I’d never cut anybody else’s nails until I was thirty-one years of age. Then, in the space of a couple of weeks, I was cutting the nails of two of the most important people in my life, neither of whom was able to perform this task themselves. At one end of life’s journey was my father, riddled with cancer and possessing neither the strength nor agility to wield a nail clippers. At the other, my newborn daughter whose facial lacerations a day after emerging from the womb demanded the application of mouth to tiny finger and the careful nibbling away at her delicate, but razor-sharp nails. I was struck at the time by the difference between the two sets of nails. My father’s were dry and brittle, almost turning to powder on contact with the metal of the clippers; further evidence of his decline, the cancer-driven weathering of his tissues. My daughter’s were as soft and supple as poplar leaves newly-burst out from their buds, attesting to the health and vigour of her little wriggling body.
It felt strange cutting my father’s nails. Indeed, all the little things I did for him during those last few twilight months of his life were accompanied by complex and conflicting sets of emotions. Whether washing his hair, peeling and slicing a pear (one of the few things he still ate with relish), lifting him up in the bed or linking him as he went for a shuffle up and down the ward, I always felt a mixture of pride and sadness. Pride in myself, that I had become man enough to be of help to my father in his hour of need. Sadness, because I was doing things for him that only months before were well within his capacities.
It never felt strange in the case of my baby daughter. Babies were meant to be helpless. Their fathers were meant to cut their nails, change their nappies, cater for their every want and need.
Just like it’s the tiny sparks of personality in a newborn that delight us the most (a particular way of curling the lip, an adult-like frown or a distinctive gurgle), when a parent becomes helpless and you feel them slipping away it can sometimes be the little things, the tiny scraps of evidence of a greater decline, that upset you the most. In my father’s case, it was his sudden casting aside of a lifetime’s habit of smoking that said more than all the charts and bloods and full-body scans. That and his turning up of his nose at a naggin of Jameson I smuggled in past the nurses! I knew then that his spirit was beating a slow retreat from the battleground of his body. Piece by piece he was ceding ground to the cancer.
Somewhere along the line of that retreat he met my daughter, whose rapid advance gave him great comfort during the six weeks they got to spend together. The day before my father died, we put her into his arms and they both closed their eyes and seemed to snooze for a while. With head softly resting on head, it looked to those of us in the room like grandfather and granddaughter were enjoying some kind of non-verbal conversation, something almost telepathic. What, if anything, was ‘said’ during this spell will always remain for me one of life’s sweet mysteries.
I’m still cutting that little girl’s nails ― and indeed those of her younger sister. But like so many of the small tasks I perform for them, given how fast they’re growing up, it will probably be handed over to their more-than-able management very shortly, following in the footsteps of things they now do without any adult assistance such as getting dressed or showering. Soon they won’t need any help from me and perhaps someday it will be me holding out my hand, like my father before me, and keeping still while one of them gets to work with the clippers.