I had a feeling he had them when I saw his hair — so dry and mangy, like he hadn’t washed it in days. We had told him to shampoo his hair, then so beautiful and wavy, like Luis’s was when he was his age. He said he did.
“I did,” he would automatically retort to every hygiene-related query or command–without blinking, without thinking– like it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do and how dare we question! One day, after I begrudgingly took the forgotten lunch and camp shirt to the park (lest he be disallowed to go on a field trip), I saw him scratch.
Sitting forlornly on the steps to the field house, it wasn’t just the intense movement of his fingers through his hair; it was also his face — unsmiling, almost contorted, closing eyes every now and then to contain the inconsolable itch. I remember that look from grade school– my cousin’s, my best friends’, my own reflection in the mirror, the girl sitting in front of me in class. Long-haired, bespectacled, with the calm countenance of a reincarnated guru when not scratching her hair, Marivic was also the smartest girl in the class. I often wondered what made her smarter than me — writing the best essays, getting the highest scores in Math and Science. But more than that, I was mesmerized. Or more like distracted, I guess. During Math, I would catch myself watching her kuto jump from one straight hair strand to another, fat and jet-black against her stringy, dark brown hair. I consoled myself with the thought that, although she was the class valedictorian, the only living creatures that stuck close to her were her lice. What a mean thought, now that I recall!
Now, my own son had made a cozy home for them in his gorgeous golden brown mane, and the house was in a panic mode — his aunt, his uncle, my husband at work, on his phone texting urgently: “vacuum his room!” “put his head in a plastic bag!” “it’s his own damn fault!” “I keep telling him to…”
And my son, watching youtube videos of people playing Minecraft on the computer, sat immobile like the sun, while we hovered and revolved. “Look at him, sitting so unfazed,” my sister-in-law observed. She had come to pick up her girls, who were hanging out with my seven-year-old daughter in the backyard. Now, she too was concerned, asking me to please check her girls’ hair as she had never seen these blood-sucking little bastards in her life before. I have suddenly become the expert, having come from a third world tropical country, where mothers warned their daughters about being flown to the highest coconut tree if we didn’t let them comb our infested hair with the fine, sharp-toothed torture device called the “suyod”.
I checked the girls’, including my daughter’s, hair. Clear. No sign of those tiny silver spheres known as “nits” clinging to healthy hair strands. Only my son’s hair was infested, and possibly mine since I had shared his comb once. Really? The joys and travails of motherhood, indeed.
“Didn’t I tell you to keep your hair clean?” He had not cut it since fifth grade started, and now, in the last few weeks of summer break, it had grown halfway down his nape and he was proud of it. He shrugged. On days when he actually shampooed and conditioned, his locks shone in the light, and all those who saw were drawn. Waitresses gave extra fries, little girls whispered and giggled in passing.
“Girls used to stop me in the street wanting to touch my long hair,” my husband reminisced once, looking at our son’s hair with just a tad longing in his eyes. While this child did not come from us, he is undoubtedly of us. As in, one of us. One who goes against the grain, not caring much about what people might say or think, a rebel, and a survivor. (I have shaved my head more than once, and both me and my husband are intensely inked.) He is “rough around the edges,” as people would say, insists on calling us by our first names, instead of Mom and Dad, which I don’t mind much. My son once got in trouble for having a yelling match with a fundamentalist Christian boy in his class, arguing against the existence of an omnipotent god. “Well, he did make pretty good arguments,” his fourth-grade teacher conceded at the principal’s office, where my husband and I had become constant visitors.
But this boy has also been to hell and back, moved around and shuffled within the foster system like an unwanted piece of lettuce on a child’s plate; good hygiene is the least of his concerns. Our goal as his forever family is to actually make him care more, make him feel more, make him realize that it is okay to grieve and mourn when one loses something, because this means that one has loved.
“Fine. Just cut it!” he uttered with seeming nonchalance. I fussed, cut and plastic-bagged his locks, and when my husband came home, he buzzed the rest with a new electric razor. After all was done and the little growth left was treated with RidX, I looked into my boy’s eyes, and I saw it. His pain. He had lost something. Again. The way he had lost toys stolen at the shelter, the way he had lost friends made because he was moving to another school and the school-year wasn’t even over yet… the way he had lost his biological mother. “I want to kill myself!” he cried, as he fell in my arms.
That night, I went to his room and, as I had done in the past, told him a story about my childhood. This is how we bond. I learn about his story through sheafs of paper from social workers and doctors; he learns about mine through stories I tell before he goes to bed.
I told him about the time I was seven and how my mother, tired of the infestation in my hair, took me to a salon one day, and how the hairdressers fussed and touched my long black locks like they were something precious: “So thick and beautiful,” they remarked, “What do you want us to do?”
I told him how my mom, annoyed and frustrated, yelled: “She has kuto! Cut it all off!!!!” He smiled through his tears. I told him how I didn’t go out of the house for days, fearing the kids would make fun of me, and how I stayed quiet when my friends called out my name to play. It was summer then, just like it is summer now, and I missed days of enjoying the sun because I was being vain. “At least, you’re a boy; can you imagine a bald little girl?” He laughed. Then, I asked if he wanted some cookies and milk and, of course, he did.
“I love you,” he said, reaching for my hand when I tucked him under the sheets. “I love you, too,” I said, planting one in his chubby cheek. “It’s all going to grow back, you’ll see. And more beautiful than you can ever imagine.” I believe it, too.