If there is one thing that everyone in the whole world knows about me, it’s that I am the most hyperbolic person ever and that I exaggerate more than anyone else all the time. The downside to this is that people tend to wave off my claims of descending into hell on any given day, when I launch into stories like; My Child’s Tamagotchi: My Descent into Hell or We Ran Out Of Paper Towels: My Descent into Hell. I can understand this. It’s a bit like crying wolf. However, if you have a child in daycare or school, chances are that you’ve traversed the outer rings of the inferno with a nit comb in hand and will probably agree that there’s no punishment for all the earthly wrong you’ve done that is more horrifying than having a child with lice.
Let me tell you the tale of my woe.
It was just after school began, about two weeks into the term, when I got the phone call. I hadn’t showered yet, and I was just settling down to eat my Lunchables when the phone rang, piercing my reverie. Upon answering, a voice spoke to me from faraway.
“This is the nurse at Duckie’s school,” said a drawl, “Your daughter’s head itches.”
“Oh shiitake mushrooms on falafel,” I replied, “its lice, isn’t it?”
My heartbeat echoed in my ears.
“Yes, it’s lice.”
A lot of things went through my mind. The first was to wonder what I had done so wrong in a past life that my child should have contracted head lice. The second was to wonder if I still had time to eat my Lunchables. The third was to call my husband.
Now, I only call my husband home for super duper important stuff. For instance, once when my daughter was two, I was vacuuming to the dulcet tones of Freddie Mercury, lost in a blissful trance of how awesome my carpet was about to look, when on a vigorous backswing I felt the unmistakable jolt of the vacuum handle connecting with a two year old’s face at top speed. I don’t do blood under any circumstances, so he needed to get home ASAP.
The only other time was when I saw a wasp. I also don’t do wasps under any circumstances, it was July in Texas, and if I wanted to not die of heatstroke, my husband had to come kill it so I could get into the apartment. Yes, it was actually a skeeter eater, and no, my husband wasn’t thrilled that we had to pay $200.00 for the crappy single-paned window he broke while eliminating the threat, but what if it had been a wasp? Exactly.
He agreed to meet me at the house and incinerate our bedding, being utterly squicked out by the whole lice thing. I will say this about my partner: we’re on the same page when it comes to hair parasites. I went to the school to pick up my daughter, and when I got there, she was nowhere to be found.
“We sent her back to class,” said the nurse. It was around lunch time, and lots of parents were gathering in the office to bring their kids Whataburger—something I don’t do because I don’t love my kid enough, I guess—and a crowd was forming.
“Really?” I whispered, “don’t you want to, I don’t know, quarantine them or something?”
“Lice has a stigma,” the nurse informed me. “That’s why we don’t separate the kids. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone that Duckie has lice,” she finished loudly, before going to fetch her, leaving me alone with multiple dagger-eyed stares, the smell of deep-fried shame permeating the office.
While I waited, I frantically Googled “lice” and came to the conclusion that it needed to be gone, now. I didn’t care what it took. The nurse handed me a pamphlet about a place just around the corner that removes lice for you, which I considered to be perfect, because ew. “Between you and me,” she practically yelled, “this is the worst case of lice I’ve ever seen.”
When we got to the place, located in a gross strip mall not far from the school, the woman informed me that the process was 90 dollars an hour—they were very thorough, she assured me, combing the hair twice with a 40 dollar comb (not included) and then going through with tweezers under a magnifier, getting all of the adults and eggs at one go. My eyes widened at the sticker shock, but she assured me that it rarely took a full hour. She ushered us back to a room with what looked like a dentist chair and a TV.
First, she combed a hank of my hair.
“You have lice,” she concluded, dropping my 40 dollar comb and ripping open the package on my daughter’s 40 dollar comb. She offered to comb mine out, but I told her to deal with Duckie first. Then we’d see whether or not I could mortgage the house before closing time.
She got started on my daughter, pausing only to murmur, “Wow!” and “Oh my” and “This is the worst I’ve ever seen.” After the fifth time that she told me it was “the worst, just the worst,” I side eyed her to get her to stop talking. I knew what the implication was, because I had been asking myself the same question since the phone call: how could I not have noticed “the worst case of lice” anyone had ever laid eyes upon?
Well, because I’m an oblivious moron, obviously. I gave my daughter full autonomy over her hygiene when she became self-conscious about me and her dad watching her dress and exhibited some discomfort with having other people touch her hair. I’m the same way, so I happily handed the reins over. She’s good at it. Except for her hair. She has my hair, thick wavy stuff that grows like kudzu and twists into mats by the end of the day. I’ve always had to hound her to brush her hair, and when, right before school started, she began brushing it, unasked, extra vigorously, a few times a day, I just assumed it was because I was so great at parenting that I had finally won this war. It wasn’t until we got to the flickering smelly room of a lice-removal specialist center in the back of a forgotten strip mall that I realized she was actually just scratching her damn head because it itched.
One hour became two, and then three. My daughter had time to watch both Finding Nemo and the entire collected Tom & Jerry Masterworks before the woman finished and handed me a bill for almost $400.00. Getting my own lice eradicated was clearly out of the question, so we headed home.
My husband had been busy. Mountains of trashbags containing bedsheets and stuffed animals were piled neatly in the living room, and the smell of faintly singed comforter and freshly dishwashed hairbrushes greeted us when we walked home. Our dryer appeared to be smoking.
“How long has that been in there?” I asked the love of my life.
“Does it matter?” He asked, sporting the wild-eyed look of Lady MacBeth as he desperately shucked the covers off of the couch cushions and crammed them into another trash bag. “Does anything matter anymore?”
He ran off to purchase more trash bags, lice shampoo, and takeout pizza while I started rotating infested items through our dryer. Things were beginning to settle down. We ate our pizza, I combed my kid’s hair one more time, and we made up her bed with scorched sheets and then proved once and for all that being married to someone means doing gross stuff you don’t want to do.
Each of us combed the other’s lice shampooed hair, a millimeter at a time, our skin crawling. What the lady assumed was lice in my hair was actually just dandruff. A lot of dandruff. After we agreed that there was nothing sacred anymore, we headed to bed, because the most difficult task lie ahead. Calling other parents.
In our state and school, kids with lice aren’t excluded from class, and no notices go out to inform parents of lice outbreaks. I understand this policy. Lice does have a stigma, despite the fact that it is completely unrelated to hygiene or to social class. Still, if a notice had gone out, I would have known to be on the lookout, thereby preventing “the worst case of lice, ever” and saved $400.00. I concluded that I would want to know, so I had to call three other moms who had recently had my daughter at their house and confess. It went very well, actually. One mom called me back after I left a repentant, shame filled voice mail on her phone.
“Thanks for calling. Turns out my daughter did have a few nits,” she told me.
“Oh, my god, I’m so sorry,” I blathered.
“You’re funny,” she laughed. “My kids have lice all of the time. Probably yours does too.”
I was awed by her serenity. She told me about how lice just goes around and around, and gave me tips. Told me to check my daughter often, keep her hair up, all that jazz. And I took her advice. For a while. Slowly, the impenetrable, tea tree oil infused coifs of tight braids that I did on my daughter became high buns, and then ponytails, and then nothing.
As I type this, my daughter is brushing her hair of her own volition, root to tip, vigorously. Oh, crap.