Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Brush with Injustice: A Visit to the Dentist Can Be Just as Cleansing for the Soul as It Is for the Teeth

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Brush with Injustice: A Visit to the Dentist Can Be Just as Cleansing for the Soul as It Is for the Teeth

Article excerpt

I have philosophical conversations with my dentist while he cleans my teeth. It's no small task to attempt to be profound with a hook in your mouth, but Dr. Abe is above all a terrific conversationalist, so I accept the challenge. The son of Holocaust survivors, he was born in Israel but raised in Brooklyn, a couple neighborhoods over from mine and about a generation earlier. Dr. Abe is passionate about everything from cutting-edge medical advancements to the latest miseries of the New York Mets. I have never had a boring conversation with him. It is strange to say, but I even look forward to my cleanings.

During my first visit, Dr. Abe told me that he was a prostate cancer survivor. The diagnosis, he said, had made him eager to learn and grow as a human being. Sometime later, his ever present openness allowed me to share with him the grief I felt when my wife suffered a miscarriage. The cleaning, ever gentle, was particularly so that day.

Dr. Abe and I have always been frank with one another. I'm not sure why. It can't be simply because we both grew up in pregentrified, working-class Brooklyn. It's an inexplicable thing, such immediate personal connections, but when I've experienced them, they make me feel that life is well worth the living.

That brings me to my most recent cleaning. As always, Dr. Abe asked how I was doing. He knew from my last visit that my 70-year-old mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer and would be having the mass removed surgically. He also knew that my father had been dead some years, a coronary victim of his alcoholism.

"Doc," I said, "she died of an infection six weeks after the surgery. She never left the ICU."

He looked at me, this good and compassionate man, for some time without speaking. Then he said, with eyes brimming with understanding and connection, "I'm 62 years old, and I have both of my parents. How many people my age can say that?" And I, at 41, knew I could tell him, this son of Holocaust survivors, of the injustice I felt.

He asked me what I had told my kids, who were ages 6,2, and just 4 months old on the day my mother died. I said I was lucky that my oldest was in Catholic school, because an understanding of death is built into daily life there. I told the kids what I understood about heaven, but mostly of how awfully I missed my mother. He said he had relayed something similar to his young sons when his mother-in-law died years earlier.

After a time Dr. Abe, who is actively involved with his synagogue, admitted that the injustice of the world often poured down and wore away the rock of his faith. He recalled an uncle who, before the war and the Nazi death camps, had studied to be a rabbi but then put that behind him. Dr. Abe once asked him why he stopped his studies. The uncle told him, "Because I'm mad at God, that he could have let this thing happen to our people."

This man had lost his entire family in one of the most barbaric systematic acts in human history. It was an indescribable injustice. And I had lost both of my parents. My youngest child was born just two weeks before my mother's diagnosis. The whole point of the operation had been to save her life. Injustice.

Six million Jews. A small woman who had saved her children from an alcoholic's abuse. …

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