Up, Up, and Away!

Celebrating a masked hero of a different kind.

Illustration by Chris Gall

Departure April 2013

We have super-sized our heroes. The Incredibles, the Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman. Let me buck the trend for a moment.

One of my heroes is a pint-sized 5 feet 4 inches and 125 pounds, and she doesn’t wear a neoprene bustier.

She can’t shoot webs out of her wrist, and she can’t bend steel bars with her bare hands. She can’t even fly (as far as I know). But she has a talent that I bet none of them has.

Before I go there, however, I must admit that this is difficult for me to talk about; in fact, I had hoped I would never have to.

You see, three months ago, at my last appointment, I learned to my horror that Susie—my dental hygienist—is retiring.

And to think, I had been sailing along blissfully from one dentist appointment to the next all these years without a clue that this day could be near for my pixyish, raspy-voiced, polymath—and ageless—hygienist, who had become, yes, my friend. I was surely one of the few people on the planet not dreading my next dentist appointment. In fact, I looked forward to it—twice a year.

Just why the dental world is the butt of many jokes—witness the tooth sculpture swinging above the coach in Quentin Tarantino’s recent hit Django Unchained to hilarious effect—I don’t know. I guess there’s something inherently embarrassing about dental hygiene. Mouths can tell unwelcome tales—say, that we ate garlic last night or drank too much coffee last week.

But Susie is different. First, she can clean teeth better than any superhero. She flosses, picks and scrapes to perfection, without ever jabbing gums or hurting in any way. Nada. Not one wince necessary, nary a gasp of pain. Trust me, I’m a sensitive guy. And this over a 10-year span.

Susie doesn’t mind a good tea stain, either. In fact, she addresses the situation with enthusiasm and aplomb, gauging how hard I am working, writing, by the extent of the shadows on the backs of my teeth. But that is just the start.

Susie is not only deft and empathetic, she is a conversationalist par excellence. More than once—each session—I would find myself attempting to move my jaw to respond to some thought-provoking comment (and still she managed not to poke me). She would inject a spray of water. I would swish. She’d suck with a tube. And I’d say, “Really? You’re kidding!” Or something equally urgent.

To warm up, I’d hear about the recent books she’d read, say, Edmund Morris’ Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, or Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Susie has read Gone with the Wind more than 20 times.

Then there are her special interests. This is when it really got good. Li’l Susie lives large. She plays the bagpipes: the great highland war pipe, no less. And she doesn’t just tootle. She plays Piobaireachd, classical piping tunes, big stuff that even a lot of big men can’t play. But Susie has the lungs and the gusto. “It takes practice,” she says. “Lots of them just want to wear the kilt.”

Susie raises chickens, exotic chickens. And battles predators.

When a five-and-a-half foot black rat snake killed her Frizzle hen Isabella, she grabbed it and released it far away in the woods. Nevertheless, the snake returned and got Isabella’s friend, Petunia. When it came back for Frizzle thirds (Delila), Susie dispatched it with a set of hedge clippers. That’s my girl. It’s no wonder her rooster, Beaufort, a BB Old English Red, has made it to the ripe age of 17 ½. When Susie says he’s “probably the oldest chicken in the world,” she means it.

I don’t know if Susie quaffs Dos Equis, but she just might be the Most Interesting Woman in the World.

In her spare time, she paints animal portraits and fly-fishes. One of her three rescue dogs is Grover, a Chihuahua once owned by drug dealers in San Diego. And she plays the fiddle and the banjo, too.

No, I don’t begrudge Susie the time she now has to indulge in all her interests. After 27 years of not just putting smiles on faces but makin’ em look good too, no one deserves it more. I am going to miss her, though. In just three short months, I will with great trepidation meet her replacement. It will be some callow youth, no doubt, with the best of intentions and a gleam in his or her eye and a “Make my day” disdain for plaque. And I will wince.

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