Life is One Big Toothbrush Party

Author: Libby Garcia ’16

It was Day 1 and my husband was out buying toothbrushes. These toothbrushes were the type that childless people buy for children. The kind that are moody and stoic, instead of exuberant and joyful, with lights and characters and life. The type of toothbrushes that say, “I abhor gingivitis,” instead of the kind that coo, “Let the unicorns come to me!”

My husband and I presented one of these toothbrushes to Chubs on the first night we met him. He took it and slathered it in bubblegum toothpaste that fell off immediately upon him dunking the toothbrush under the faucet. It was a quick brush, in the bathroom next to his sister, Chickie, and they disappeared into their bedroom with their new acquisitions.

Chubs and Chickie placed their toothbrushes, dark blue for Chubs and red for Chickie, on the desk in the bedroom. The sun set, the kids were silent and the toothbrushes slept. The first night.

In many respects, the 22 days that followed were just an exhausting blur. My complete awe and delight at how gracefully my husband undertook the mantle of “male role model” is but a culmination of thousands of behaviors that 10 weeks later I struggle to pinpoint. Utter confusion at what foods Chickie and Chubs would eat — one day asking for plain Greek yogurt without the canned peach juice (truly a disturbing request from a 7-year-old) and the next rejecting chicken nuggets with ketchup. At times, it was feeling like I desperately needed to escape our home and the ceaseless questions about what I was doing, why I was in the basement for laundry, and who exactly had ownership of specific items we encountered throughout the day (Is this my pencil case?). A blur of intense gratitude for family who welcomed Chickie and Chubs with open hearts, sending us Legos, my babysitter sister, prayers, swimsuits, toy balls, and many words of encouragement. Those days were weepy astonishment to the known and unknown angels who extended undeserved grace: the Aldi shopper who left a quarter in the cart when I showed up desperate and quarterless; our 93-year-old neighbor surprising us with a pizza delivery within 40 hours of Chickie and Chubs’ arrival. Twenty-two days of wiping little urine spots off the toilet seat yet again, and wondering if real parents ever really get used to that.

All just a blur. Yet, in other ways, though, those days will be written on my heart, crystal clear, forever.

My husband and I are intense creatures of habit, and all eight hours of our training to be foster parents taught us that children need structure. And so we combatted the blur with structure, for all our sakes. After a few days, we settled into an uneasy and then easier routine. My day, my life really, began around 4:30 p.m. I would pull up in front of our home after work and squint hopefully up the hill to the bay window through the hot summer sun. Two heads, more often two whole bodies would be pressed up against the window, pretending to be Spiderman with their dollar store suction darts.

I would eagerly listen to the adventures they had with my husband, Fernando, that went something like this:

“Fernando took us to the really cool park and we went in the splash pad! In our clothes! And we had chicken nuggets for lunch. Fernando said we could watch TV before dinner. And . . . what’s your name again?”

“My name is Libby.”

“Libby, he said that after dinner, we would take Kevin on a walk!”

And so we would eat dinner, FaceTime their mom, go on a ‘group walk’ with the dog and read The Worm Family Has Its Picture Taken (because Chubs chose that book every chance he got). And then, the Toothbrush Party commenced.

The Toothbrush Party predated Chubs and Chickie as a treasured family activity (photo evidence available), and was perhaps integrated into this new family — new group — out of necessity. The overabundance of long strings of pink toothpaste that littered the sink suggested that while admirable, the kids’ toothbrushing efforts were basically fruitless in preventing oral decay. As slightly trauma-informed adults, we were also grappling with how to inhabit space with children without infringing on their personal bubbles or rebuffing signs of affection. And so, we toothbrush-partied with them.

At the close of The Worm Family reading, all four of us filed into the hallway, typically followed by our rescue dog, Kevin, who kept watch from a safe distance. (One day Chickie would tell us that she thinks Kevin is sad because he was taken from his mom, and chasten me that I was, in fact, not his mom, despite referring to myself as such.)

Toothbrushes were pasted and distributed, and then the party began. We would brush, making faces and occasionally spilling foamy toothpaste down our pajamas. Different party styles were welcome and changed in response to each other over time. I would brush my tongue and the next day, Chickie might brush hers, and the next day Chubs, too. An innocent question — “Did you get the back of your teeth?” — turned into a party anthem that we would constantly chirp at each other, unintelligible to non-partygoers through saliva and giggles. Eventually the kids decided they liked watching themselves brush their teeth in the mirror and would stand on the edge of the shower to see their faces. We had not yet taken enough breath to consider getting a stepstool.

And for the first several days, the party ended when final gulps of water were taken and Chubs and Chickie placed their toothbrushes in a mug on their bedroom desk. Fernando and I continued to home our toothbrushes in the holder on the bathroom counter, but leaving lots of space for more brushes, too.

“Good niiiiiiiight, sweet dreams!” Fernando and I sing-songed from their bedroom door threshold. The sun set, the kids chatted and the toothbrushes slept. The second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth nights.

Chickie was keeping track of the days since they left their home (okay, fine, we were, too). We received notifications daily. On Day 11, the Toothbrush Party ended with three brushes in the communal toothbrush holder. I gushed to Fernando — did he notice that Chubs left his toothbrush in the bathroom?! What do you think it means?

On Day 12, there were four and I took a picture of all four toothbrushes together and sent it our friends who knew we had foster kids. I couldn’t believe it. It was the best party, ever.

Those moments carried us through the next several days. As Fernando was beginning a new job and would no longer be available to watch the kids during the day, we searched, toured and enrolled Chickie and Chubs in daycare to begin on Day 26. We learned to ride a two-wheeler under the watchful eye of Touchdown Jesus and counted fire hydrants in the neighborhood. Chubs and Chickie made art for their mom and siblings, visited the library and introduced us to the musical world of Trolls.

But all good parties must come to an end. Eventually the lights come on and the party guests go home. We got the call on Day 22 from Chubs’ and Chickie’s mom. She was overjoyed to tell us that the kids could come home and thanked us for everything. I cried a lot.

Chubs and Chickie found out that night when they FaceTimed their mom and their siblings were together with her, at home on the call.

“You get to come home!” the oldest exclaimed. Chubs fell over onto the ground and then began to dance around.

The last party, about 12 hours later, was bittersweet. Toothbrushes (that is your toothbrush to keep, we explained) were packed into the bags that had been stowed on the bottom of closet since their arrival. I wondered if they would bring the Toothbrush Party home to their family, and if we would ever see them again. I still wonder that some days.

The Worm Family Has Its Picture Taken was returned to the library. Fernando and I still have toothbrush parties and pressure our guests into joining us. I’m grateful that most join, despite finding the practice very strange.

I look at the newest photo on the wall of the bathroom from the last morning we spent with Chickie and Chubs: Day 23. Chubs is flashing a peace sign, Chickie has her characteristic hood up and Fernando and I look tired, but so happy. We are all equipped with toothbrushes.

I can almost hear someone giggle, “Did you get the back of your teeth?” It is the echo of what was once a practical question, then a goofy inside joke and now a memory of a beautiful and wild 23 days.

Libby Garcia’s essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 11th annual Young Alumni Essay Contest. Libby lives in South Bend, where she enjoys working in healthcare, riding a tandem bicycle with her husband and turning her compost heap.