I think it was her eyes that put me at ease. Big, round, and guileless, they reminded me of my daughter's best friend in third grade.
Before she tipped the dental chair back and lowered it to her working level, I caught a glimpse of a Christmas family photo on the desk: my dental hygienist, her husband, their preschool-age daughter, and their infant son. With the hope of having something to listen to besides the scrape of dental scaler against tooth enamel, I asked her if she was happy with her daycare.
Her body straightened as if spring-loaded, and she looked at me with surprising intensity.
"Yes," she said. "But I had doubts recently – which I will tell you about – but first I want to say that I'm very satisfied with my daycare."
I squiggled my head into the wedge of the headrest, folded my hands on my stomach, opened my mouth, and stared up at the bright glass lamp with its foil-wrapped handle.
"The same woman has taken care of my daughter all of her life – she's 2 ½ now – and I planned to continue with her after my son was born in August. It was the perfect situation – she had a daughter the same age as mine, and she was pregnant at the same time – gave birth in July. Then in October, just as I was getting ready to go back to work, the woman's mother called. At first I couldn't believe it. She called to tell me that my babysitter's husband had committed suicide."
The hygienist pulled mirror and scaler from my mouth. I looked into her round eyes, now luminous with sadness. "Oh no…." I said before the instruments returned to their work.
"Yes. Shocking. He was twenty-nine years old." She paused her scraping to reflect on the memory. "I didn't know what to think. I didn't know what to do." Her tools went back into my mouth. "I delayed going back to work – happy to – and I took care of her kids a few times so she could go to the social security office and that kind of thing."
The hygienist sat back again, too deep in thought to continue scouring my teeth. I didn't interrupt. When she returned to the present moment, she dug in with new enthusiasm.
"I don't know how she did it, but she held herself together. She had her kids to think of. I wondered how she would manage – would she lose her home – would she have to find a job? She didn't have any education beyond high school – what would she do?"
"Ung Ung," I said, blinking a message to express my empathy.
"Well, she decided to keep on providing daycare. At first I was a little worried, but she's been fine and it's been good for all of us to have continuity. My kids are the only ones she takes care of and I like that."
As she reached for a different tool, I had a chance to comment. "Did you find out why the husband killed himself?"
"No not really, but the woman's social worker suggested that it might have been postpartum depression."
I raised my eyebrows.
"I know – I had no idea postpartum depression could affect fathers. Of course right away I started to worry about my husband. He's fine, just fine, no problems."
The hygienist wiped my lips with a moist gauze pad and raised the chair to exit height. She put her hand on my shoulder with a gentle squeeze as if to thank me for listening. "All done here. Everything looks good. We'll keep watching that problem area on the upper right. See you in six months."