Gifts come in all shapes and sizes

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Many gifts were exchanged during this past Hanukkah and holiday season, but not all gifts are created equal.

For instance, gifts of food, such as gelt and baked goods, don’t usually last longer than a few days. Toys are often broken or left unused after the initial fascination with them fades. Clothes and shoes will either wear out or the recipient will outgrow them or tire of them. (The exception is older men like myself, who tend to leave new clothing unused until being forced to wear something new when an old shirt or pair of socks becomes too tattered to be salvaged.)

Books either get put on a shelf for future reading or are read and then passed on to libraries for their book fairs, or sold to used bookstores, or lent to friends.

But some gifts keep on giving – even dozens of years later.

I received such a “gift” at the age of 8 while climbing on old-fashioned metal monkey bars on a hardtop playground in Franklin Field, in Dorchester, Massachusetts. In hindsight, knowing what a clumsy oaf I was – I was a certifiable klutz, a trait that would regrettably follow me into adulthood – I shouldn’t have been engaging in this activity, because something was bound to happen.

And it did: I slipped, banging my front tooth on a metal bar and chipping it. Naturally, it was a permanent tooth.

My dentist filed it down, but he didn’t see anything else wrong with it at the time.

That’s the way it stood until the day after Labor Day in 1987, when I woke up early, writhing in pain.

I’ll spare you the details, but a trip to the dentist revealed that the tooth had become abscessed and would require a root canal, a procedure that to this day people dread so much that they routinely say things like: “I’d rather (fill in the blank) than have a root canal.”

That wasn’t an option, and I had the root canal. Perhaps owing to my klutziness, it didn’t go smoothly.

Being young and foolish (35 is young compared to 69), I worked my night shift a few hours after the procedure and then ran a hilly 20K (12.4-mile) race two days later without problems – and I thought I was home free.

Wrong! A few days later, the pain returned, and a second procedure was needed before that chapter of my life could be closed out. That went well enough that I was able to run my third New York City Marathon three weeks later.

I had no other dental issues for 34 years, until I went to the dentist two days before the first day of Hanukkah to have a small cavity filled. That went smoothly, but before the dentist began drilling, she dropped a bombshell on me: the tooth adjacent to the one that had required a root canal in 1987 had become infected to the point that another root canal would be needed.

How was that possible, I asked. The dentist said she always tells kids whose teeth have sustained trauma that they shouldn’t be too surprised if they have to deal with the consequences 60 years later.

In other words, my tumble on the monkey bars at age 8 became the ultimate gift that keeps on giving. That meant enduring the pure joy (sarcasm intended) of a root canal, which causes even more pain in your wallet than your tooth since most dental insurance covers only a small percentage of the cost.

I was fortunate that the procedure went much better than I expected, but being forced to get another root canal was one more thing that made me aware of my mortality. It also made me want to keep up with my friends even more, and it transformed the usual sending of holiday and New Year greetings into an urgent year-end ritual.

And all this is, of course, on top of the constant fear and anxiety that we’re all continuing to feel – even the fully vaccinated and boosted – because of the endless coronavirus pandemic and the incessant warnings about omicron and other variants.    

The only good news in these tumultuous and thoroughly depressing times is that we’ve learned to appreciate our families and loved ones far more than ever.

That’s why it was an absolute blessing to have both of my daughters home for the sixth night of Hanukkah. Their presence at the dinner table was the ultimate gift, and it made the blintz souffle and latkes that my wife Lynne made for dinner taste even more heavenly.

These all-too-extremely-rare moments of peace and spiritual healing are helping to keep me from truly feeling my age – even as I’m still paying for the “gift” I received six decades ago.

LARRY KESSLER (larrythek65@gmail.com) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He blogs at larrytheklineup.blogspot.com.