Haircuts in a time of coronavirus and cancer

As a writing professor, I’m often on the lookout for strong examples of literary devices, and today while my wife giggled uncontrollably as she began to buzz my hair, I realized I’d never find a better example of irony to share with my students. One touch of the hair clipper to my skull and her nervous laughter had me second-guessing myself. While some barber shops and hair salons have begun to slowly reopen here in Alaska, going for a trim simply isn’t an option for anyone in my family. My wife just completed her fourth round of chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and with her compromised immunity, me having helmet-head hair isn’t worth the risk of going for a haircut and possibly exposing her to COVID-19.

So, today I sat upon a stool on our not-quite-green lawn, while my four-year-old daughter stood on the porch snapping photos and laughing at us. My eight-year-old son had already raced off to shower and check out his own hair butchering. I tried my hand at his mane and did a fair enough job, until he wiggled and — whoops! — I left one square bald patch behind his left ear (which he fortunately won’t see and, thanks to this pandemic, doesn’t have to worry about going to school or having his friends tease him).

After about half an hour, my wife declared she was done. Not so much with the haircut as with her attempt. Perhaps she was also partially worn out from laughing. She’d trimmed my hair around the ears and back and left a bit of a shredded mop up top. She did an adequate job, and if I practice extreme social distancing, no one will notice. I think it looks great from 20 or 30 yards. For Zoom meetings, I can leave the video off, and when I pick up groceries curbside at the store, I’ll continue using the auto-open feature on the back of our car. Between sunglasses and my face mask, no one will recognize me.

The irony, like the spread of this coronavirus, is exponential. After my wife’s four chemotherapy treatments, her hair is still thick and gorgeous. The doctors told her to start expecting it to fall out after the first few rounds. We explained to our kids in early March that she had Hodgkin’s and would be getting medicine to kill the tumor and in turn she would lose her hair. My son cried. He didn’t want his mom to be bald. She let the kids help her pick out the color and style of the wig. Problem solved. The wig still sits in the box, she looks great, and now my boy and I are the ones who need to cover our heads.

Here’s the thing about irony and the lessons we can learn from it. We care so much about how we look that some of us refuse to wear masks, we’ll accept the risk of infection to get our hair cut, or we’ll turn this pandemic into a political argument instead of realizing that, like cancer, this virus doesn’t care how good you look or who you plan to vote for in the fall. When someone you love is at risk, you’ll do all you can to protect that person. My family isn’t willing to sacrifice my wife’s health, and neither should our country. As a nation, we don’t need to be divided over this common cause. If anything, we can avoid the ultimate irony here and live up to the motto on our seal: “E pluribus unum — out of many, one.”

Don Rearden is a professor and chair of the Department of Writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage, author of “The Raven’s Gift," and co-author of “Warrior’s Creed” and “Never Quit.”

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Don Rearden

Don Rearden, author of the novel "The Raven's Gift," lives and writes in Anchorage, but often pretends he's still back somewhere on the tundra outside of Bethel.