When I was younger, I had some really messed up teeth. They bled a lot, and were very crooked. The teasing I endured on the playground was beyond belief, but I found comfort in books and baseball, two things that truly saved me. When I was 14, I went to the dentist to begin the process of straightening my teeth. It was painful, I have to tell you. I felt like I was being violated. I still remember that first day in the office, coming out to a lolipop I couldn’t suck on, and applying ice to my cheeks that made my skin freeze. The dentist, Dr. Robertson, handed me a file for me to fill in, to track my progress. On the top left corner was a paperclip.
Over the next few days, I filled in my observations – how I felt, how much I bled, that type of thing. When I was done, I handed Dr. Robertson the file but kept the paperclip. It was in my pocket for the next procedure. And the one after that. And all the rest. It saw me through that time, always against my skin. At night, I put it next to my reading lamp and used it as a bookmark as I read and sponged away the blood.
My teeth were fixed by the time I was 18. I went to college. I played sports. I did well. But I kept that paperclip with me, in my pocket at every lecture and on the edge of my desk at every exam. Ever rub a paperclip between your fingers? You come away with a metallic smell. That smell guided me through my college years.
When I was 24, I met a girl. She was locked out of her car, keys inside, car running. Canada is cold in February, no matter where you are. She didn’t even have a jacket. I found her in the parking lot and offered to help. I twisted that paperclip into a shape and snaked around the lock until it clicked. She got in and asked if I wanted to warm up as well. I sat with her for the next ten minutes, enough time to get her phone number. Three years later, we were married.
In med school, that paperclip was what I used to attach my badge to my coat: it was better than a safety pin, and much more reliable. Five years I spent there, learning medicine from people who cared more about the medicine than about people. You might be surprised to hear that I did actually think about being a dentist at one point, but all those memories of bloody rags wouldn’t let that pass. I graduated poor but happy, married and with the world before me. And it was before me. I had everything I wanted, and I made good decisions. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but it worked out.
Three days ago, in my home office, I was reading journal papers. One moment, that paperclip was in my hand, being rubbed raw as usual; the next minute, I was making coffee, and when I came back, the paperclip was gone. I got on my hands and knees and searched the hardwood. Checked every drawer of my desk. Checked every pocket and even the duct vent. Eventually, I got out the vacuum cleaner and went over the whole room top to bottom, hoping the paperclip would show up. But it didn’t. It was gone.
I look back on it now, as though I’m missing a friend. As though I had a relationship with this thing, however small and temporary. As though I owe it something, for being there with me through all those years. Time passes. We grow up. We gain and lose. We succeed and fail. And we make friends that sometimes stay with us, sometimes not. So three days later, I take my hat off to a little friend that stayed with me for so long, and that has now gone off to do other things in other places, wherever they may be. Thank you, my friend.