In some versions of the bird’s-nest superstition, the bad luck one experiences if a bird makes off with their hair is more specific. Instead of vague damnation, the victim is cursed with headaches. The headaches might last for three years, seven years, until the nest ceases to exist, or for the rest of the cursed one’s life. I remembered the alleged curse last year when I experienced the worst migraines of my life. I’ve lived with migraines since I was sixteen years old, but they came and went in spurts, lasting a day or two. Last year, one attack stretched into weeks of searing pain, treated with a cornucopia of medications. Many medications prescribed to migraine sufferers were created to treat other illnesses, like epilepsy and high blood pressure, because doctors still don’t fully understand migraines. Nothing worked.
“Unlucky,” my grandmother sighs.
Seeing a doctor in person means risking infection. My medical appointments were all conducted over the phone during various phases of Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns. My partner, however, has little choice. His treatment requires two CT scans each year to ensure that his meds are working and the tumors haven’t returned. He must also travel overseas for checkups and bloodwork, a terrifying prospect when close proximity to other people could mean infection. Each time, I check that he’s packed three times as many masks as he’ll need, a face shield, and hand sanitizer. I pack a fresh pillowcase to replace the one in the hotel where he’ll stay near the hospital, to create a nest where he’ll be safe.
One day, as I check his bag for the third time, I recall rolling my eyes when my grandmother warned of birds stealing hair and causing bad luck. My face floods with heat; I’m embarrassed by my reaction, for not trying to understand her. My grandmother couldn’t protect Pop with masks or hand sanitizer. She had nothing to hold on to but the superstitions passed down to her.
When he boards the plane, my partner sends me a photo of himself wearing a mask and face shield. He sends me constant messages so I can chart his every move. He knows that I worry. I imagine the danger his immunocompromised body could be susceptible to at any moment: an unmasked passenger standing too close to him in the airport queue; infected patients in the hospital waiting room. Along with these vividly imagined scenarios, rising infection rates have catapulted me into the extreme present, the precise configuration of place and time from one minute to the next. I’m acutely aware of how far apart I am from others on the rare occasion that I leave home and mingle with the outside world. I know exactly how long I spend inside the pharmacy to collect my next new prescription. I dart in and out of supermarkets like a sly bird traveling between the realms of life and death.
Once, I tried to be sly when Pop was due for a haircut. I waited until I thought my grandmother had entered a deep sleep in her recliner before moving him outside. Pop looked up at the wispy clouds rushing east. The air shifted; the atmospheric pressure dropped. I cut his hair quickly, not because of the heat, but because I knew a storm was coming toward us. “Almost done, Pop.”
The wind picked up, sweeping his fallen silver hair over my shoes. He made a noise that sounded like a garbled “Ha!” I couldn’t make out what he was trying to tell me over the moaning wind. I couldn’t hear my grandmother shouting from the doorway, or the lawn mowers that were forever roaring out of sight. I couldn’t hear the birds.