The Manicure

Seventeen years ago, when my son Joel was fourteen and in the midst of a more-than-difficult adolescence, I led a workshop for parents and grandparents of children with disabilities at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Joel has autism.

Our time at the Ranch was difficult. Autism made traveling and sleeping in a strange bed difficult for Joel, and his behavioral challenges made it hard for him to fit in at the day camp program, set up for typical kids. Even though the Ranch provided a one-on-one buddy for Joel, his anxiety escalated and tantrums, including hair-pulling and hitting, were daily occurrences.

While at Ghost Ranch, I met Marcia, a mother whose 18-year-old son had recently moved to a group home. We spoke of many things over the course of that week, but one story she told resurfaces in my mind again and again.

Yes, she said, she grieved her son’s transition to a group home which was a ninety minute drive from where the family lived. But she’d found an antidote to the grief—intimate time spent with her son during her weekly visits, when she manicured his nails. There was something about the warm closeness of their bodies as they sat side by side, she said. There was an intimacy in holding his hand in hers, as she clipped away the overgrown nails and filed them down to smoothness, which fed her spirit. She knew in this time with her son, she told me, that everything was okay—that life was as it should be—that this moving away from home was the normal passage of life for a young adult son—that she was still needed as his mother, even if for this small task alone.

Over the course of the last seventeen years, we have gone through two major life transitions with Joel. We helped to build Safe Haven Farms, a community of choice for adults with autism located just 45 minutes from our home in southwest Ohio. While Joel’s dad and I were excited about the prospect of Joel living in a farming community, like Marcia I grieved deeply when Joel moved from our home to live there in 2010. When he moved, the woven texture of our lives was torn—a tear that needed to be sewn in new ways of being with Joel—having him home for dinners, overnights, concerts, church services.

In 2015, we moved Joel again, because, to our surprise, the farm was not a good fit for him. He needed more time in the community, and a quieter home environment with fewer housemates and staff. We bought him a house in our community. Again, we grieved broken dreams even as we celebrated his new home just a few minutes from our place.

Often, during those two transitions, I manicured Joel’s nails. I clearly remember one particular manicure before he moved to the farm. We sat close together on the couch. I held his hands in mine. I clipped away the overgrown nails, white quarter-moons that fell into my lap. I admired, out loud, the strength and resiliency of his nails—so different than mine, which break and tear and crack. He smiled as I talked and clipped and filed until his hands looked fine enough for a photo shoot. I gave him a hug before scooping the clippings into my hand and walking into the kitchen to throw them into the wastebasket.

I practiced saying goodbye as I threw these clippings away—those parts of Joel that were outgrown and no longer needed—those clippings that were now a part of his past. I practiced saying goodbye as I approached the day when my husband and I gently pushed Joel over the side of the nest, whispering, “Fly, Joel! Fly!” And as I practiced saying goodbye, I reminded myself that new life would emerge—for Joel, for his father and me, for our family as a whole—new life as strong and resilient as the new nails that were even then beginning to emerge on Joel’s beautiful hands.

Kathleen Deyer Bolduc’s newest book, The Spiritual Art of Raising Children with Disabilities, was published by Judson Press in 2014. She is also the author of Autism & Alleluias (Judson Press, 2010); His Name Is Joel: Searching for God in a Son’s Disability, and A Place Called Acceptance: Ministry with Families of Children with Disabilities (Bridge Resources, 1999 and 2001). Her books have won awards from Foreword Press, Illumination Book Awards, and Eric Hoffer Awards. You can find her books and blog at Kathy is happy to report that Joel absolutely loves living in his new home, and is making friendships in his new community through the Best Buddies Friends Choir, part of the Best Buddies program at Miami University.