The Ones On His Fingers

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Cutting a baby’s fingernails is the absolute worst. Declan was born in the middle of a heat wave and we took him home to a house with no air conditioning. I quickly became paranoid that he would overheat, so we basically didn’t dress him for the first two weeks of his life, let alone adorn his baby claws with those puffy little mittens. When he scratched his face for the first time, I made Matt cut his nails. Of course, we clipped him. Declan cried.

That was one of only a few times we’ve ever needed to cut Declan’s fingernails. Sometime shortly after he turned one, he began compulsively chewing them off. It started with just the nails. By the time he was four, he couldn’t stop himself from chewing the skin clean off his fingertips. And it wasn’t just his fingers—it became obvious that he needed something to chew. His preschool teacher noted this and accommodated him quickly. For about a year, Declan carried around P shaped chewies. He loved them, and I loved that he was no longer hurting himself. We even found some in cool, subtle shapes. His favorite was a turquoise shark tooth that he lost at least a dozen times. The batman was a swing and a miss—it was too pretty to chew. It was one of those rare, wonderful solutions that worked so seamlessly it had to have been too good to be true.

And then it was.

One day last spring, Declan came home, threw off his chewy, and told me that only girls wear necklaces. Fun thing about Declan: Though he had (and still has, to an extent) a language delay, he has always been a wonderful mimic. Before he could talk in full sentences, he could parrot back whole chunks of conversation, verbatim, that he’d heard throughout the day. Last spring Declan still struggled to summarize events, and when he wanted to communicate something important from his day, he’d slip into this echolalia. It had always struck me as beautiful—melodically staccato in his husky boy voice—until he started echoing back the insults his classmates made about him.

We tried everything we could think of to convince Declan that there was no shame in wearing his necklace. We showed him pictures of his personal hero, John Cena, wearing dog tags—I even found a chewy resembling the ones John Cena wore—but nothing worked. Another fun fact about Declan: he might be more stubborn than I am, which is a truly terrifying thing.

So he went back to chewing his fingers raw. I bandaged his hands almost nightly. He cried when he drew blood but went back to chewing anyway.

I worried about what kindergarten would do to him. I worried he wouldn’t make friends, or that he’d be made fun of. I worried that the birth of his sister would upend his routine—that changes in therapists and teachers and classrooms would be too much to ask of my steady boy, the singular most predictable person I know.

Here’s the thing about anxiety: It draws out every last painful note of bad situations, but it muffles the melody of good ones.

Declan’s kindergarten classroom is just across from his PreK room. He discovered that kindergarten boys are pretty easily won over by fart jokes. He was invited to a birthday party for the first time. He joined a soccer team, and even though he’s actually pretty bad at soccer for now, watching him jog around with six other green blobs on a field is the highlight of my week. His baby sister was born two days after Christmas, and Declan took her under his wing like she’s been part of our family all along. He scolds me when he feels she’s too cold, or too hungry, or just generally too unhappy. He’s said goodbye to beloved therapists with relative good grace and has taken to new ones just fine. He sang all the words and performed all the motions at his school’s Fine Arts Night.

And just last week, I cut his fingernails for the first time in four years. We’ve been humming along to the good times ever since.