In the War on Head Lice, Waving the White Flag

Under the glare of the fluorescent lights, and against the contrast of the white paper towel, the bug took its full, wretched, kinetic form. It was phase 44 all over again. I gagged.
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When I was eight months pregnant with our first child, Amit and I attended the free class on childbirth at the hospital where I would later deliver. Enormous, flatulent, and generally grumpy, I remember little pangs of horror as each of what seemed to be 43 phases of the birthing process was explained in mucus-filled detail. Just when I thought I had hit my saturation point for disgust, the friendly nurse finally delivered the communal plastic baby. My relief was short-lived, however, because she then picked up a small metal pan and took us through phase 44.

That was it for me. I gagged, felt a burn of vomit line the bottom of my throat, and said to Amit: I need to get the f--- out of here.

I thought of that birthing class roughly six years later, the first time my daughter got head lice. Nothing prepares you for the moment you see live bugs crawling in your child's scalp, newly hatched from the telltale white egg casings you now spot with each stroke of the comb. Of the many cruelties delivered by this singular rite of parental passage, the worst is that it typically strikes first blood when your child is school-aged, and you have seen, smelled, wiped, treated, and conquered all manner of revolting phenomena: birthing phases 1 through 44; clogged ducts; being puked on for a solid year, and occasionally thereafter; the fecal fallout when a poop-filled diaper comes apart just as you push it into the Genie. It's all done now, and you've developed a false sense of security that the worst of the preternaturally gross is behind you. It's been a while since anything related to child rearing made you gag.

Welcome to head lice. Or, if you like, pediculus humanus capitis.

My call came one afternoon in early December, which happened to be the day of our firm's holiday party. I needn't even say that the school nurse called me, as opposed to my husband, who at the time worked at the same exact job in the same exact law firm. Over time I have concluded that were I to complete the annual school forms such that Amit was listed as "Snuffaluffogus," and his contact number was the GEICO insurance quote line, it wouldn't matter in the least. That school nurse calls ME, the mother, first, last, only and always. Most days I might admit I prefer it that way. Not this day.

My first reaction was indignant disbelief. She had made it through three years of pre-school, and now a half year of public school kindergarten without a single nit, and in my arrogance I had quietly identified the kids who seemed to "tend toward" getting lice. It was so unfortunate for those families, but aside from cautioning Devan not to swap winter hats (hardly a risk, given her singular taste in accessories), I worried about head lice about as much as I worried she'd get giardia from the school drinking fountain.

Still holding out hope that the nurse was mistaken, I barreled up Connecticut Avenue to collect my sweet girl, unjustly miscast into the ranks of the infested. I'll never forget Devan's little face as she sat on the windowsill of the office, hugging her legs to her chest, her hair greased and pulled back into a braid. As I took her hand to go, the school registrar asked me to complete the "sign-out" log.


Scanning the sheet, there were at least a dozen names above Devan's. Twelve kids, one reason.







In that moment, I silently apologized to every child and parent who had faced down this pestilence before me. I realized the inconvenient truth about head lice - that if you have a kid, and that kid goes to school, there is exactly one difference between your child and the one who seems to "tend toward" getting head lice: time.

That epiphany aside, there was now the question of what the hell to do about it. The nurse had rattled off some basic treatment advice, but I'd been too disoriented to pay close enough attention. This left a few options: the Internet; my friends who (yes) had been among those families; and, well, those were the only options.

Besides, there was the all-important matter of making it to my firm's holiday party that night. How long would this lice remediation process take? Would I definitely miss the cocktail hour? Our sitter was coming at 6:30. It was now 2:30. There had to be a way to get this under control - indeed, eradicated entirely - in four full hours.

One of my first calls was fortuitous: as I stood in the CVS with a hand basket filled with Rid, I heard back from "Amy," who in a hushed and harried tone told me in no uncertain terms what I needed to do.

"Listen, I don't have a lot of time. I'm going to give you a name, and a phone number, and you need to stop what you are doing and call that number. Just do what I'm telling you."

Then she was gone. For a split second, I wondered if she'd been so beaten down by head lice infestations that she was sending me to her drug dealer.

I dialed the number and reached Al, the proprietor of Advice on Lice.

Al and his wife run a "salon" in Kensington, and though I couldn't have known it at the time, Amit and I would come to ensure Al and Wife of Al an enviable retirement. On that day, I just thanked God he had an opening, and I had a solution.

Al made Devan comfortable, put her in a smock, let her choose from a full wall of kids' movies on DVD, and - with his patient thusly anesthetized - set to work. Instinctively, I reached for my iPhone to begin returning work emails from the past few hours. After all, I had done what Amit and I often do best: outsource a problem, eat the accompanying cost, and justify it in light of the fact that we are really, really busy people with busy jobs and, after all, headed into a busy holiday schedule.

I was therefore a little taken aback when Al summoned me over to Devan's chair. What did he need me for? With an almost sinister glee, he held up his tweezers, then placed their contents onto a paper towel.

"That's a live bug."

Under the glare of the fluorescent lights, and against the contrast of the white paper towel, the bug took its full, wretched, kinetic form. It was phase 44 all over again. I gagged.

Al stared into my pekid face. "That's what we're up against."

When it seemed socially appropriate, I scurried back to my seat and called Amit to remind him that if he was doing anything other than appreciating that I was the one looking down this uniquely shitty barrel, his time was sorely misspent.

I looked at my watch. How the hell was it already 4:30? The traffic back into the city would be horrible.

Foolishly thinking I might "speed the process" along, I sidled up to Al, who paid me no mind whatsoever as he worked on the second third of Devan's neatly segmented scalp. My impatience eventually gave way to fascination as I watched Al ply his trade. Working through the tiniest section of hair at a time - indeed, only a small number of strands - he moved his lice comb in quick, focused, sweeping motions, stopping to hold the comb to the light every three or four strokes. Another nit gone. Unsatisfied, he took the same group of strands back into his hand, and combed from the other direction. Three strokes, hold the comb to the light. Repeat.

Three hours and a few hundred dollars later, Devan was picked clean. Though there was the slight consolation that the fee could be paid from our Health Savings Account, by no means was Al a cheap date. Still, I reasoned, my pristinely deloused daughter and I could be home in plenty of time for me to throw on a cocktail dress and dash downtown.

That's when Al gave me the sheet of instructions, along with my very own lice comb and plastic spray bottle. At first I thought they were parting gifts, an insurance plan in case Devan were ever to be so unlucky down the road.

Not exactly.

It turns out that if you really want to rid your child of head lice, you might get a nice leg up from Al, but you'd better settle in for the long haul. My assignment was twice a day combing, Al-style, with the morning version less painstaking so there might be some prayer of Devan actually getting to school. But the evening was the full, section-by-section, three strokes and hold-comb-to-the-light endeavor.

Meanwhile, as word spread among my friends, I got a litany of differing Advice on Lice, from the comical to the apocryphal.

"You need to go get tea tree oil. Seriously. Keeps em away forever. By the way, Emily can't make it for the play date next week."

"Ohmigod, don't believe that nonsense about tea tree oil. The lice just f---ing bathe in it. Mayonnaise, and a plastic shower cap. Trust me. "

"Burn everything you own, starting with all your sheets."

"Freeze her stuffed animals overnight."

"Forget freezing, freezing is bullshit - it won't kill them. Put everything in your dryer for an hour, on its highest setting."

"From now on, mousse her hair like it's the 80's all over again. Better yet, mousse it, then dry it under high heat. They'll never come back."

"Dude, I don't know what to say. You are so f---ed."

It hadn't occurred to me that the enemy was already inside my house. I hadn't thought about how to protect Kian, or what might be lurking on the multitude of fabric covered surfaces that both of their heads touch daily. All this contradictory advice sent me into a panicked and ineffectual spiral of activity: tossing all of their stuffed animals out onto the back deck for the overnight freeze; stripping beds; running a vacuum obsessively over couch cushions.

Needless to say, I'd missed the cocktail hour. I put my dress and heels on anyway. The night was still young.

When I gathered my wits about me, I turned back to the patient. It was time for the first of the aforementioned comb-outs. Having spent the equivalent of three nice date nights on Al, I was damn well going to follow his method. That's when I noticed Devan had a big smile on her face, though it would be a few outbreaks later before I figured out why.

With a floor lamp, a stack of cushions covered in an old towel, and my Al supplies, I turned the basement family room into our own little delousing salon. As Devan munched on her pizza, I told her she could watch one of the tween shows on Disney Channel that I typically forbid. Then I set to work: section; spray; comb-comb-comb; hold comb to the light. Repeat. Put clean section in sanitized pony holder. Begin next section.

Somewhere between Devan's third piece of pizza and the end of dinner service at the firm holiday party, we got to talking about a girl in her class she'd been having some trouble with, and I learned her creative plan to remedy the situation. I admitted that the show she'd just watched wasn't so bad, and explained that my main objection to what Disney puts on for kids is that the parents are depicted as foolish, or irrelevant, or just plain absent. She told me she'd never noticed that before. Meanwhile, Kian delighted in this odd little Friday night party, as he maneuvered his Thomas trains around the track he'd laid out at my feet.

I kicked off my heels.

Three months later, the call came again, and I was back retrieving Devan from the Windowsill of the Damned. There were return trips to Al. There were more frostbitten dolls and Stuffies. It wasn't fun, and it definitely wasn't pretty. The bugs were no less disgusting, and the process no less onerous. But when there's an invader in the capitis of the humanus you love, there isn't a whole lot of choice. That eleventh hour parenting class was the last time you could get up and just walk the f--- out the door. Phases 45 through infinity involve sticking around and doing whatever it takes.

And yet, I didn't gag anymore, not even when I was the first to extract a live bug and place it on a paper towel.

"Amit, come here. This is what we're up against."

We are, indeed, up against it. The bad news is that the betting odds are on these bugs sticking around. Recent studies show that lice are developing resistance and mutating in response to existing treatments. The result is that treating head lice with Rid alone these days is like bringing a plastic spork to a gun fight.

They've adapted. We have to as well.

The good news, at least for me, was that the best weapon in the fight was one I sorely needed to remaster anyway. The only difference between that first December call and the ones that eventually followed was that I settled in. I stopped thinking like the guy who as I write this is trying to make a better bottle of Rid.

That business development dinner on Tuesday? Not happening. XYZ firm's rooftop cocktail mixer on Friday? There'll always be another one. In its place, and what was hidden behind Devan's smile, was the stretch of nights where we both knew exactly what we would be doing.

To be sure, I don't claim that an evening that starts with a lice comb, a stack of cushions and an old towel is anyone's idea of a great time. And to my fellow soldiers in this war, if you've found your fail-safe remedy in tea trees or a jar of Hellman's, I salute you. But should I ever get asked, I will recommend those basement hours, plus take-out food, TV on a weeknight, and some unscripted moments of conversation. Wave your white paper towel, and surrender to the unitask. Time is the only thing that makes a difference.