My mother and I take turns
coloring each other’s hair at the kitchen sink.
Outside, an April snow overwhelms rows of
green buds emerging along the tree limbs.
Anything goes in these times of COVID-19.
Months under lockdown, we speak in scattershot,
conversations split into questions, worries flit between
threats of contagion and keeping my father alive in its wake.
The availability of supermarket hair dye also distracts us,
finding the shade my mother and I once shared—
dark chestnut brown with bright auburn highlights—
before we both went gray early.
We dab Vaseline around one another’s hairlines and
the tips of our ears to protect our skin, then comb dye through each strand,
and wait as it sets in the kitchen, where the odor won’t reach my father,
asleep in the master bedroom and easily nauseated by chemotherapy.
I quarantine here in my childhood home, helping care for him,
while outside the virus dictates everything,
even the mask and gloves I wear
for each hospital visit and grocery store run.
My hands remain chapped and raw,
the skin cracking from washing them
again and again and again and
once more just to be safe.
I imagine breaking apart the spikey head of the virus,
its fatty outer layer dissolving under
steaming hot water and antibacterial Dial soap,
the only kind my nonna used throughout her life.
A Sicilian-born American child of the Great Depression,
she knew well the fickle, unrelenting nature of illness,
remembered the long night when tuberculosis took her father,
a fisherman from Sciacca, memorable for his red handlebar mustache.
As a mother, she scrubbed sheets bloodied
by the coughs of her youngest child,
delirious with scarlet fever.
Uncertain if he’d make it through the night.
Years later, she blistered her hands
washing out my nonno’s undershirts,
soaked in the green-yellow phlegm of pneumonia.
The last man she buried.
Here, my father remains hostage
to a shape-shifting illness of many names—
leukemia, Graph-versus-host disease, and squamous cell carcinoma—
that’s resided in his body for over fifteen years.
Caring for him in his final days,
perhaps we are the fortunate ones.
In these times, to die surrounded by family
is a privilege denied to many.
For now, we’ve kept the virus away,
and savor this brevity of calm,
rinsing out one another’s hair
beneath the faucet of the kitchen sink.
Olivia Kate Cerrone is the author of The Hunger Saint, a historical novella about the child miners of Sicily. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, Psychology Today, and many other publications. She lives with her husband in Boston, MA, where she teaches creative writing workshops at GrubStreet and is at work on a novel.