A few days ago, my two teenage sons and I went to get haircuts at the walk-in spot that we’ve usually gone to, whenever I could afford to have someone besides myself do it. However, like many of you, when COVID hit, we went back to the hair trimmers on a stool in the kitchen. It had been a while, so we were all extremely shaggy, my bangs hanging low over my face, creating a curtain that hid my eyes.
After getting checked in and beginning the wait for our turn, I noted a station that had always been used by a certain stylist which now sat cleared of tools and supplies. Instead, there was a vase with flowers and a small, hand-drawn card on a piece of folded paper. Two empty vases sat nearby, remnants of gifts that had overstayed their welcome. Knowing the answer, but asking anyway, I inquired where she was. From a stand across the room, another stylist briefly answered, “She passed away,” before getting back to her sheets of foil and conversation with a client.
In that moment, I was grateful for my medical mask and overly long bangs as I slumped low in my seat and let the tears fall freely. I was no longer just sitting in a walk-in salon; I was sitting next to the makeshift gravestone of someone I’d known for over a decade. There are different levels of friendship that we make with the people in our lives, and for all that I saw her only when I needed her craft, she had played a supporting role in my life that was indeed supportive.
She helped calm my youngest when he got his first haircut; he was scared and didn’t want to sit in the booster seat while the buzzer made strange noises around his head. But she got him to smile and promised him a balloon for being a big boy. In moments like those, she was my hero. Over the years I’ve danced with a degenerative disease, and this supportive woman gleefully paid the last $20 from her own wallet on a Gofundme my friends created to help me pay for a wheelchair. She had a clever smile that turned up on the left side, and an opinion on everything. I always enjoyed her company.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t get my haircut that day. I later found out that both her and her daughter were taken by COVID. Your first thought may be to wonder if they were vaccinated, and the answer is that I simply don’t care. I also don’t care if they had clogged arteries from a steady diet of fried Twinkies. What matters is that they’re gone. Vaccines are to prevent death, but after that, there is only grieving. There is a space in my life that once held this person, and now she is gone.
As we emerge from our bubbles and reengage with the world to a greater and greater extent, I’m left wondering: how many supporting characters are we going to find missing? The front desk attendant that you always nodded at, or occasionally grabbed an extra cup of coffee for when you bought yours; the grocery checker you shared a birthday with, whose checkout line you always made sure to go through so you could hear stories about their dog; the gal in the accounting office that always made it to work before you, and had a humongous candy dish that they kept well stocked… the stylist that cut your hair, had a clever smile, and that you assumed would always be there, somehow.
There are long months of grieving ahead. As some people lost the starring characters in their lives, the rest of us lost connections that create community. Over 707,065 familiar faces in the stores, offices, senior centers, auto shops, and everywhere else, are gone. I can only hope that we won’t see them just as jobs that need to be filled, but as new people that need to be supported, and new faces that need to be made familiar. In this way, we can honor the memory of those that were, and soften the inevitable scarring on our hearts that their loss creates.
Nancy Peterson was born and raised in Alaska, before leaving to become the first college graduate in their family. They hold a BS in elementary education with a minor in special education, an MA in teaching, an M.Ed. in special education, and an AAS in business administration. Nancy’s family consists of a husband, two sons, a giant cat, and all the local people that have become family over the years. Nancy enjoys watching documentaries and cooking shows, reading sci-fi/fantasy books, family game nights, and going out for coffee with friends.
Nancy has a long history of diversity rights activism. As a non-binary person with disabilities, they have their own experiences with discrimination, and use the skills they’ve learned as a self-advocate and educator to help others. They are a speaker, organizer, and writer. They have participated in local groups, such as Pride, Disability Day of Mourning, “Celebrate! Faith and Cultures,” and the Womxn’s March. Nancy has supported the BIPOC community by working to help create and support platforms that center its members' voices. Nancy currently works as a disability services accessibility specialist at Columbia Basin College.
Nancy was elected to the Hermiston, OR City Council in 2020 to serve their first term in 2021.
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