Here’s something you may not know about me: my hair falls out when I’m under intense stress. I’ve had alopecia for most of my life, though thankfully it’s concentrated on the back of my head. When it gets really bad, I can’t wear a ponytail, but otherwise most people don’t notice.
I can actually measure the amount of stress I’m under by what happens with my hair. And right now, my hair is falling out.
The stress started a few weeks ago. My dad had gotten sick, and I was really worried about him. Coronavirus cases continued to pop up, and I was concerned about the likely spread to DC. On top of all of this, I felt a bit unmoored about a number of aspects of my personal life, from dating to parenting. Last weekend, as I was getting ready to go out, it seemed as though more hair was falling out of my head than usually did. Maybe this was a sign.
My kids were noticing the stress in the air as well, though I didn’t know it right away. I finally realized it when Claire asked an innocent question one morning. “What if we get sick?” she asked her grandfather.
“If you get sick, you probably won’t even know!” my dad said, “so don’t worry about it. It’s just old people who will be in trouble.”
“But,” Claire said, with a tilt of her head, “you’re old. So what if I get the coronavirus and don’t know it, and then I give it to you?”
“Well, that could happen,” my dad said, because he doesn’t lie. Claire’s face fell. “But I’m in good shape!” he said quickly. “I’m not going to die.” Claire looked at him skeptically. She’d seen how sick he was the previous few weeks.
My school had a meeting about the coronavirus first thing Monday morning. Cases were being reported in the DC area, and my leadership wanted to brief us all about how we were responding as a school. It was a great meeting actually (I usually hate meetings) and I felt good telling students that there was a plan in place if we had to move to distance learning at some point in the future. “It’s like a fire drill,” I told them. “We’re unlikely to have a real fire, but we still need a plan.”
I texted my dad right after the meeting. “The kids need to be washing their hands immediately after they get home from school,” I wrote. “We need to start being a lot more careful.” There were a number of confirmed cases popping up in the region and late that night my school announced that they were closing for a deep cleaning (though no one was sick at my school.)
So I ended up with a random day “off” on Tuesday. I decided to use my time to do a grocery run and clean the house. That morning, I noticed that there was more hair than usual on my bathroom floor.
I tried to calm myself down. I know that the chances of anyone in my family or community dying are still quite low. But here’s the thing: statistics don’t really work for me anymore. Do you know what the chances are that someone dies at age 40 from stage IV colon cancer with no family history? Enough said.
Widows – especially young widows – are not exactly the most reassuring people when it comes to death.
In any case, I started to talk to my dad. He was supposed to leave in early May to go back to our hometown in Oregon, to play golf and relax and generally enjoy the summer. “Maybe you should leave earlier,” I said.
We debated it. What impact would it have on the kids if he got sick? What would we need to do to keep him safe here in DC? What was the best thing for the him and for the family?
In Oregon, I knew he would be in a small town with almost no direct contact with school age kids. He’d see people on his walks and at the grocery store and the golf course, but he wouldn’t be hanging around an elementary school. He wouldn’t be taking the metro. He wouldn’t have Tommy waking him up and then coughing in his face. He’d be among a community that loved him and very close to a hospital where he worked for 42 years if things went wrong.
“I need you for the long haul, and the kids do too,” I told him. “We can manage without you. We want you to leave because we love you.”
He called a few doctor friends and family, and talked about what to do. Pretty much everyone said the same thing: no one had any idea what would happen next, but that yes, it was probably better to get home to Oregon.
So we got him a ticket home, and he’s leaving today.
My hair is still falling out. At this rate, I’m going to start seeing patches of baldness pop up any day.
But I will feel better when my dad is home safe. I’ll feel a lot better when two weeks has passed and I know he’s likely going to be okay.
Last night, as I put Claire to bed, she put her hand on my arm and said, “mom, are you going to be more stressed without Grandpa Tom here?”
“I’ll be okay,” I said. “I am worried right now because I love Grandpa Tom, and I don’t want him to get sick. Yes, it will be harder without him here, but we’ll work together as a team. And it will be better for Grandpa Tom to be at home in Oregon.”
“He said I can FaceTime him for help with my math homework,” she said, smiling hopefully.
“That’s right,” I said. I reminded her that we are sending Grandpa Tom home to keep him safe. I told her that sometimes we have to make hard choices like that when we love someone.
“I’m going to miss him,” she said. Next door, we could hear my dad reading Harry Potter one last time to the boys. My heart was heavy thinking about his absence over the spring and summer.
On Claire’s bed, I looked down and saw a few stray hairs from my head. They were still falling out. I sighed.
As I went to bed, I thought about whether we were doing the right thing. Was sending my dad home the best thing for him? For the kids? I wasn’t sure.
But ultimately, I listened to my own words. Sometimes we make hard choices when we love someone.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.