Lice helped my family in a time of sorrow

girl wearing blue hooded sweatshirt standing backwards with braids with pink tips

By Kate Lemery

Seven months ago, when my husband was first confined to a bed in the intensive care unit, my five-year-old started sleeping with me. Rebecca viewed this as a special treat, something denied to her in normal times. Oblivious to the full risk of her father’s bowel perforations, vasculitis, and looming lymphoma, she didn’t realize how much I needed it too.

Across our pillows, Rebecca’s blonde waves mingled with my darker curls. Her rhythmic breathing—a reminder of stable life—comforted me during the weeks when Steven’s illness forced our family into terrain as strange and ominous as a Dali landscape. My daily schedule had transformed to include hospital visits, solo household and family management, and mindful attempts to stay calm, purposeful, and upbeat, so that the effects of Steven’s absence on our three children might be lessened.

As any parent of young children knows, completing the long list of tasks required to care for them each day develops one’s ability to triage. But before Steven’s illness, I’d never been so conscious of a unit of time, of what could be done with a spare minute. Should I return emails from friends requesting updates, or check whether my children’s teachers have fresh insights on their emotional state? Should I retrieve more books from the library, so I can hear my sons’ belly laughs over Calvin and Hobbes? Or start the taxes? There is never enough time, especially for the one-on-one time I’d been trying in the new circumstances to carve out with each of my children.

One night, snow was falling, mountains of it accumulating for me, like the slowly eroding mountain of laundry from my eight-year-old’s stomach virus the previous day. In my half-sleep these thoughts interlaced with dreams until I was fully awakened by movement. Rebecca was scratching her head. Eyes closed, she clawed at her scalp with enough vigor to shake the bed. Her scratching continued through a count of six breaths. I stared groggily until suddenly, my body was flooded with adrenaline.

I carried her downstairs. Blinding beams of light reflected off the snow through our kitchen window. I located the special metal comb that had gone unused for a year, arranged a towel around her shoulders, and raked her hair, praying I’d find an extremely dry scalp. But before long, there it was—a wriggling louse, then four nits. I crushed them into a tissue, and closed my eyes.

I didn’t have time for lice. Lice meant combing through three kids’ heads plus my own for up to forty-five minutes daily. It meant scouring our clothes, vacuuming the carpets, lint-rolling the sofa where my kids and I snuggle together to watch movies, plus all of our upholstered furniture. It meant repeating this day after day, for maybe a week, in addition to my other duties, until the lice—which can scurry from one head to another in a manner of seconds—are gone.

I envisioned the laundry pile engulfing the basement. Outside the window, I saw four inches of snow on our driveway.

“Mom! No school! We’re going outside,” my boys announced together, having joined Rebecca and me in the kitchen. I draped towels around their shoulders.

They had the nits, too. And so did I.

I outlined our updated program—no snow play until all coats and hats were washed. My kids’ faces lengthened with disappointment. I handed them cereal bars. They grudgingly settled onto wooden chairs to watch SpongeBob while I readied a load of clothing for a long, hot cycle.

Thankfully, a friend brought the night’s lasagna dinner. My friends had kept me afloat in the long weeks since Steven’s cancer diagnosis—shuttling my kids to activities, hosting them on play dates, picking up groceries—saving me countless time and additional stress. Two days earlier, one friend hugged me so deeply, I never wanted her to let go. I’d received so many hugs since news of Steven’s cancer spread.

As I added detergent, a sickening thought coursed through me—I’d given my support network lice. I’d repaid their kindness with the same plague God smote the Egyptians within the Old Testament, one that requires exponential hours of toil, isolation, and diligence, and carries a stigma. While I know lice aren’t particular about the socio-economic status of the heads they feed upon, shame still permeated. My heart felt like squeezed citrus.

According to one online lice expert, the number of nits found on our heads meant we’d been infested for one week. Like an STD carrier, I made the obligatory calls to everyone we’d had close contact with during that time, informing them that they, too, might harbor this parasite. These calls felt worse than ten times the lice management work, and took the better part of the morning. I dug my fingers into my thigh with each call, so as not to break down.

“Maybe the lice didn’t want to leave your warm head,” a pediatrician friend I’d hugged joked. “Your hair was up in a hat anyway.” The news broken, we dissolved into lighthearted catchup, something I hadn’t indulged in for weeks.

In the days that followed, I laundered and sanitized on, completing the regular tasks required of parents, homeowners, and people who have spouses with an illness—often with robotic remove. My kids grew frustrated with our routine, their scalps scraped daily, their father hospital-bound for the indeterminate future. When I accidentally dug the comb into my eleven-year-old’s scalp, nearly drawing blood, he cried out, “Our family has it the worst.”

James’s comment snapped me to attention. I hugged him tightly, looked him in the eye, and expressed a sentiment that had been unconscious within me until then. “We don’t have it the worst. Many people are going through challenging times, some more terrible than we can imagine. We’re safe and in this together.”

I wanted him to say he agreed with me. Instead  he explained why the Tottenham Hotspur would win their next soccer match. I knew then that he’d absorbed my words. We joked that we hadn’t caught lice from his father, who’d been chemo bald for weeks. Possibly my younger two, waiting in the wings, had heard me, too. They seemed buoyed by our laughter. Rebecca sang as I scrutinized her head that morning. Marc named roller coasters he aspired to ride. Despite our challenges, I began to believe my kids would be okay.

Even with all the other things I had to do, I began to appreciate what the daily lice checks afforded—the chance to chat with my kids about anything they wished, and to move them towards a more solid emotional state. I’d been craving more one-on-one time with them for so long, and now, thanks to those pesky parasites, I had it.

Around the time Steven came out of intensive care, four weeks after he’d arrived, our louse population had been eradicated. And somehow, for all our hugs, playdates, and carpooling, no lice had emerged on our friends. I’ve since wondered whether what I saw on our heads during our sleep-starved, darkest days were actually phantom lice, giving us a chance to breathe and connect, to engage in the tasks that mean the most.

Kate Lemery lives in suburban Washington, D.C., where she writes about art, culture, and parenting. She is seeking a literary agent for her first novel—a coming-of-age story for adults, set in an art museum.

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