THE WHOLE EPISODE might not have felt like such a knife to the privates if it hadn’t started with my daughter getting booted out of the hairdresser’s chair.

“I won’t be able to cut your daughter’s hair today,” the stylist said quietly, waiting till we’d moved out of earshot of the other patrons. She parted my kid’s light brown hair to reveal teensy light brown specks the approximate size of dust motes. “Head lice,” she whispered.

“Those tiny things are lice?” I gasped. The way people talked about lice I’d always pictured them stomping across the scalp like little wildebeests. “Well, eggs. Nits,” she clarified. “They’ll hatch into lice if you don’t get rid of them.”

I must’ve looked stricken, because she put a consoling hand on my shoulder—bravely I thought, under the circumstances—and advised me to buy some Rid. “You’ll want to launder everything, seal pillows in plastic, boil all your brushes,” she advised. “It’s a bit of a job, but you’ll get ’em.”

A bit of a job? A few hours later I stood in my kitchen staring at the 38 pages of small-print instructions that came with the Rid and Nix lice removal treatments I had bought in my Donald Rumsfeld assault on Rite Aid. Never mind that these products were poison: My goal was shock and awe.

Around me loomed Himalayas of laundry—everything the kid had breathed near in the last two weeks—along with the duvet I had no idea how to clean. (Who keeps the cleaning tag on their duvet?) How long must one boil a brush? Must I hermetically seal the hair scrunchies before throwing them in the trash, the way one is advised to do with used vacuum bags—or should I add them to the brush soup? And where do we keep the vacuum bags? I looked to see if the Nix kit included any Valium.

Just then the phone rang—my daughter’s friend—and it struck me that, thanks to the highly contagious nature of this affliction, I had a few calls to make. “We have lice,” I blurted to the mom, who turned out to be a walking Wikipedia entry on the topic. “Oh, we’ve had ’em lots of times,” she said calmly. “The most important thing is: Never use Rid or Nix.” Crap. “They’re toxic and the lice around here have developed resistance to them anyway.” Oh great, the little f#&!ers are smart. “What you need is olive oil and a heavy-duty ­LiceMeister nit comb. I got mine online.”

A heavy-duty LiceMeister nit comb? My spirits sank when I looked at the cheapo plastic number that came in the Nix kit—note to Insight Pharmaceuticals: Valium would be more useful—and was suddenly overcome with a powerful urge to go to bed. On Day One of our lice invasion, I hadn’t even looked at her hair yet and already I felt overwhelmed. All I could think about was Lice Mom’s advice: It’s all about the combing. “If you miss even one nit,” she’d cautioned, “you might as well have done nothing.”

I don’t know how long I sat, inert and defeated, ignoring the laundry and my LiceMeister Google search and my stockpile of poisons and my teeming, scratching child—before the doorbell rang. “ Lice Squad!” sang two chipper voices through the door.

Standing on our threshold were Lice Mom and her daughter—garbed in shower caps and hazmat-issue coveralls, smiling broadly and holding out the Grail itself: A gleaming metal LiceMeister nit comb. “I could tell you were losing it, so we brought ours over,” said Lice Mom, already elbow-deep in my kid’s tresses. “Ah, yeah,” she diagnosed cheerfully, plucking out a nit like a seasoned chimpanzee. “Wow, okay. Let’s take this show into the bathroom, shall we? Cause that dude came from a big family.”

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And there, over our bathtub, Lice Mom demonstrated on my daughter the lice-removal method that had worked for her, and for the mom who had come to her house to teach her, and the generations of mothers who’d been taught by the generations before them…all the way back to the dawn of prehistory, when cave moms undoubtedly demonstrated for each other how to pick the parasites off their babies with their teeth.

All at once I was seized by how primal infestation was—like childbirth, or like the plague—and, I discovered, eyes stinging with gratitude as my dear friend skillfully combed the buggers out one by infinitesimal one…how tribal. We pass our contagions; we share our remedies. As healers know, and good neighbors, and the whole invisible web of mothers and fathers who labor in community to sustain their own and one another’s children day after day—we need each other.

On Day One of our lice invasion, I hadn’t even looked at her hair yet and already I felt overwhelmed.

This might have been an affecting epiphany had it not taken place in a room where vermin were raining off my child’s head. But it got me through the blur of incessant laundering, brush boiling, bed changing, and nit-picking that filled our next two weeks. It wasn’t just the work, though that was relentless; it was the standard of perfection required. There may be no other affliction whose cure requires the overnight attainment of advanced OCD. It didn’t do any favors for my generally pacifist nature, either. “I wonder how Buddhist monks deal with this,” I growled to my husband one night, squeezing a plump one between my fingers and relishing the violent little death-pop it made as it bought the farm.

“They have no hair,” he said.

But every day I talked to more people who’d dealt with head lice—turns out everyone under the age of 17 has had it, twice—and slowly I began to feel the warmth of a subculture gathering around me. From them I learned about the natural product, LiceMD, that finally did the trick for us. Another mom helpfully clued me in to Fairy Tales’ Rosemary Repel shampoo, an herbal lice repellent that my kid will now wash her hair with till I stop having any say in the matter.

“The minute you told me about your daughter, I put mine right back on the Fairy Tales,” this mother told me. Aaaargh, I sighed. I hate that our ailment has become your problem.

“Nonsense!” she corrected. “Getting lice means you have friends.”

This article appeared in the January 2011 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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