A Fine Tooth Comb

The lice crisis began innocently enough. “We found nits,” my friend Ellen said over the phone. I drove Remy and Gabe and Remy home from tennis and sent them to Ellen’s porch so she could check them.

“Nits,” Remy announced just a few minutes later when he came through the door.

I wish I could relay in one sentence the OHMYGOD factor followed by the dizzying logistics of forty-five minutes until preschool pickup, one trip to the CVS, one freaked out sixteen-year-old at home… and less than one week until overnight camp for the very longhaired nit-boy. I did not put a checkmark beside lice on my parental bucket list. Did the central office not get the message? Of the freaking out teen, I pretty much threw it to prayer.

The pharmacist suggested three lice kits plus additional shampoo, but said nothing about the fact that the CVS brand kits have crappy nit-picking combs (FYI). He also said to bag up all the stuffed animals and bedding. Leave in the garage for two weeks. I raced to preschool one hundred dollars out and wondered how the little girl would manage without her giant gorilla that serves as pillow and whether I needed to buy pillows.

While I read the tiny print about how to put poison on your child’s head I felt spacey, stunned, stupid—or at least clueless, and in shock. Heads needed checking, sheets washing, couches vacuuming and how many strategies are there to rid your household of lice anyway and who had time to research them when the traumatized boy needed a comb, a haircut and major reassurance? With blond hair (lice prefer blondes—who knew?) longer than any of the girls in his class since first grade and perpetually gnarled, he wore it like a security blanket on his back, refusing to pull it into a ponytail, even on the hottest days, even on the tennis court.

His were those gulping tears—the ones that make a body heave and a mother lose her breath. That’s not all. Also, combing, cutting, washing of hair, dryer on HIGH and stealth deportation of all stuffed animals into a garbage bag in the bottom barn.

If you didn’t understand why housemates of the twentysomething and just turned-30 variety are the completely best invention ever, you should have been at my house on Monday night. Cue: pop-up hair salon and pizza party on the driveway. Side note, if you are to be a solo parent to three (one teen, one dad in two other states it so happened) then to have these plucky kind, young adults make a freakish moment less freakish and even a tiny bit madcap is so, so, so the way to go. I’m not sure it if takes a village to get rid of head lice but I am sure it takes a communal household not to lose your mind when head lice enter the building.


A few other things in first, second and third person:

It is possible to run the washer and dryer from early morning until past midnight without a pause, otherwise known as Tuesday.

In order to run the washer and dryer that continuously, you go up and down the stairs more times in one day than you probably ever have before. Between every hot load is the task of folding the laundry or remaking the beds.

Turns out you save the pillows by sticking them into the dryer for 20 minutes at high heat. Two pillows fit in the dryer.

It’s just hair, it’ll grow are five words equally true and useless for the nine-year old son. Without the locks-for-love stretch of hair on his back he does not feel lighter or free, the lack of hair feels “strange.” And he feels very, very sad. He wonders whether it’ll grow back by camp—or at least by school.

Over two feet worth of hair fell in one evening in your household. The little girl and you both like your haircuts.

Perspective: no one’s hurt. No one has cancer. It’s impossible not to think about cancer when you face sudden, extreme hair loss.

Kudos to the Harvard School for Public Health for its informative, reassuring and funny video: From Head Lice to Dead Lice. You suddenly want your children to consider careers in public health.

You wanted some time with the nine year-old before he was to leave for camp. You most certainly got it.

Nothing says our-week-in-lice at 46 Franklin Street like impending-danger strains of music played during Robin Hood (BBC version). Umpteen Playmobil knight sets later, the swords and shields look exactly like life-sized versions of the plastic toys.

Even if you don’t have lice, every itch seems suspicious, and not just the ones on your head: you feel overcome by a generalized itchiness. You cannot sleep well. In fact, everyone is upended, the feeling more contagious than the bugs, which prefer hair follicles, not even the shafts. Lice cannot leap from place to place nearly so well as you give them credit for. Fear, though, fear can travel.

You never sit on the couch. Part of the household’s discomfort lies in the fact that there are no comfy seats.

To treat lice is an expensive proposition, even if you go the groovy olive oil route immediately and skip the $100 upfront for the lice kit. The better comb is 14 bucks. Required vigilance necessitates an adult skip work for a day at least, simply to comb and clean. If you had no washer and dryer, you’d need rolls and rolls of quarters—and to log some serious time at the Laundromat. If you didn’t have room outside the house to store the stuff you want to quarantine for two weeks, then the bugs would be frightfully close to the area you want to clear. What do poor people do? It’s a public health issue you’d never considered; you feel wholly insensitive and wholly lucky.

At preschool, when your daughter’s BFF first glimpsed the overnight-bobbed pal, her eyes truly popped. That moment of near not-recognition reminded you of the day your friend cut all her hair off ahead of chemotherapy taking it. Her son, who was in preschool, didn’t recognize her at pickup. You remember his always-wide eyes widening. He’s going to be a high school junior like your eldest. You miss his mom in that moment. Just the other day, you saw him zip by on his bike you’d thought: I wish she could see him. He doesn’t always make you think of her, but that day you had—and then, this moment.

The scent of witch hazel, when you pour it over the comb to sterilize it brings you right back to the frozen maxi pads you soaked so that there’d be some relief in those first days after you birthed each of your boys. From those days forward, when your child hurts, you hurt. The smell conjures how much you hurt and how the astringent soothed and more than anything that oozy sensation of not knowing where you ended and those tiny creatures began and the poignant terror of how blurred all boundaries suddenly were. You’d signed up for that on the bucket list and you didn’t even know it.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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