The worst possible thing you can do when you are feeling overwhelmed by the drudgery of everyday life is to complain to a friend whose child has lice. Life is not a competition, but if it were, your friend would win in the drudgery category by a landslide.
Although 35 years have passed, I can see the pained look on my mother’s face as she passed a thin black comb through my younger sister’s shoulder-length brown hair, night after night, nit after nit. In our household of six, an invisible boundary seemed to encircle the two, warning the rest of us to steer clear of the hunt for those tiny eggs attached to a shaft of hair. When my mother discovered another nit, she whispered one word: “Damn.” My Southern mother rarely cursed, which made the scene indelible, as if the lice had taken up residence in my childhood memory rather than my hair.
Decades later, and soon after my mother’s death, when I myself was a mother, my daughter’s preschool had a lice infestation that seemed impossible to contain. In response, the director of the school mandated that every person who entered the building had to undergo a “head check.” Oddly enough, I looked forward to the feeling of the director’s hands, bound in surgical gloves. At the time, I wasn’t sure if my eyes were teary at the possibility of finding lice or the reality of losing my mother. But with my head bent down, I could glimpse the movement of the preschoolers, the boys with shaved heads, the girls with tight braids and buns, precautions against the tiny wingless insects that affect millions of people, mainly children, in the United States each year.
Given these experiences, I was hardly surprised this winter when my friend Becca called to describe an outbreak of lice in the preschool where she teaches in Atlanta. Before leaving town to visit her brother that weekend, Becca decided to check her own children’s heads for lice, just in case. (Note: Her brother’s family had missed a Christmas celebration two years ago due to their own outbreak of lice. No one is immune.) Sporting reading glasses, Becca parted the hair of her youngest and discovered that he had lice, most likely contracted from his own elementary school classmates. Debating her options, she decided to take the expedient route by speaking two words into her new smartphone: “Lice Ladies.”
That’s right. Lice Ladies.
Following the directions on her phone, she drove her children to see the Lice Ladies, whose office is set amidst Atlanta’s sprawl. Now, professional lice removal services are not cheap. But if you’ve ever tried to get rid of lice, you may understand how these offices stay in business, with creative names such as Hair Fairies Lice Salon in Dallas, Texas; the Nit-Picker in Massachusetts; Lice Knowing You, in Seattle, Washington; and the Lice Doctors, which makes house calls in locations across the country.
Head lice are more of a nuisance than a health concern, but the difficulty of getting rid of lice makes most parents dread that letter from school warning that a child has been exposed to them. Businesses like the Lice Ladies engage in outreach programs at health fairs and schools, using a craft project, “Build a Louse,” to educate children about the anatomy of a louse. The Lice Doctors even hosts a Lice Education Center. Who knew?
When my friend arrived at the suburban office, the Lice Ladies checked everyone’s hair for a fee of $30 each and only found lice on her youngest. For $120, they treated her son, with a guaranteed follow-up in one week. One benefit touted by many professional services is that their treatments are pesticide-free, unlike over-the-counter remedies that contain the toxins pyrethrin or permethrin.
After Becca finished her tale, I contributed my own lice story from the week, as if we were participating in a lice-themed literary event. In fact, I had sealed my children’s stuffed animals in plastic bags in my outdoor shed after my daughter played with a friend who turned out to have a full-blown case of lice. A stuffed elephant, manatee, black bear, cat and penguin Pillow Pet, among other animals, were banished to the shed, leaving my daughters’ bunk beds naked without their menagerie of potential lice carriers.
“Oh, the Lice Ladies say you don’t have to go to those extremes,” Becca instructed. “Lice need a human host and rarely spread through stuffed animals.” After only one visit to the Lice Ladies, she was more informed about lice treatment than I was, as I was only following my neighbor’s directives.
Just days before, my neighbor Sarah returned home from five weeks of radiation treatment for cancer to find out that her daughter had a serious case of lice. “I almost fell apart,” Sarah told me on the phone. “I just didn’t know how much more I could take.” But rather than fall apart, she washed everything: linens, towels, bedspreads and sheets. She washed her daughter’s hair in an over-the-counter medication that was not pesticide-free. Like my mother, she got out the little black comb and went through her daughter’s hair, night after night, nit after nit.
It turns out that humans evolved with lice in a classic parasite and host relationship. Despite this close evolutionary history, even the prospect of lice threatens to disrupt the shaky balance of our days, like an unwelcome houseguest that may not leave. So as a precautionary measure for my household, I kept the Penguin Pillow Pet and her friends bagged up in the shed for a few days longer, because ordinary, lice-free life is dramatic enough.