at Cooper Chockley oozes from every piece of soft furniture and aroma of breakfast blend: Take care of us and we’ll take care of you. You can’t walk five feet without some component of it being emitted, whether through a smiley-mouthed testimonial or a new piece of Apple hardware.

The theme, if there is one, screams to me Urban Zoological. The staff, doctors included, all dress in neck-to-ankle black, like club bouncers or the wait staff at a hip restaurant known for sourcing locally. Everybody moves about in a choreography that appears honed and sharpened for efficiency and safety. Animal prints offer an ironic motif: a hippo showing off his tonsils and molars like giant marshmallows, a giraffe pokes his tongue out to a leaf, an elephant’s trunk partially obscures an exaggeratedly long tusk.

Or maybe it’s just all the enamel and gum showing in framed mouths, mouths that appear about to chomp, in spite of the pain you can feel for the subject being forced to pose there with their teeth on parade.

“He’s cute,” said Reta, about to jam her fingers in my son’s mouth. And I began to wonder for how long. Would he still be cute and 7 when the hour was up? I distracted myself by looking out the picture window, where the creek meandered through a stand of golden-leafed oaks. I said something about the scenery.

“Yeah,” said Jennifer, all smiles and blue Latex gloves. “It’s beautiful when it snows.”

Reta took the vacant swivel stool next to where my son lie outstretched and I saw his head turn, acknowledging the presence of reinforcements.

Jennifer: “She’s going to help me out a bit.”

Reta: “We will get along just fine.”

Jennifer: “Can you open up real wide? Good.”

In the procedure room, there’s a Queen Anne bench upholstered in animal prints where the parents can sit. From it, I studied my boy, the thin lines of dried mud stuck in the tread of his New Balance, his hands lying limply on his sweat-shirted chest, his mouth agape, all pink and white and held open by a plastic kind of device that reminded me of those cones they collar dogs with to keep them from biting themselves.

Before I’d even gotten situated, they were deep into the session. Reta and Jennifer dabbed and dabbled at his teeth to set the stage for Cooper, who would apply the cement and brackets. Jennifer would then insert the band that runs with curvature of his lower jaw. (We’re saving the top row for a later date, at Cooper Chockley’s suggestion.)

“You’re doin’ awesome, Lucas!”

They have Wi-Fi, of course, so I checked some e-mail while they suctioned his mouth. An intense purple-blue light—ye olde “blacklight”—lit up his gums. The scene reminded me of lounging on my bed listening to Yes albums in the dark and staring at the Roger Dean felt posters thumbtacked to my ceiling.

“Good to see you, buddy,” said Dr. Cooper, straddling a stool on wheels. It was about to hit the fan.

“He’s doing awesome,” Jennifer said.

“Awesome, dude.”

Then Cooper said something technical, and that he was “worried about it,” and I zoned out. Let the professionals mastermind the nitty-gritty, I say, be it orthodontics or stock portfolios. Yes, the polished wood floors, faux-finished walls painted in earth tones and all the tech gear make me wary, suspicious, even. Until they start in, and then I realize that Cooper is a god, his assistants trained disciples, and I am mammon. I praise the near-heavens for steady hands and that somebody is helping pay for at least part of this upgrade. Like god and minion, we never even actually say hi.

“Open,” said Jennifer to Lucas.

“Eeeaaaeeek …” went Cooper, straining for space in the small mouth. “Bring that tongue back. Back-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-back.”

Lucas reclined there motionless, his mouth lit up, near tears glistening in his still-sleepy eyes. He wasn’t crying, just kind of welling in the backlash of keeping his jaw cranked open for half an hour, the struggle of not crying, of being prodded and sucked, and having his crooked teeth—little white tiles that came in askew not through any fault of his own—straightened out.

I wanted to tell him that he could lay all the blame at the feet of some old guy from North Carolina, perhaps Arkansas, perhaps Wales, whose long buried bones have since gone to dust but whose teeth, if dug up, would look like crooked shanks of Indian corn. But I left the family tree unpruned, for now.

It’s amazing how fast the time goes when it’s not you lying there taking it, when you can check mail and blog and stay busy.

“OK, go for it!” Cooper said, startling my son.

“Oh!” said Jennifer. “Your eyes got big.”

The good doctor studied the steel now firmly set. “Hey, I’m gonna live with that. That’s pretty good. I love it!”

Jennifer wired him up, clipped the excess, and let him sit up.

I asked him if I could take a peek and he let me.

Done in under an hour! I followed the wire that would yank and crank on the architecture of his mouth in order to right the leaning Pisa. Braces are better these days, they say—Cooper Chockley employs a trademarked technique called the Damon System—but it still looked to me as if a torture device had been installed in my son’s mouth for purposes of regulating his movement and chaining him to a post, if need be. But I know it’s all for the good, right, though I had a hard time convincing him of that when the “Food for Thought” list of what he could and couldn’t eat read like a yin and yang of a kid’s most basic dietary desires.

On the way out, I waited at the desk to see if there was anything I needed to sign or swipe. “No,” she said, “he’s on contract.” A terrifying ring to it, that, which is perhaps why, just to the left of reception, is a “Share Box,” where patients write down prayer requests for the doctors and staff.

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