The response to the story was so great, that it was reprinted in the Star, and other Indiana newspapers, during the holiday season for many years after its original publication.
It came to be known as The Toothpick Story.
(Sketch by John Bigelow, Sunday Star Magazine)
“Whatcha Cryin’ For?”
At Thanksgiving, Try And Forget This Boy…Just Try
By Rick Johnson
Several times during the year, but especially during the holiday season, we think about a little guy we met at James Whitcomb Riley Hospital in Indianapolis when our daughter was there for an operation.
That’s the only name we knew.
Teresa wasn’t really upset, but it would be the first time she and her mother would be apart. We knew there would be tears when we left. As we watched her, both of us were anxious about the success of the operation to correct a cleft palate, and we considered many eventualities…all of them bad.
“That your little girl mister?”
A tiny boy, not much bigger than our daughter, spoke as he climbed onto my lap.
“She gonna cry?” he asked as he looked first at me and then at Teresa.
The little guy was dressed in an old white undershirt, a pair of faded gray shorts, and house slippers on the wrong feet. His arms and legs were frail. His face was pinched. I judged him to be about 5, but his eyes were of a much older person. And he looked so hungry.
“I’ve been here a long time. You gonna come see her every day? Only one ever comes an’ sees me is Grandma,” he said.
So far, we hadn’t been able to squeeze in an answer between questions. We’d barely finished telling the youngster our daughter’s name when a nurse came over and picked him up.
“Toothpick, you’re not supposed to be out of your bed. You’re supposed to be taking a nap,” the nurse admonished. She apologized for the intrusion and carried the tyke away.
We sat for a long time talking to Teresa. Toothpick walked up again, reached into the crib, and touched Teresa’s hair. She responded by pulling his hair.
“Ouch! Is she mean?” he asked, again crawling on my lap. “Does she have any toys? Are you going to bring her candy?”
When the nurse came up again, she made no move to take the child, but stood and watched as the little boy talked to us.
“Sir, it’s almost supper time now. I think you’d better go. Teresa will be fine,” the nurse said.
I rose and Toothpick put an arm around my neck, so I had to stand up holding him. We walked over to the nurse, but Toothpick’s grip around my neck didn’t slacken.
“You’ve found a new friend, haven’t you, Toothpick?” the nurse commented.
He didn’t answer, but told us, “You bring her lots of candy, and she’ll be alright. I’ll watch her good for you.”
The nurse took the little boy and held him in her arms. Toothpick looked at us with his dark eyes. The nurse put him down, and we began to leave the room. Teresa started to cry. We didn’t look back, and as we left, Toothpick shuffled off in the direction of the crib.
“Watcha cryin’ for li’l girl?” we heard him say as we walked away.
That youngster haunted us. He was shockingly thin. Phyllis and I talked about Toothpick on the way home, and hoped we’d find out more about him.
Teresa’s surgery was performed the next day. As we sat by her crib watching her, Toothpick arrived. He climbed onto my lap and said, “She cried a little after you left. But we played and she was all right. They took her away today, and when they brought her back she was asleep. She stayed asleep for a long time. What’s wrong with her anyway?”
We thanked him and told him Teresa had an operation.
“Lots of people have operations here. Everyone’s been asleep in here but me. They don’t take me away,” he said.
Once more the nurse was standing nearby. We believed she had come for Toothpick, but instead she asked to speak with me.
“I have a big favor to ask you,” she said. “Toothpick just will not eat for us. The only time we ever see him eat anything is when we take the trays away and stack them on the carts. He’ll kind of sneak around and eat things some of the other kids have left on their plates. We’ve tried leaving him a special untouched plate on the cart, but he won’t have anything to do with that food. He’s really worrying us. If he doesn’t begin eating, with all else that is wrong with him, we’ll have to feed him intravenously.
“He’s a ward of the state, arising from a neglect and battered child case, and he’s been with us for months. He’s met the fathers of several youngsters here, and has become friends with them. The fathers have been able to feed him sometimes.”
“We would like you to stay during the supper hour and try to feed him.”
It was an instant deal. I could imagine that tiny boy, neglected in his mother’s home, eating only what was left on the plates of others late at night, because there were no regular meals. I imagined his mother entertaining one man after another, and the periodic man who noticed the youngster’s plight, was kind to him and fed him. I mentioned my imaginings to the nurse, and she nodded her head.
“We’ve got it figured that way too. It is logical that his life pattern would continue here in the hospital without his mother. She’s never been here to see him, and the only woman he gives passing recognition to is his grandmother, and she doesn’t come often,” the nurse said. “But she loves him very much.”
From that time on, we assisted the nurse in getting a few bites of food into Toothpick during visiting hours, and we brought him a few treats. Toothpick kept us advised on Teresa’s behavior and welfare, and he was her best pal in the hospital. My brother, David, was an intern at Riley at the time, and he kept us well informed on the conditions of Teresa and Toothpick, but he warned us not to become too attached to the little boy.
But it couldn’t be helped. Phyllis and I discussed trying to adopt the child, or take him as a foster child. Quickly, we learned it would be a long time before either could ever take place.
Time soon came for Teresa to leave the hospital. We were concerned that if we didn’t show up, Toothpick might not eat even the few bites of food he’d eaten for us. We offered to come by periodically to assist the nurses. But the nurses believed the youngster would be fine.
Toothpick knew we were leaving. “Gonna take Teresa home now?” he asked. His house slippers were on the wrong feet, as usual, and his dark eyes betrayed no emotion. His chin dropped down to his chest, and he shuffled first one foot, and then the other, and refused to look up.
“We are going, but if you’d like us to come back and see you, we will,” my wife said.
"Sure we will,” I told him, and bent down to give him a hug. I expected him to throw his arms around my neck, but they stayed at his sides. I hugged him and stood up.
I wanted to pick him up and run away with him and make him my son.
But I knew I had become only one more man passing through his young life, and I tried to think of something to do or say which would block that thought from his mind. All I could do was hug him.
Without looking up, he said, “I’ll be OK,” and he shuffled away toward his bed.
We were happy to take Teresa home, but little Toothpick worried us. We kept tabs on him through my brother for a while. Then, it seemed we forgot about Toothpick until Thanksgiving time.
With all the food there, and the family gathered around, I remembered Toothpick.
“Dave, how’s my little Toothpick?” I asked my brother.
“Somehow, I knew you’d ask me that today,” he said. “He died several days ago. There were so many difficulties we couldn’t overcome.”
We returned a special thanks that day, and again at Christmas, for the help and love Toothpick gave us. We still remember him frequently, and the hundreds of youngsters like him, who, hungrily, exchange their gifts of love for the price of a little care and attention.