I am careful with the stories I tell about my family. The memories I share and preserve are typically the tidy ones, the ones given costumes and presented in the Disneyland Main Street Parade. They are real. They are true stories, don’t get me wrong. But they are only a curated portion of the whole story. They are stories that I do not want my future self to forget, so I write about them. But then there are other stories that I would be perfectly happy to lose. These are the stories I conveniently never write. No one wants to see the dimly lit breakroom where Mickey Mouse takes off his head, wipes the sweat from his mustached face with an oversized gloved hand, and then slurps ramen noodles all over his suit for half an hour during his lunch break before dancing back out into the sunlight. Everyone is happier ignoring that this place even exists.
So, there are things I do not write about because they are difficult to admit and uncomfortable to look at. For example, a month or so ago my daughters murdered the Tooth Fairy and that’s not something I would like to write about. But I’m going to anyway.
When Clara lost her first tooth it felt like a very important milestone in the life of our family. We no longer had a baby with a mouth full of tiny baby teeth, we had a child who was one tooth closer to adulthood. Every tooth was a rite of passage in a way, and I felt like it was worth celebrating. The concept and design of a traditional “Tooth Fairy” made a lot of sense to me in this regard. A child loses a piece of their childhood and moves one step closer to being an adult and this is a very frightening and mysterious thing for a child. Sacrifice yourself to the unknown. This is where hope is born, right? If you think about it, the Tooth Fairy actually works in the currency of confidence. That’s the real prize, isn’t it? Is it worth giving up a piece of yourself so that you can wake up the next morning to find some sort of mystical gift that you could have never imagined or earned? Yes, that is what getting older is supposed to feel like. So, I fully embraced the Tooth Fairy with both arms.
I went out of my way to make every lost tooth a rocket exploding in the night sky. Clara would find five-dollar bills, and special hard to find candy, and toys or special treats. She would write messages for the Tooth Fairy to find, and the Tooth Fairy would reply with messages of their own, delicately scribed in meticulous Elvish, translated online from a Lord of the Rings dictionary. She found drawing and scrolls filled with glitter and strange smelling dust. Every tooth was a different experience. Every tooth a baby step away from being a baby.
To my delight, she loved it. She would wake up giddy and dance and sing with awe that somehow the magic had happened again in the night (often despite her clever traps and tripwires). And it made all the late evenings spent preparing worthwhile. I would greet her with a yawn, having lost several hours of sleep the night before because I was running to the store after everyone was in bed, so I could buy materials and tinker with craft projects at my desk until two in the morning, regardless of what I had happening at work the following day.
This became even more of a challenge when Lydia started losing teeth as well. Now I had teeth flying at me sometimes twice a week, and I was putting in extra hours of preparation buying up prizes well in advance and hiding them in special places in the garage and under my bathroom sink. I was always waiting for the call from my wife announcing that my daughter had popped out another tooth. “James, the Tooth Fairy had better be ready because I just watched Lydia spin a tooth in a complete circle.” And I would smile and leave work early to buy some soft pink ribbon at the store on the way home so I could tie shut the gift I had waiting in a corner of the garage.
But I was a fool. And I never once considered that with every baby tooth step into adulthood my children were moving further and further into a realm where fantasy does not survive. Clara rather quickly discerned that this “Tooth Fairy” that was leaving things in her bed was actually her mother and I (She still fully expects that it is her mother, which I accept as a great testament to my acting skills). But even though she expected that the gifts were coming from us, there was always still a strange disconnect between the giver and the receiver. She had no one to be appreciative to or to thank. After all, how do you thank a creature you have never seen and fully believe does not exist. And so, she became very bold and honest in her evaluation of her gifts in a way she never would have otherwise. For instance, when I asked the following morning what she had gotten, she would happily show me everything in the special container she had found, but feel free to mention that she “had been hoping for Mike and Ikes, but had instead got Sour Skittles, but I guess that’s okay”. And it was okay, but it did still sting a little.
Then, one day last winter, Clara lost a baby incisor and I was back at the store late at night trying to find one last thing to complete the bundle I had planned. I found a pack of cards with pictures of the girls’ favorite dolls. They were on sale and it fit perfectly into the top of the wooden treasure chest I had prepared, so I slid them in under a note written in Elvish script, saying that I was proud of her for how well she had taken care of her teeth this year (she would never be able to read it anyway, but I slaved over every curl of script as I wrote). Then, at about two in the morning, I quietly slid it under her pillow.
I was woken up the next morning by a very grumpy child standing over my bed. She was not pleased.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The Tooth Fairy,” she said glumly. “She left me my gift and I’m not happy.”
“Oh no. Why not? What did you get?” I propped myself up on my elbows and pretended to be surprised.
She listed off the items in the small box which had been so carefully tied shut with ribbon. “First, she pointed out, I have my five dollars.”
“Uh huh…” I said, already feeling the graveness of the situation as it descended on me like a dark cloud, a rope being wound around my neck. The way she said “my five dollars…” seemed to bite me in the hand. The bill she was folding up and placing in her pocket right now was quite literally the last five-dollar bill of my birthday money- money I had been given in a card from my in-laws saying “We hope you spend this on something you really really want.” The rest of that birthday money had already found its way under my daughters’ pillows. This is what I had spent it on. This is what I had felt was valuable.
She continued listing items, and I realized as the time went on that there was simply too much inside the box. How was it taking her so long to list everything? When she finally came to the last item and said, “And then I got these silly cards, and I don’t even know why I would even want them.” The last breath of Clara’s Tooth Fairy had already been strangled out. It gasped, twirled in the air and flopped lifeless onto the floor.
I reached out a trembling hand to my daughter’s shoulder and said very carefully, “I’m so sorry, Clara. That is a terrible attitude to have, but I can assure you that you will have to worry about getting something like that again.”
She looked at me very strangely. Perhaps she could sense the change in my emotions. Maybe there was a quaver in my voice that I was not able to mask. Perhaps she understood the message.
“Well,” she said finally, “I think I would just prefer the Tooth Fairy to give me cash from now on.”
The prodigal child was handing me back my rings and fatted calf and was asking instead for their inheritance. I laid back and closed my eyes. “We will see where life takes us,” I said softly and then I exhaled deeply, and I sank into my pillow.
Later that evening I caught her looking through the pack of cards on the floor in the living room. “I guess these cards are actually pretty cool,” she said in an apologetic tone as I walked by. But I said nothing.
A month or so later she lost another tooth, only two seconds before the turning of the year from 2018 to 2019. I checked under her pillow, every night for the next week and a half. She never hid it. It still sits wrapped in a plastic baggie inside her desk drawer. I see it from time to time, but I’ve never mentioned it.
I was encouraged by the fact that at least her younger sister Lydia was still seeming to enjoy her Tooth Fairy attention. But the poison of greed is insidious, and innocence dies quickly in the wilds of youth. Not long after Clara crushed her Tooth Fairy to death inside of her fist, Lydia lost a tooth and immediately started announcing that she also wanted only money, and nothing else.
I was bewildered. I couldn’t tell the child that it wasn’t possible. The garage was already hiding packages of gifts specially selected just for her, waiting for the moment to arrive. I had planned this in advance, months before. But she simply shook her head, “No! I want only money. More than five-dollars.”
“You get five-dollars AND prizes from the Tooth Fairy?!” I said in shock, as if this was something I had never realized before.
“Yes. Usually, but now I want only money. I’ll pick my own prizes.”
I shook my head sadly and ran my fingers down her cheek. “But why? I don’t understand!”
She pulled away from me and smiled, “Because, I want to be Rich!”
I nearly cried. My vision blurred and I had to rub at my eyes with the palms of my hands and pretend that I was merely tired. I waited for a full ten heartbeats before I trusted myself to answer. “Oh, Lydia… You want to be rich?” I reached out so I could touch her face again. “Sweetheart, you don’t even know what it means.”
Just a few short hours of sleep later and I was woken up by screaming tears as the little girl discovered a package under her flowered pillow instead of simply a wad of cash like she had asked for. Before she could get to my bedroom to complain, I got up and locked the door. I needed to mourn the death of yet another Tooth Fairy, in peace.
I’m a fool. I realize this. All fathers are, I guess, in their own way. But I’m even more so. Because, you would think, eventually, I would learn. But I do not. The other day Gideon unscrewed his first tooth and took an excited leap into the strange grown-up world, and despite everything, I found myself, once again, standing in a check out line at midnight buying a special gift to hide under my child’s pillow. Perhaps someday I’ll grow up to be a wiser father. Perhaps I simply haven’t lost enough teeth yet.