Lessons From A Small-Town Dentist


When my mother emigrated from the Philippines in 1975, she landed in Ashland, Nebraska – a small town of about 2,500 people located 25 miles northeast of Lincoln, the state’s capital city. She was engaged to a military man with whom she had been exchanging transpacific love letters for more than a year. Shortly after their wedding, he was sent to be stationed in Germany. My mom – still acclimating herself to life outside of her native Philippines – decided to stay in Ashland and await his return.

When he did return, my mom was tasked with making his funeral arrangements. He had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and died in Germany. My mom later learned that he had been diagnosed prior to their getting married – perhaps he had known all along, even while they were pen pals.

“He never mentioned a thing about it,” my mom later recollected to me one afternoon.

Apparently, her first husband was so in love with her that he couldn’t admit their time together would be short, if not completely nonexistent. My mother – obviously grief-struck and a virtual stranger to everyone in that small town – left Ashland and relocated to Lincoln, leaving behind a modest apartment and in-laws whom she barely knew.

And yet, nearly 40 years later, one thing – one relic of her life as a transplant American and a military widow – remains in Ashland: her dentist.

His name is Dr. Jack Cooper and he was among the first people my mother befriended when she arrived in Ashland all those years ago. He would go on to become our family dentist – providing my mom, dad, and I with annual cleanings and free toothbrushes for years that have turned into decades.

My most recent check-up with Dr. Cooper was earlier this month. I drove down the familiar stretch of U.S. Route 6, sprinkled with county roads and small towns like Greenwood, population 568. The drive from my apartment in Lincoln to Dr. Cooper’s office in Ashland is all of half an hour – 25 minutes, if you have a lead foot.

The funny thing about Ashland – and other towns of its size – is that unless you know where you’re headed, you’re likely to miss it completely. When I got my driver’s license and started taking myself to my check-ups, I often drove past the turn into Ashland. It wasn’t until it became a matter of habit that I learned where I was going. Sometimes I wonder if that’s how it works with the way your life goes. How can you be sure you’ve made the right turn if you don’t know where you’re going? Maybe that’s the point – you never know where you’re going until you’ve been there.

Once you turn left off Route 6, the road weaves through Ashland’s downtown area and intersects with its quintessential small-town Main Street – complete with idyllic streetlamps and no traffic lights. Keep driving about two minutes and you’ll make a left onto Furnas Street. The Ashland-Greenwood junior and senior high school is just up ahead, to the right. I secretly always envied the students of this school, though I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because in my head, they all led a Friday Night Lights type of existence – hosting bake sales, winning the state football championship. There’s something about that school that strikes me as impossibly wholesome, good. It’s something that’s so fundamentally American – the way it quietly exists in the middle of this town, in the middle of the Heartland – worlds away from the celebrity of LA or the frenzy of New York.

I make these observations from behind the wheel of my tinted, black two-door coupe, as though I’m looking at a scene within a Pleasantville snow globe – the school ahead, the row of homes to the left, the wheat fields off in the distance. After all these years, after all my personal triumphs and tragedies, I can still return to this place and no matter how much I’ve been shaken – no matter how much my life has been turned upside down – this scene remains unstirred. Tranquility has never seemed more tangible.

As I turn into the parking lot adjacent to Dr. Cooper’s office, I feel heavy. I feel the weight of time on me, in me, pushing down on me. It’s as if for a brief moment, time cannot just be experienced, but touched, too. I can reach out and embrace it, as though embracing my former selves. It’s like I’m 5, 10, 16, 21 and 24 years old all at once. I’m reminded of my journey here – not just the half-hour drive, but the 24 years up to this point. How is it that so much can change and yet constants – like my visits to Dr. Cooper – never do? What makes something a constant, anyway?

These questions swirl in my head as I park my car and walk into the office.

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Dr. Cooper remarks. I smile, because his raspy voice still sounds like sandpaper, and he’s wearing the same silver wire-rimmed glasses he’s been wearing since I was five.

I wonder if he still sees the 5-year-old in me. Or, maybe, he sees my 24-year-old mother – thousands of miles from home, in a strange new place, looking for some direction.