There are things we just don’t talk about in polite company. There are subjects one doesn’t broach at the dinner table. Take bodily vermin, for example. A few months ago, I couldn’t have pictured myself sipping a post-prandial cup of coffee and Sambuca at a friend’s house, chitchatting about the efficacy of various techniques for ridding one’s household of lice and their dastardly offspring, nits, the latter almost as invisible as they are invincible. But as a member of the ever-growing group of Austin parents who know more about this subject than they ever dreamed possible or necessary, that’s exactly what I was doing. And to think that I once thought of nit-picking as just a word with an amusing etymology.
My Sambuca-sipping friends and I have been dealing with this lice thing for quite some time now. Long enough that we, like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her study of death and grieving, were able to identify several distinct phases a person typically goes through in coming to terms with this experience. Kubler-Ross has five phases; we came up with ten. But after all, head lice are so much more complex than death.
Phase 1: Disbelief. You get a call from your child’s school or day care center or perhaps from the parent of a friend warning you, in apologetic tones, that your little one may have head lice. You must check for nits. You pay absolutely no attention as they go on to describe the procedure for doing so since you know this simply is not possible. No one in the history of your family has ever had head lice. No one you know has ever had head lice. Maybe people who live on the streets of Bombay, poor things, but not your child.
Phase 2: Humiliation. Shortly after this phone call, you observe the aforementioned child scratching his or her head. The first time, you tell yourself it’s the creme rinse you’re using or too much chlorine in the pool. However, as the scratching becomes more frequent and vigorous, you can no longer deny the truth. He has head lice. Unbelievable. How did they say you were supposed to check? Didn’t they mention some special shampoo? Oh God, the mortification at the drugstore. Not to mention the school and the neighbors and everyone who came to that slumber party. What about those parents who so kindly kept your kids overnight so you could go to Antone’s last weekend? Do you really have to call them, too? Now everyone will think your family has dubious hygiene practices and eats meat out of cans.
Phase 3: Acceptance. Once you know how to check for nits — you look for a miniscule whitish bubble stuck to the hairshaft an inch or two from the scalp, usually behind the ears or at the nape of the neck — you learn the extent of the horror. The day of the louse has dawned. You have lice, your spouse has lice, all God’s chilluns have lice. If you are lucky, not so many have hatched out that you are treated to the spectacle of scores of gross brown bugs crawling all over your loved one’s head.
Phase 4: Confidence. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s not just your family. It’s your kids’ friends, and the friends’ parents, and you’re all in this together. You’ll find out what to do, you’ll do it, and it will all soon be just a distant memory. Following the instructions on the lice kit package you buy at the grocery store, you wash all the bedding in your house in hot water and bleach. You spray the couches and pillows with the handy can. You have everyone over for a delousing party to scrub each other’s hair with the shampoo and comb it out after with the plastic nit comb. See, all better. The kids are playing in the backyard, the grown-ups are inside drinking wine and cracking reassuring jokes — we’re not negligent parents after all! — the clean sheets are back on the beds, and everything is fine.
Phase 5: Incredulity. A few days later, you’re a little itchy. That awful lice shampoo probably dried out your scalp. Then you notice that all those kids sitting in front of your television watching Animaniacs are scratching, too. The beginnings of a frown appear on your face as you call one of them over, bend her head, and submit her to lice surveillance. Your frown deepens as you go through the strands of hair one by one, finding oodles of tiny bubbles, and not the Lawrence Welk kind either. Welcome back to Nit City! You reach for the phone. Anybody itching over at your house, you ask your friend, trying to remain calm. Um, I’m not sure, he replies uncertainly. Well, start checking, you say grimly. They’re back.
Phase 6. Rage. Okay, now you’re enraged. You’re not just enraged, you’re serious. You’re not just serious, you’re determined. You’re on the horn to the doctor. Isn’t there some horribly toxic prescription-only venom you can get to put an end to this plague? Why yes, there is. It’s called Kwell, generic name Lindane. It comes complete with two pages of warnings in six-point type about the dire consequences of allowing a single drop of the poison to spill onto skin, eyes, cooking utensils, or the foundation of your home, with dire implications about applying it more than once every ten days, with disclaimers from the manufacturer about the effects of even the slightest misstep in observing these detailed precautions. You, who have been carefully purchasing pesticide-free fruits and vegetables for your precious babies since birth, set your jaw, pull on your rubber gloves, and pour the vile goop directly onto their sweet little heads. Then you drive straight to the nearest barber shop, biting your lip as the curls fall to the floor. On the way home, you have the interior of the car steam cleaned. Then you sterilize everything in the linen closet, pretend the couch is Vietnam and this can of bug spray is Agent Orange, and surreptitiously carry their favorite baseball caps out to the trash. It has not been easy, it has not been fun, but you have prevailed.
Phase 7: Blame. No! NO! NO!!!!! This has gone too far. You’ve done everything. EVERYTHING! And they’re back again. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more namby-pamby-I’m-so-sorry-but. This time, it is not your fault. So whose fault is it? What about these friends of yours? Did they really do their bedding? Did they do the nit thing after the shampoo thing? Perhaps it’s the cat. Yes, that must be it. You’re all set to take the family pet to the pound when you learn that animals don’t carry lice. Well, then it must be the day care center or the school or the summer camp. They aren’t really washing those nap pads after all. You, however, are washing your sheets for the fiftieth time in three weeks and SOMEONE MUST PAY. Everyone is suspect: your closest relatives, your bosom buddies, your neighbors, your doctors, your public institutions, your child-care providers, everyone.
Phase 8: Craziness. While one friend is making jokes about the kids growing up to play in bands with names like the Scratching Heads and Itchy Scalp, another is deciding whether to relocate to Alaska or Vermont. Is there a listing in the almanac for head lice per capita by state? A divorced couple devises a plan whereby she keeps the kids for 10 days while he delouses his house, then he keeps them for 10 while she delouses hers. Neither grown-up can share his or her bed with anyone else during the 20-day quarantine. The purpose of this, like so many agreements forged between the divorced, seems only to torture each other. Meanwhile, someone is spraying the phone with Lysol.
Phase 9: Matter-of-Factness. By now, you can detect and dispatch a new generation of lice with no more horror than attends the slapping together of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. You carry a high-tech forged aluminum nit comb complete with 5x magnifying glass in your back pocket at all times and are not ashamed to whip it out when you observe characteristic scratching behavior even among mere acquaintances or strangers. You can delouse your house and family in under two hours. You have 20 refills on your Kwell prescription. When considering a sleepover at the home of another group of vermin victims, the only question is this — have you already washed the bedding? Because if not, I won’t bother with the shampoo until tomorrow. Lice, big deal. It could be worse.
Phase 10: Worse. Friend A’s cleaning lady finds maggots in his driveway. Friend B withdraws her 3-year old from pre-school after receiving a notice regarding an outbreak of giardia. You, on the other hand, get a call from the school nurse informing you that both your kids have a contagious form of pink-eye and are being sent home immediately. Unfortunately, you can’t pick them up, as you have locked the keys to the car in the trunk. What is this, the Old Testament? Are there kits at the drugstore for locusts, frogs, and boils? At least you have the teen years to look forward to, when you’ll be dealing with problems you’re familiar with, like unwanted pregnancy, venereal disease, and drug addiction.
If you’re scratching your head at this point, rest assured, so is everybody else.