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I had a bad toothache last week and it made me think of Ulysses S. Grant.

Like it does.

My tooth started to ache a little just before Christmas. I tried to ignore it, because it was Christmas and then New Year’s, and, you know, it’s pretty easy to avoid going to the dentist.

A couple days into January, I finally made an appointment and after some poking, my regular dentist recommended a specialist. The appointment was two weeks out, so on my way home I bought a bigger bottle of ibuprofen.

That worked for a few days, but the pain started changing from an annoyance to an imperative.

The last two days before I gave in, I stumbled through my work at about 17% efficiency. I’d take three ibuprofens around bedtime, fall asleep, and then two or three hours later the pain would blow through the drugs and I’d be up.

It wasn’t fun.

I’ve had fun and it was nothing like that.

I finally called the specialist’s office again. I was a little groggy, so I’m not sure if they caved into the whining or the pleading. Either way, it worked, and four hours later I was sitting in a dental chair explaining my problem. After a blessedly short exam, the first shot of anesthesia went in and I sagged back in the chair as welcome numbness descended.

And that’s when I started thinking about Ulysses S. Grant.

Here’s the deal. After he led the Union Armies to victory in the Civil War, and after he completed two terms as president, Grant went into business with a friend of his son. That man swindled the Grant family out of all their money. And then Grant found out he had cancer of the mouth.

I suppose his habit of smoking 20 cigars a day could have something to do with his illness, but that’s another story.

This was a tragedy on many levels. General Grant had been a soldier most of his life, so he’d always lived with the expectation of an unpleasant death, but he loved his wife and family beyond all measure and it looked like he was going to die leaving them penniless. Possible salvation came from an unlikely source. Mark Twain worked out a deal with a publisher to pay 75% royalties on Grant’s memoirs. All he had to do was write them - while he was dying of cancer.

He had an operation to slow the progress of the disease. They cut out the entire roof of his mouth.

Yeah, that’s what I said. Keep in mind, this was in 1885. The surgeon went into his mouth with a knife and cut out all the parts that looked rotten. They gave him morphine for the pain. Unfortunately, if he took the morphine, his mind was too cloudy to write.

Sometimes I think we make heroes of people for the wrong reasons. There’s no doubt that General Grant played a large role in winning the Civil War for the Union, and that’s a big deal. But for a man dying of cancer to suffer unbearable torment for months, working through his agony to save his family from poverty, is a level of heroism that we don’t often see.

Towards the end, Grant sat huddled in blankets on the porch, scribbling with a pencil through waves of pain. He finished the book, a book that it is still considered the finest memoir ever by an American general. He died two days later.

The book sold well enough to give his widow almost $500,000.00 in royalties, enough to keep her comfortable the rest of her life.

The root canal took almost three hours. I didn’t have much to do other than sit still, so I spent some of the time thinking about Grant. When he got the cancer diagnosis, he was broke, and in a certain amount of disgrace. His second term as president had been marred by the corruption of people he trusted and some of the mud was sticking to him. The one thing that had mattered most to him, that had always mattered most, was his family, and he was about to leave them with nothing. I thought about all the people I know who aren’t and never will be famous, who’ve showed the same grit and determination.

It’s not just about hanging in there in an unsatisfying job until the kids are through college. Sometimes it’s leaving that job, because teaching your children that parenting equals misery isn’t the best lesson. Sometimes it’s pulling the plug on an abusive marriage, because staying together is actually the worst thing for the children. The right thing to do is quite often the hardest thing to do.

The dentist and his assistant finished up and walked me to the front desk. The woman working there looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re smiling! You were a very sad boy when you came in!”

I slept that night. When I woke up the next morning nothing hurt.

I’m a lucky man.

Copyright 2020 Brent Olson

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