The Mouth of Babes by Karie Luidens

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The strangest thing happened to me last week: I started teething.

I’m not speaking metaphorically. My first wisdom tooth has arrived on the scene a decade late. At first it felt as though a grain of sand had lodged in my gum, but within a few days a full corner of a molar had nudged its way out. Suddenly, inexplicably, I have a new tooth.

Funnily enough, my one-year-old nephew is also teething at present, so now he and I have something in common.

Admittedly his situation is pretty different from mine. For baby-nephew, teething is a turning point, the start of a new journey. All his life he’s eaten only milk and mush, but his new teeth are destined to chew their way through several years of crackers, mac’n’cheese, and the occasional reluctant vegetable. He’s about to discover a whole world of edible textures! 

Not to compete with a baby or anything, but the comparative uselessness of my recent teething is sort of a letdown.

In contrast, my new wisdom tooth has done nothing for me. 

Not that I should compete with a baby or anything, but the comparative uselessness of my recent teething is sort of a letdown. Tooth number 29. Cool. And… anticlimactic. I never needed it. I don’t really use it. It’s just hanging out in the back there.

Its arrival has done nothing but remind me that I’ve long since passed all my developmental milestones. The fact that I can sit up, walk, and pronounce polysyllabic words rarely attracts praise anymore. I’ve hit all my growth spurts; I sweated my way through puberty with the rest of them; ta-da! I’m an adult!

What’s next?

I contemplated this while feeling the fresh bit of enamel poking into my mouth. Broadly speaking, we reach our physical peak in our twenties. Once I’ve thrived my way through that decade of full-grown work and play, what personal milestones remain to look forward to?

The first gray hair.

The first perma-wrinkle.

The first joint pain.

Good lord, I thought as I inspected my new molar, I’ve peaked.

Today’s my birthday, you see, so you’ll forgive me if I’m a little caught up in the concept of years slipping by. It’s not that I’m old; it’s just that I’m old enough to start fretting about getting older. I’m at the stage where you take stock of how you launched your adulthood and consider whether you’ve managed to make something of yourself yet. And you hope you haven’t wasted those peak years, because you realize that you don’t get a do-over.

My nephew’s got it easy when it comes to his teeth: he’s still on his training set. He can take big bold bites out of the world and not worry about chipped incisors because they’re all going to be replaced anyway. Childhood is just practice.

Adulthood is the real deal. No messing around with these teeth—they’re all you get. Same goes for the years you’re living. You only have one chance to be 24, and 31, and 45, and so on, until eventually you’re out of chances, never to be 89 or 117 or 256.

As of yesterday, I’ve used up my one chance to be 27. I’m one year further removed from my days of development (and carefree childishness) and one year closer to decline (the grays and the wrinkles). And that’s that. The peak has passed. There’s no going back.

At a certain point your functional development is done, but little bits of wisdom can keep popping in now and then as you age.

Then again, in the steady march of time, every once in a while a little anomaly catches you off guard. Like the fact that I’m still teething at (now) 28. Maybe my mouth doesn’t know it’s supposed to be done; apparently it’s still willing to cut its gums on something new. I can work with this. Let’s make it a metaphor after all: at a certain point your functional development is done, but little bits of wisdom can keep popping in now and then as you age. Sounds good to me. 

This new wisdom tooth doesn’t mark a turning point in my adulthood the way my nephew’s baby teeth do in his childhood. But I like the quirkiness of its sudden appearance; several times in the last couple days I’ve found myself checking its progress with the tip of my tongue. It might not serve an obvious purpose, but it does make me pause, think, and laugh.

I’ll take my 28 functional teeth to go with my 28 years lived… plus one extra as an odd reminder that you can keep growing in unexpected ways long past your last developmental milestone. 

Here’s to new journeys and their milestones; to youthful growth as well as to graceful aging; to peaking repeatedly with each passing decade. Here’s to another year in all our lives. Happy birthday, me! (And happy first birthday next week, baby-nephew!) Cheers, all. 

Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.

Betty Friedan
How to live longer, better, wiser. Parade Magazine 1994