We paused outside of the orthodontist’s office for one last picture of my son with his braces.
Today was two and a half years in the making: his braces were finally coming off.
Though he’s used to me documenting his childhood milestones with silly selfies and pictures of him with his friends, my son still rolled his eyes as I dug my camera out of my purse.
“Smile!” I sang.
He leaned up against the brick wall and rewarded me with a huge, metal mouthed grin.
I had no way of knowing then how much I’d miss that smile.
He was greeted by the office staff and ushered back to the exam room for the last time. I could hear him laughing with the staff as they celebrated and took pictures of his newly straightened teeth.
“Well, I can eat gummy bears and corn on the cob tonight,” he announced when he rejoined me in the waiting room, flashing a practically bioluminescent smile at me expectantly.
His new smile took my breath away.
There, in front of me, was his grown up smile.
His face had completely changed and where a prepubescent boy had stood before his appointment, now, it seemed that a man had replaced my fifteen year old son.
I looked closely at his new teeth, anxious to see what two and a half years and several thousand dollars purchased, and I noticed one of his teeth wasn’t quite perfect, still a little crooked.
I found myself realizing that I’d be looking at that crooked tooth on the day I leave him in his dorm room. And my heart felt heavy suddenly.
As he ran his tongue over his teeth and excitedly rooted through the gift bag the hygienist had given him, I fought the urge to fall into a pile of tears.
My little boy had grown up right before my eyes and I didn’t see it coming.
He has a grown up smile. The smile he will have when he has his first job interview, the smile he’ll flash at bars when he’s trying to get a girl’s number.
The smile he’ll shine towards me on the day he gets married, the day I’ll dance with him at his wedding while trying not to remember that he told me when he was three that he’d marry me.
I’ll notice that crooked tooth, slightly askew on the day he brings his first-born home from the hospital and the memory of this day will come flooding right back to me.
No one tells you that braces anchor your baby to childhood.
Parents measure so many milestones with teeth, it seems.
Those nights when you are wearing a path in the carpet in the hallway at 2 am while you rock a teething baby cutting his first tooth.
That first grin where a teeny tooth pokes out and you clap with glee because you can start solid food.
The sounds of “Mommy, I lost my tooth!” as your daughter dashes off the bus, carefully holding her treasure so as to not lose it before hiding it for the tooth fairy.
Those pictures of your kids looking like jack o lanterns suddenly become more precious when your child looks at you with their grown up smile.
Their grown up smile is one more step towards adulthood, towards independence.
Their brackets and wires seeming to tether them to their teenage years, as if to hold them back for just a little longer before they conquer the world.
And I didn’t see it coming.
All those years of celebrating the firsts with my children and their teeth, I didn’t see the lasts coming.
The grief I felt on the last night my husband and I played the role of the tooth fairy caught me unaware. As I watched her sleep as my husband slipped her prize under her pillow, tears silently filled my cheeks.
A house suddenly devoid of baby teeth hurts more than you’d expect.
And, on that sunny morning, when I made my son stop to take a picture before having his braces removed, I had no idea that it was the last time I’d see him as a little boy. I carry that hurt deep in my heart because no one tells you that you wish you could keep your baby in braces forever.
Every morning, when he smiles at me, I see the man he’s about to become.
Every night, when he grins and kisses me goodnight, I see the dreams he’s about to realize.
I look at his tooth, the one that is slightly askew, and know that it’s a gift. I’m about to share a lifetime of adult memories with him and his grown up smile. I just need to brace myself for the years to come.