Ten years ago, when my son Joel was 14 and in the middle 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. While there, 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 grouphome 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, 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.
Ten years later, we are in the midst of plans to move Joel into Safe Haven Farms, a brand new community of choice for adults with autism located just 45 minutes from our home in southwest Ohio. While I am excited about the prospect of Joel living in a farming community, like Marcia, I am beginning to grieve the upcoming transition. We’ve put extra-ordinary time and energy into Joel, our youngest son. We’ve loved him no more than we loved his brothers, Matt and Justin, but because of his autism, his cognitive and behavioral challenges, we’ve gifted Joel with so much more of our time. When he moves from our home, the woven texture of our lives will be torn—a tear that will need to be sewn in new ways of being with Joel—having him home for dinners, overnights, concerts, church services.
Today, before he left for work, I gave Joel a manicure. 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 practice saying goodbye as I throw these clippings away—these parts of Joel that are outgrown and no longer needed—these clippings that are now a part of his past. I practice saying goodbye as I approach the day when my husband Wally and I gently shove Joel over the side of the nest, whispering, “Fly, Joel! Fly!” And as I practice saying goodbye, I remind myself that new life will 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 even now are beginning to emerge on Joel’s beautiful hands.
Kathleen Deyer Bolduc’s new book, Autism and Alleluias, will be released by Judson Press on Feb.15, 2010. She is also the author of 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). Kathy has a speaking ministry in the areas of inclusion ministry and disability’s effect on the family system. www.kathleenbolduc.com You can read her blog at www.kathleenbolduc.com/wp
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