A few weeks ago, I gave myself a crew cut. I didn’t know how long it would be before I could visit a barber and figured I might as well do it myself.

I took my electric clippers into the backyard of our house on Martha’s Vineyard, where we live year-round. It didn’t take long, a few passes around my head as the hair piled up on the grass. Afterward, I gathered the clumps and placed them at the edge of the yard near the bird feeder as an offering of nesting material.

It felt good to rub my hand on my nubby scalp. As a boy I liked to get crew cuts during wrestling season; they made me feel tough and focused. My new crew cut helped me feel that way again, which is good, because on so many days during this pandemic I feel like I want to crawl under the bed and hide.

I am also sad about my new look.

Not because my 12-year-old daughter cried out in shock, telling me I looked old and bald. Not because my teenage son told me my ears were massive and that I looked like an elf. No, I felt bad because I had shaved off a special haircut, one I have enjoyed once a year, every year, for the last decade.

In February, before the pandemic, I traveled to Boston for a conference and also paid my annual visit to a fancy salon on Newbury Street, where I sat at Elie Ferzli’s station.

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Elie and I have known each other for a decade but see each other just once a year, so in total we have spent less than an hour a day together for 10 days. We do not correspond in between, and yet I count him as a dear friend. I believe he feels the same way about me.

I met Elie when my wife, Cathlin, was undergoing treatment for breast cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital. She had begun chemotherapy and soon her hair would fall out. Her team at the hospital had sent us to a woman named Pat who owns a salon on Newbury Street that specializes in making wigs, both for cancer patients and the transgender community.

When we arrived that evening, Pat met us at the front desk and led us past the rows of busy stylists. As we made our way to the back, I was struck by how we were facing a life and death diagnosis while all these other people were seemingly enjoying normal lives of weekends and joy.

I cried often in those days, sometimes quietly, sniffling to myself, and other times explosively, the full force of what our lives had become catching me unaware like a sneeze. Sitting with Pat and Cathlin, talking about wigs and baldness, was one of the times I lost it. Excusing myself, I dashed from the room, planning to walk the streets until my tears had subsided.

But as I walked past the rows of beautiful people, I saw a man standing beside an empty chair. He smiled and motioned me to sit. Without thinking, I did.

We didn’t talk much. Elie cut and I wept. And he did not charge me.

A few weeks later, Cathlin’s hair fell out. We thought it would be gradual, giving us time to adapt, but cancer, we learned, is not so orderly. It is chaos of a different kind, filled with confusion and too much time to think about worst-case scenarios.

Cathlin is a minister, so of course her hair fell out on a Sunday morning just before church. A neighbor shaved her head to even out the clumps, and an hour later Cathlin preached a sermon about delivering herself into a fire of love in order to come out the other side, forever changed but somehow stronger.

I did a lot of push-ups in those days, outside in the dark of night. Something about gripping the cold earth with my hands felt comforting. Chemotherapy was followed by a double mastectomy and then months of radiation. And then, finally, a cancer-free diagnosis.

At first Cathlin returned to Boston twice a year for checkups and then once a year, which she continues to this day. The trips no longer fill us with dread, at least not the heavy type that turns a normally busy and loud family into a quiet one where even our children would press pause on their exuberance as they waited for their mother to return from Mass General with news. Now, so many years and checkups later, it is merely part of our routine.

On some level I envy Cathlin and her ability to stay in touch with the cancer team who became our friends and are also reminders of the positive side of those dark days. Being a caregiver to my wife and our children, who were so young then, gave me my first glimpse of becoming the man I had always hoped to be.

But while my wife gets to see her oncologist and the nursing staff, I have Elie. Each time I sit in his chair, we check in with each other, which for the first few years mostly meant Elie asking me how Cathlin was doing. Then one year, when I called for my annual appointment, I was told Elie would be out for several months. The receptionist couldn’t tell me why. It would be another year before he could tell me his story.

In June of that year, he learned he had multiple myeloma, a disease that enters the bloodstream and bone marrow. After chemotherapy and stem cell treatments, he had to protect his immune system by staying in isolation for four months, unable to walk the streets or even hug his wife or son.

He told me this the next year while I sat in his salon chair, looking at him in the mirror before me. He was healthy again, bent over my hair and moving about with ease. Around us, customers and their stylists carried on their own conversations, the hum of voices mixing with the sounds of scissors and blow dryers.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


The years piled up, and as our children grew, Elie and I shifted from conversations about preschool to grammar school to high school. We grew beards and shaved them off. My hair began to thin, and I worried about going bald, less out of vanity than fear of missing my annual visit with Elie.

I brought Cathlin to meet him and then the children. When he met our daughter, whose nickname is Pickle, Elie held out his hand and said, “Nice to meet you, I’m Cucumber.”

In February, when I sat down in his chair, we started by checking on each other’s health. I told him Cathlin was doing great, but when I asked him if he was still fine, he said, “Well, let’s define fine.”

Elie told me his cancer had returned but the doctors were keeping it at bay with twice a week chemo.

I looked him, incredulous. He seemed as energetic as ever. “How are you still working?” I said. “When Cathlin had chemo, she would lie in bed for days.”

“I don’t feel the effects,” he said. “Never have. After treatments, I go play volleyball.”

Elie kept talking and cutting that cold February day, telling me about the particulars of his disease, which would remain in his body until new drugs were discovered. He could only get one more bone marrow transplant, but the doctors were saving that heavy artillery for later. For now, it was chemo and volleyball, a bizarre combination, but one that worked for him.

“Enough about this,” he said. “Let’s make your hair smile.”

And we fell quiet, just the clipping of scissors as I watched him from my perch. Cathlin may have her oncology team, but I have Elie to remind me of those days, both the bad and the good. I remembered pushing my wife in a wheelchair through the hospital. She was bald and pale and weak as I led her to the elevator for surgery. People turned their heads and I could almost hear them thinking, “There goes someone in worse shape than me.”

Yet it was a golden time, too, filled with fear and uncertainty but also beauty, when trivialities evaporated, leaving only love behind.

After the pandemic hit, I called Elie for the first time in our long friendship. He reassured me that he was fine and able to still do his chemo treatments through a separate hospital entrance. We talked a little longer, and I told him about my self-administered, backyard crew cut.

“I bet you look handsome,” he said.

I don’t, but it was nice to hear.