Two hours beforehand, she’d been great. An hour before, she’d calmly gotten in the car, ready to go. But as we entered the office on D-is-for-Dentist Day, Missy finally decided she’d had enough.
We made promises. Offered hugs. Started up some favorite music.
The assistant made all the right moves. She admired Missy’s shoes, looked at her proudly offered comic book (a Darth Vader one), bantered with charm and patience. Missy liked her. Even responded a bit. But there was no way she was getting near that dentist’s chair or giving her new friend a long look inside her mouth.
Finally, we took the Kenny Rogers route: know when to fold ‘em. But before the dentist began to discuss options and tactics for the next appointment, the assistant had one last card to play. After a moment’s departure, she stepped back in the room with someone new to meet … a white stuffed llama, complete with pink-and-white sparkles on its side.
Missy’s smile broadened. Her hands reached. And while it didn’t immediately turn defeat into victory like the final scene of a Star Wars movie, it planted a seed. Tension relaxed, nerves unclenched. The weird and scary became a little more normal and welcome – especially when it became clear that yes, the llama could go home in her overstuffed purse.
Today could only do so much. But tomorrow, just maybe, had gotten a little easier.
And if that isn’t a sum up of the last year or so, I don’t know what is.
Last week, when I bantered about Bernie memes, I mentioned how disrupting a familiar scene can make you see it with new eyes. But there’s a flip side to that, too. When many things are strange and unsettling, having even one “normal” touchpoint can ground you. The ordinary becomes a shield against the overwhelming.
It’s why stories of the fantastic, from King Arthur to Harry Potter, often begin with a hero who knows as little as we do. They become our interpreter and our teacher, as we learn together about the bizarre new world that’s opening around us while sharing a common starting point of what’s supposed to be normal.
It’s why we reach for the familiar and soothing when a crisis hits – a favorite book or TV series, a friend who’s a good listener, or even a simple and mindless chore that can restore a feeling of control.
And it’s why, in a landscape like today’s, anything that gives a peek of the world before or after COVID-19 becomes a sign of hope.
It can be taken too far, of course. We all know that. Acting like everything’s normal in the midst of a wildfire or a flood or a worldwide pandemic is a good way to endanger yourself and everyone around you. So you take precautions, you learn the lessons, you adapt and survive and grow.
But survival includes the mind and the heart and the soul. If something comforts and restores you without causing harm – to yourself or someone else – that, too, can be an essential part of adapting. Not a leash to hold you back, but a bridge to carry you through.
Missy’s new friend has now joined the stuffed herd at home. Its softness still beckons, its sparkles still gleam. And while it won’t prevent the need for another dental visit, it can at least promise that there’s more than anxiety ahead.
The uncomfortable can’t be avoided. Not wholly. But with enough help, it can be endured.
Especially with a trauma llama close at hand.