Washing My Mother’s Hair



My mother’s nightly ritual: sitting 

on the floor in front of the hallway 

mirror, a wet comb, the right 

amount of hair. She ropes 

a plastic pink curler 

into her scalp, locks it 

into a forced curl. I watch, 

ask her to put a few in my hair, 

which she does. 



My mother lost all her hair to chemo 

in one night. She left on my voicemail: 

“It all came out. Even my eyelashes. 

I look like a space alien.” 


When I saw her, everything 

in me screamed horror. 

I hid it, deep in my core, 

so it wouldn’t taint 

my smile, replied: 

“You look beautiful. It’ll grow back. 

Healthier, softer.” I stroked her head 

as if it were a newborn’s.



My mother couldn’t deal 

with the wig. It itched, 

left red sores. She left it 

at home with the exercise 

bike she never used. We went 

grocery shopping. She, bald, 

but with lipstick and her floral, 

turquoise, dress. The grocery boy 

stared, stared, stared. 

My fist hardened, 

nails digging into my palm, 

ready to break 

his teeth. My mother paid 

no mind, loaded 

the brown paper bags into 

the trunk. 



When I came home 

at the end of summer, 

I didn’t know she would die 

in three months, even though 

she coughed through the night, 

slept most of the day, didn’t leave 

the house, blood soaked 

paper towels littered the floor 

next to her bed. 



She asked me to help her

wash her hair in the sink. 

I didn’t believe she couldn’t 

do it. Mothers can do 

everything. And like a spoiled 

teenager who thought she’d have 

her mother forever, I huffed 

like a brat, like I had somewhere 

to be, like she was asking me to take 

out the trash in the middle 

of my favorite TV show. She arched 

over the sink. I dumped 

cold water over her head 

which made her scream, “You’re being 

so rough!” I globbed on the shampoo, 

rinsed, threw her the towel. 


I didn’t know. I didn’t know 

that you would die 

so soon. I didn’t know. 



I keep my hair long, 

almost twenty years later. 

And if only to do so 

in this poem, I return 

to our kitchen and embody 

a four star salon, give her 

a warm towel for her face, 

lean her head back 

massage lavender shampoo 

into her hair, 

or maybe it would be sandalwood 

or rosemary. I work 

my fingers over her scalp in gentle, 

infinite circles, 

lather all my love, 

all my shame, all 

my longing to have her back 


and then rinse it clean. 

Allison Albino is a Filipina American poet and French teacher who lives and writes in Harlem. She studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and has an M.A. in French literature from NYU. She teaches at The Dalton School in New York City. Her writing has received fellowships from The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, The Kenyon Review, and Tin House.
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