by Barbara Sherf
I said farewell today to what has been described as Tooth #8 to those in the dental community, but to me it was my right front tooth that had given me a winning smile for more than 50 years.
With eyes squeezed shut and tears streaming down my cheeks, I knew the second it was out and tears again streamed down my face as I asked family friend, Dr. Alan Krochtengel, if I could take the tooth with me. Alan had thought I was crying from the pain, but those tears were more about the closing of a chapter of my life and the clarity in knowing when to fold.
As he handed me the bloodied tooth, we both saw a small fracture that was probably sustained during a 2008 horseback riding accident in the Wissahickon Valley. The tooth was a painful reminder of that last ride my father and I would ever share.
For the record, the accident had not been the horse’s fault. I had brought Sunny into a full gallop along a demonstration trail cleared of rocks and downed limbs by the Friends of the Wissahickon as part of a pilot trail maintenance program designed to make it safer for bikers, riders and hikers. One thing that could not be cleared, though, was the gnarled tree roots, some apparent and others hidden just below the surface of the soil. It was one such concealed set of roots that brought Sunny, one of five horses who were part of the Philadelphia Saddle Club, to an abrupt halt. The space between his hoof and shoe got caught in the web-like roots, with the shoe tearing off and sending him to the ground and me flying over him.
As I lay there in shock and assessing my injuries — concussion, broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder — Sunny regrouped and limped over to nuzzle me and apologize.
“It wasn’t your fault, boy. I’m so sorry,” I said looking to see that his hoof had been badly butchered.
My father, riding Wyatt, was behind us and immediately dismounted, helping me to rest on a large rock just off of the trail. What if I had come down on that rock, I thought, as my mind raced to formulate a plan for getting to the ER and my father and the two horses safely back to the barn.
At the time of the accident, both front teeth had come loose, but they had not come out, and for that I was grateful. But over time, it was clear Tooth #8 had to go. Two painful and expensive root canals over the years, followed in July by oral surgery, had not done the trick, and I was ready to fold.
Reclining in the dentist chair waiting for my mouth to get sufficiently numb, tears rolled down my cheeks at the memories of times in my life I had folded. Alan came in and wiped the tears away with the pink bib clipped around my neck, telling me that it wouldn’t hurt and that he was in agreement with my decision to take the tooth out. He did not know why I was crying.
Back at home, now swollen but still numb, I carefully washed the bloody tooth before placing it in my jewelry box, where it now serves as a symbol of knowing when to say when. I had recognized my father’s progressive dementia in the months leading up to the accident and his 80th birthday. When I witnessed him bring the wrong horse into the barn the morning of our last ride, I knew these outings had to come to an end, or one of us or the horses would be hurt.
The previous week we had ridden under a stone bridge heading to RittenhouseTown, and I shouted for him to duck in order to clear the stone pedestrian bridge hanging over us. He did duck, but he misjudged when to lift his head, and I cringed upon seeing a black velvet flap peel away from his helmet. It was time, but neither of us was ready to fold.
Since 2003 my father and I had gotten together once a week to enjoy the trails, followed by a beer and sandwich at a local pub. The excursions had healed the rocky relationship we experienced following my parents’ divorce when I was in my teens.
Recovering from my injuries, I had the time to write a book titled “Cowboy Mission: The Best Sermons are Lived…Not Preached.” The self-published paperback held essays about our love of horses and dad’s years as a teen cowboy, riding at Sally Starr’s ranch and in Cowtown Rodeo (New Jersey).
I wrote about how he earned more money riding a bull for eight seconds on a Saturday night than he did picking tomatoes all week on the South Jersey farm for Campbell’s Soup Company that he and his best friend used as their rodeo playground, riding anything with four legs — mules, cows and work horses.
On March 8, dad is coming up on the one-year anniversary of his transition to the Veterans’ Memorial Home in Vineland, New Jersey. I had spent six months getting the paper work together, and when a bed became available, I bolted like that horse. Dad had fallen in his townhouse in January and hit his head on the tiled bathroom floor. There was a big snowstorm. I was not able to get to Cherry Hill. It was time.
In order to ease him into this new chapter, I stayed at a local hotel near the facility for three nights and spent time getting him used to the change. Passing out copies of our book to anyone with a remote interest, I shared my father’s stories with the staff and residents, introducing him as Cowboy Charlie. The veterans settled in and listened to the stories from the book that he reads daily. He was a bit of a celebrity and enjoyed the limelight.
Still, when I call dad, I have to remind him that “it’s me, Barbie, your riding partner.” When I visit, I pull out the book, and we look at the pictures, and there is a glimmer.
More often than not, the guilt sets in. Maybe he would have been better off leaving the planet doing what he loved most — riding horses. Where is that crystal ball?
Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf, founder of Capture Life Stories, will speak at the Lovett Memorial Library on April 27, 7 p.m., at a meeting of the Northwest Village Network on the importance of capturing our stories. Sherf can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com or 215-233-8022.