The Toothpick Man

Accepting relationships a-swirl

Preparing for a recent dinner party, I cleaned to perfection and was delighted with my results. I went out to get groceries.

When I returned, it looked like a tornado had hit. A large delivery box was open—packing foam, papers, and cardboard were everywhere. My shiny perfect kitchen was covered with lunch makings not put away—pickles, mayonnaise, two kinds of cheese (still wrapped), dishes, cups and saucers. Biking clothes were strung on the couch, two towels and a backpack on the floor. I found my husband outside in the hot tub relaxing after a long hard ride.

I was livid. Like an album of carefully arranged photos, my mind clicked through 35 years of untidy stacks of books by the bed, clothes not quite making it to the hamper, cupboard doors gaping open, drawers not closed, messes everywhere, image after image. I remembered reading an article about bees and ants and their thresholds for uncompleted tasks. If two with different thresholds are paired, one will work itself to death to make up for the other’s slacking. In about three minutes, I had moved from annoyance to the certainty that I would work myself to my end cleaning up after an impossibly messy husband.

Then, I remembered the Toothpick Man.

One of my first clients was a woman in her mid-70’s wearing a Betty Boop t-shirt with long curly white hair sloppily braided, “Margie.” I invited her into my office, and before I shut the door, she started pacing and blustering loudly. “The toothpicks, the toothpicks, I CANT STAND THEM. I can’t see one more without going insane. PLEASE DO SOMETHING.” Her mouth was quivering between spurting and shouting. “In the bed, on the dresser, in the sink, on the couch, wooden toothpicks everywhere. Forty years of toothpicks, pieces of them lying about. I can’t stand it anymore.”

When she finally sat down, I was able to coax out her story. Her husband was known for always having a toothpick in his mouth, but in the last decade, the habit had gotten so bad that he even went to bed chewing one. He refused to throw them away, so they piled up wherever he was. His dentist asked him to stop. His doctor implored him to quit. Their children finally confronted him and asked him not to come to their homes unless he could quit chewing toothpicks. Still, he refused.

I did my best to listen, I sympathized with her, and she eventually calmed down. Shaking her head sadly, she left my office.

Almost a year to the day later, when I arrived at work, my assistant handed me the day’s appointments. “The toothpick lady is back,” she said grimly. “She is your first appointment.”

When Margie walked into my office, she was subdued and slumped over. No comic tee shirt this time; she was wearing a worn grey sweater looking as sad as she was.

“How can I help?” I asked.

She told me her husband had died suddenly three months earlier, and she was unprepared for the grief she felt. After recounting the painful events of the day of his death, she began to talk about how much she missed him—his sweet way of bringing her a cup of tea in the morning, his fascination with crossword puzzles and pondering over a word all day, his kindness to the neighbors, his endless patience trying to tame three stray cats, and his offer most evenings to rub her feet, her favorite thing in all the world. After some tears and listing the things she was so very sad to lose, she said, “I was so obsessed about the toothpicks that I stopped seeing all the things I loved about him.”

I remembered some advice I heard when I had small kids: “Catch your child doing something right.” Margie had focused so much on what her husband was doing wrong that she forgot to notice all the things she loved about him. When I was seeing Margie, little did I know that this woman would come back to teach me one of the most important lessons about relationships that I would ever learn.

Tim called to me, and I walked to the hot tub. He greeted me with a warm, loving smile and said, “I missed you on my bike ride. How was your day?” Then he mentioned that he had stopped by a coffee shop to get my favorite caramel roll and asked how he could help with the dinner party.

I thought about all the things he does right (of which there are a multitude) including being both the kindest AND most interesting person I know and tolerating a lot of what is impossible about living with me, and how little a messy kitchen or scattered clothes matter, how much I would miss him if he weren’t there (and at our age, that’s a possibility growing likelier by the day). Letting go completely of my long-suffering stance and rejecting the seduction of self-righteousness, I slid into the hot tub and began telling him about my morning.