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.


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
This entry was posted in Death, Life, Short Stories and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

63 Responses to Nails

  1. Ali Isaac says:

    I loved your post about cutting the nails of your father and little daughter…very touching, very moving, and very well written. Good luck with your new book.

  2. Anne Layman says:

    Very interesting thread, great blog Keep posting

  3. Abinash says:

    Awww! This was such a moving read! The cycle of life thought in the end really got me thinking. 🙂

  4. segmation says:

    Amazing how cutting nails can bring people together! I can’t wait to see how your new book goods, good luck to you!

  5. This is an awesome post. Funny how we wish for our little ones to hurry up and crawl or walk or talk, maybe because we’re so curious to know what they’ll grow to be like as big people. My youngest is 2 and I already miss having a crawler in the house. The circle of life in this post is described perfectly for me.

  6. Great read.
    Congrats on gettin’ pressed!!

  7. Amazing post! Truly heart warming.

  8. Christina says:

    so beautiful, so very moving. the scene with your father holding your daughter moved me so very much.

    • ucronin says:

      Many thanks. I had no idea writing this what sort of response I would get. It’s been very humbling. I’ve only been writing a short time and I’ve had an early taste of how powerful words can be. I hope I can always recall comments like yours whenever I set pen to paper.

  9. Oh wow. Powerful and beautiful. Tastefully written. Excellent work.

  10. Beautifully written.
    I only recently learned how many parents bite their babies’ nails. I know that many parents in the visually impaired community do it, but it seems to be a popular choice in seeing parents too!

  11. This is so beautiful. What a great image and thank you for sharing it so well.

  12. Cristina says:

    Very moved by your post. Very. I’m sorry about your loss, but happy to see you find the beauty that life is- especially a new one.

  13. amberirish says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Thanks for sharing such tender and sweet memories with the rest of us. We should learn to take nothing, even the most menial of tasks, for granted.

  14. thiskindredspirit says:

    Thanks for sharing your heart. It’s true how a simple daily task can change your outlook on so much. The vulnerability and the trust the one you are helping is such a strong connection between you and the other party it can be eye opener. You don’t think about the little things that often but if more people read this post well they most def would. Thank you!

  15. bernasvibe says:

    @” 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.;;”..You’ve perfectly nailed the circle of life with this comment & with your write..Pleased for you to see how you through your written words, show the rest of us what it is to accept death of a loved one..And new life! I’ve just a couple hours ago returned from a weekend of burying my Auntie and spending time with her daughters/family…*Sigh* I’m still learning to accept first-hand and up close and personal the circle of life..I thank you for giving me pointers on how that is done. Very painful process but it is a part of life..Easier written than lived..But we live to learn and learn to LIVE..2 thumbs UP on your write!

  16. Wonderfully articulated joy and sorrow. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  17. bliss steps says:

    ~ Nice reflection. I’m sure that seeing “nails” will definitely thug your heart as it is associated with your dad and baby. It is kind of sad because of the loss yet it is a wonder because of the memories that go along with those nail cutting episodes. Congrats on being FP! – Bliss, The Lurker’s List

  18. sabarashid says:

    Cutting nails is a tricky job. Once I happened to cut the nails of my two months niece and I cut the skin along with it. Poor baby cried so much 😦

  19. Life coming full circle. Such a moving post.

  20. This is really touching. Especially the part about “head on head”. And the part about how as they grow older, they won’t need your help as much, or even not at all. I hate to say it, but it is sad. It’s sad when you want to be there for your kids and help them in every way possible, but when they are 21 (like me), they will wave you off with a flick of their hand. Man, I can’t believe this is what my mum probably feels… Gonna go home and hug her now.

    Thank you for sharing and for opening up my eyes to a mum’s world.

  21. Reading your post got me all teary. I can relate to it as am undergoing a similar pain of seeing my godparent inch closer to death. It is heart wrenching to see the ones who held you and made you who you are today so weak and vulnerable. I do not have a child but have experienced the joys of seeing a baby been brought up. The way you have etched the pain and the pleasure is truly appealing. Brilliant work. Sorry about your father and best wishes to your little angels.
    Congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  22. sanayadd says:

    Reblogged this on Something Borrowed by Me and commented:
    Oh! So beautiful.

  23. Congrats on being freshly pressed! and a beautiful post to be pressed for as well. I can almost visualize your writing and somewhat relate to it as I see my grandfather getting towards that state as well. Remembering the old man who took care of me, fed me, clipped my nails, and so much more now in a state of frailty and dependence. The roles have changed where I am assisting him now. The circle of life is an odd thing

    • ucronin says:

      Yes it is. I suppose those of us in the middle of life’s cycle have a certain perspective on those older and younger than us. Thanks for your comment.

  24. The Waiting says:

    There’s not a lot I can say that has not already been said in the comments above. This was beautiful and poignant, a very realistic and gorgeous slice of life.

  25. This reminds me of my grandmother. Watching her grow weaker and lose the ability to do the things she could was hard to see.

  26. Bittersweet and beautiful. Life runs full circle.

    Beautifully written, too!

  27. Beautifully written and congrats on being Fresh Pressed!

  28. You know….. I had never really thought of nails in such a way. It’s really interesting how deep you went into what is seemingly such a simple thing to be taken for granted.

  29. Miffy says:

    Beautifully written, powerful and poignant!
    Thank you!

  30. You write beautifully, with such tender emotion, I was surprised at first, but pleased, to discover you are a man. You drew me into your personal world and I was entranced.

  31. mo says:

    Lovely writing! Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. This reminded of something that happened when my Mother was dying, This brought it right back to me. And, it moved me.

  32. Very beautiful. This post reminds me of my childhood and how my father would make me sit down in front of him so that he could cut my nails. He did that for many many years because I had become sort of accustomed to this act -‘Papa cutting my nails’. I hated doing it myself (:
    I missed him when I read this and I missed being a little girl. Thanks for sharing…

  33. midwestkite says:

    Thank you for sharing this with the world.

  34. mo says:

    Reblogged this on Day by Day With the Addison Girl and commented:
    Very moving post, get the tissues before you read it.

  35. Read this on my friend’s blog (above) going through it with “grown-up” children and an older mom. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. My kids don’t need me anymore and soon my mother will need me more. I feel older, much older and I’m trying to find joy in the future but still, I look back, to when my children were young and every day was an adventure. I write a lot about that on my blog Enjoy it now while you can, it goes by in a flash, much too quickly. You are a lovely writer.

  36. CJ says:

    Very lovely post. So much tenderness in the image of two lives at the opposite ends getting to intersect and overlap.

  37. hypogal says:

    I loved this post! This post was so insightful and well written.

  38. socialbridge says:

    Deep sympathy on your father’s death. My late father was from Kilrush, Co. Clare and I really think that Co. Clare fathers are beyond special and totally unforgettable!

  39. Thanks for posting this, keep posting.
    Hosting 1 India

  40. rubble2bubble says:

    I am so moved… I’m so grateful to have read this…

  41. Hello,

    We’d like to feature this lovely article on Kindness Blog with links back to you etc. Would that be okay? No problems if not 🙂

    Thank you.

    Best regards, Mike.

  42. Actually…..1.00pm! 🙂

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