Grief in the time of vaccines

by Chris Burton

Jeremiah 8 just won’t leave me alone. I use a Bible study method developed by Grant Horner where I read ten different chapters from ten different books of the Bible every morning. One of those books is Jeremiah and I keep getting pulled back into the eighth chapter. It’ll start off feeling unfamiliar, but about midway I realize that it is the same chapter I have been trapped in when I read verse 11:

“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (NIV)

Feels like the whole world is down bad. As a teacher I have worried about my students losing the glimmer in their eyes. My sons, though I admire their strength, have spent so much of their early years immersed in conversations about death that they have begun to worry about my mortality. I got my first vaccine dose yesterday and while it does feel like the light is at the end of the tunnel, I cannot help but think about those who are not here to celebrate. How empty our lives are without them. 

I’ve gone to Brooklyn since I’ve lost my friends. John, my barber, comes to mind whenever I’m on the Jackie Rob passing through Cypress Hills. I went by the barbershop on Malcolm X, food from Natural Blend in tow, and my chest got tight in front of the shop. It was empty, too early for everyone who carries on, and I tried to feel the happier times. The laughter, the theological arguments, the eclectic playlist John curated, all vapors that morning. I thought of Garvey’s first haircut. I thought of Coltrane’s face on the banner greeting everyone who enters Stages. I thought of all the times I thought about coordinating haircuts with Kevin since we go to the same spot anyway. I thought about our very own rendition of Steel Magnolias. A brother in the shop did not feel well and all of these Black men sprung into action. Getting water, helping him to a seat, making sure he was good, ensuring that he was taken care of. The compassion that lives in that shop, that lived in John, is why my chest was so tight that day. 

Early on, in my battle with Lupus, I experienced severe alopecia. My hair fell out without rhyme or reason. After my first flare, it grew back with the same texture of hair I had in my baby pictures. I eventually grew the courage to cut it but was so afraid to rock the Caesars that I used to. I eventually gained the courage and it was a disaster. Former barber, very much not John, exclaimed, “Yuh a lose your hair yuh know! Yuh nuh see it!” I was mortified.

I kept my hair long until I decided to shave my head. I grew tired of barbers who would embarrass me, barbers who would have me out here looking crazy, and just decided I would cut my own hair from here on out. 

After my second flare up, to make matters worse, my clippers stopped working. I got so anxious. I took the day off from work because I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. I eventually took my sons to get their haircut at a spot I’d walked past before on Malcolm X, around the corner from where we lived on Jefferson. The energy in the shop was hospitable to me. I got my sons their haircuts and asked the brother that cut their hair if he wouldn’t mind lining me up. It was the first time I’d sat in a barber chair for two years. The first time after I swore I’d received my last professional haircut. 

Going to Stages became a regular routine. Even after we moved to Long Island, I knew I would bring my boys back to Brooklyn for their haircuts. After a few months of working at my boarding school, I would eventually invite John to come to campus and give haircuts to my students. John faithfully provided haircuts for my kids on campus, bringing a bit of Bed-Stuy to Stony Brook. 

During the height of the pandemic in Brooklyn, I checked in on John to make sure he was aight. I knew a lot of businesses were being hit hard by the crisis but thankfully John and Stages were doing okay. I would eventually take that trip to Brooklyn again in the summertime and was so happy to see the precautions exercised in the shop. Mask wearing, lysol spraying, the whole nine. My last haircut from John was a reminder of who John always was; full of life, plans to continue the growth of his business, a man who took care of his family and community. He talked about wanting to make sure he was always on time for his appointments and I assured him, “Bro, it’s all good. If you were on time but the haircuts stunk, we wouldn’t be here!” We laughed. I left Stages thinking I had a good plan to get haircuts on Friday instead of Saturday, completely unaware that that would be the last haircut I would ever get from John. 

I did not know John for a long time, just a couple of years. There are wonderful people who feel his loss in ways I cannot even fathom. But I do know that I love that brother. A good brother who I cannot believe is gone. I am angry and I do not want to accept it. 

I get why there is a feeling of a light at the end of the tunnel but I hope that as we get out of this tunnel, we do not forget the people who did not get out. We do not forget their families. Let’s honor them with the way we live our lives; taking nothing for granted and living our lives fully. What I know about grief is that it never fully moves out. It may retreat to an unnoticeable room in your heart but wherever love for a lost one is tethered, grief is often found.