Sometimes we forget the insidious power of little things.
It was a Sunday. I was having one of those rare days—only written about in parenting fairy tales—where all things just fall into place. I slept in until 7:30, I negotiated away the iPad after only 30 minutes and we were dressed—we even smelled fantastic. On our morning walk to pick up fruit and return our library books, I also managed to convince my seven-year-old-son to get a much needed trim. I felt pretty self-satisfied: I had managed to get my kid’s hair cut and the boy looked amazing. He couldn’t stop scratching or complaining about being itchy…but I could see his eyes again!
I felt invincible. We had an easy dinner and ate happily as I read aloud about Greek mythology, which he gobbled up with his noodles and kale. (Yes, I said kale—I was that awesome of a mom.) Then, to tempt the fate of Poseidon, I said, “Let’s wash that hair so you won’t be itchy.” To my surprise, he agreed. After playing in the bath and laughing, bonding and being an ad for a mom who enjoys dark, leafy greens with her clean-cut son, I started to blow-dry his hair. (Don’t ask me why; I never do this. Well, actually, I don’t wash his hair that much either. I’d say it’s a philosophy, but I’d be lying.)
We were in our cozy pyjamas with our teeth brushed, ahead of schedule. I was feeling pretty great about myself, until I saw something on his scalp. Of course, it had to be lint from his socks in his hair, right? Then I saw that the lint had legs. I screamed. I went back to blow-drying his hair and started to look more closely. His hair was moving, but not because of the blow-drying. I gasped and yelled in a panicked voice that should never be used with children: “We have lice! Oh my God!” My son screamed louder than the blow-dryer: “We have lice! We’re doomed! Dead!”
I started to pace back and forth madly in our tiny bathroom.
“What are we gonna do? What can we do? I don’t know how to deal with this.”
He said, “You should text someone. This is an emergency. And I shouldn’t go to school tomorrow.”
(One small tangent here: I’m from Saskatchewan, and I don’t know if it’s because it’s –52 with the windchill, but I’ve never had lice. No one I know has ever had lice. I couldn’t wrap my prickling head around it.)
“Right. I should text someone. You’re right.”
I ran downstairs and found my phone. He ran down next to me—so close to me that I wanted to push away that clean-cut little face. I have loved that face with my whole being since the day they handed him to me. That face looked up to me for love and comfort, but all I could think was, “You. Are. Gross. You have bugs in your hair. Gross!” Instead, I just itched my own head and began group-texting feverishly. A next-door neighbour who was on vacation in Orlando and another neighbour down the street heeded the electronic beacon.
“We have lice! I’m freaking out! Help me. Help me.”
Within seconds, the Internet was crawling with panic.
From a Burger King somewhere in the US: “What? I just choked on an onion. Hold on.”
From two streets over: “It’s OK. Do you have a lice comb?”
From me, as I scratched my head and my kid jumped up and down yelling “Emergency! Mayonnaise! Mayonnaise! (which I assumed meant ‘Mayday! Mayday!’)”: “We don’t have a lice comb. I don’t even know what that is. Help.”
From Burger King: “I just found a living one on my oldest. We have another 16 hours of driving.”
At this point, I did what no one ever does anymore: I used the telephone to actually speak to the woman two streets over. She was shocked. I was shocked. My son was scratching but shocked.
“I’m freaking out. What do I do? I’m in my pyjamas and it’s Sunday night and I don’t have a lice comb.”
“What? Are you crazy? Didn’t you get my text? We have lice!”
“I know. It’s OK. Come over.”
I informed my son that we were on the move. He said, “I don’t think I should go to school tomorrow. It’s an emergency!” I said, “Put your coat on. I’m freaking out. We have lice.”
Somewhere in between the panic of getting our coats and boots on and nearly slipping down the stairs, I did some mangled attempt at deep breathing. My son looked up at me. An opportunity smiled through the scratching.
He said, “Mama…”
“Mama, is this one of those times?”
“Mama, is this one of those times when it’s OK to say a bad word? I mean, this is the kind of time where people might say it, right?”
“Yes, this is that kind of time.”
“Well, maybe, could I say a word? I feel like I really need to say a word and this is the right time to say it.”
“Hmm. Yes, this is definitely one of those times when I would say a bad word, sure.”
“Mama, do I have permission to say a word? A bad word?”
“Yes. Go ahead if you need to.”
Then he stopped moving—which is rare, even in sleep—and he looked up at me with his one boot on and his coat open over his soccer pyjamas and his fresh haircut. He looked up at me and paused.
Then, with such force and pride, he said: “F*ckin’ time! F*ckin’ time!”
I fell to the floor. I laughed until I wept. The panic flowed to hysteria and cascaded into hilarity. I know that you’re not supposed to laugh when your child swears, but I had no way of controlling it. I banged the floor with my fist and I laughed and laughed.
We reached the lice-checking neighbour angel, who was in the throes of getting her own two kids to bed: an eight-year-old and a 14-month-old. Two hours and a thousand lice later, my boy was clean. She also painstakingly removed each and every single nit she could find. I started to thank her tearfully when she interrupted me, saying, “Uh, you’re next.” I laughed until I realized that she wasn’t laughing. I sat in the chair with my head covered in coconut oil as she pulled living things with living legs and living proboscises off my head.
I thanked her profusely as we put on our coats to leave. Her husband handed me a shot of vodka and told me we were always welcome unless we had bedbugs and then the door would be double-locked. Everyone has a limit.
My son took the next day off school and I did 12 loads of laundry. We sat around picking each other’s heads, wearing shower caps and smelling like the coconut vacation we hadn’t had. It was almost Christmas, and I felt like I had witnessed the most open-hearted miracle of the year. We took the lice-checking angel three bags of fruits and vegetables the next day and got her to check my head again, of course, for good measure.
Years later, after my fourth bout of lice, I’ve joined the A-Team, or should I say the “L-Team,” the lice team. Yes, there is a lice squad that will come to your home, but once you’ve learned the ins and outs of lice, you, too, can join the team and do it on your own. This just means that I’m one of the first responders in the neighbourhood lice unit.
My phone lights up. “We have lice! Help!”
I type back, “Do you have a lice comb? The one from the drugstore will work, but nothing works as well as the one you get online that has little grooves for the nits to get stuck in.”
Then I pay it forward because that’s what we needed not so long ago.
She responds incredulously, “Really? But we have lice?!”
“Yes, I know,” I type. “Just come over.”
When they arrive, I pick through their infested heads. It’s just what we do.