The first weekend of quarantine went better than expected. After our initial panic in the wake of school shutting down and the run on the grocery stores, our first Sunday at home was surprisingly peaceful, even beautiful. We slept in, ate a late, leisurely breakfast, read the paper, streamed church services, played board games, baked challah, walked around the neighborhood, spent some quiet time reading and napping, straightened up, and shared a family dinner. We were just finishing dessert and about to head upstairs for an early bedtime, when my daughter reached around and rubbed her neck, and pulled her hand back, puzzled. “Hey mama,” she said quizzically. “I found a bug on my head.”
I jumped out of my chair, ran around to my daughter’s side of the table, and started picking through her long, curly hair. Sure enough, there they were: dozens, maybe more, of little white nits.
After all our hard work to get our house in order so we could stay there, I found myself driving back to the same downtown Target where I’d had a panic attack a few days earlier with no mask, no gloves, and no practical experience or understanding of how to practice social distancing. This was still early on. We were still reluctant to purchase PPE that was in short supply. The idea of homemade masks had not occurred to us. We’d only heard of social distancing a few days ago, and had yet to see it implemented in essential businesses. I had no idea where the lice medicine would be. I lingered at the top of relevant-seeming aisles until they emptied out. I studied the shelves. Eventually I gave up and asked an employee for help. She looked it up on her handheld computer while I hung back, hoping I looked more apologetic than guilty and desperate. When she found thrust her computer toward me so I could verify that she had found the right product, I recoiled. This was when I was still more worried about getting the disease than spreading it.
Back at home, we stayed up late into the night, treating my daughter’s hair, combing out nits, and washing laundry.
The next day, I was scheduled to do a bunch of back-to-back witness interviews for a case that was still in the investigation stage. We were supposed to meet on-site at the client’s office in the Chicago suburbs, but decided to do video interviews at the last minute. Before we started, I mentioned to my boss how relieved I was not to have had to wake up early to drive out to Schaumburg after my stressful night. The interviews went all day, and it was fascinating to see everybody working from home, in their whatever clothes. I felt grateful that I’d been working remotely for over a year, that I still had an office I could go into, that I was wearing a suit. It was only after the day was done, when my boss called and asked, with sympathy in her voice, “How’s the lice situation?” that I realized I’d been picking at my hair on camera the entire day.
I ran into the bathroom, got close to the mirror, and started frantically examining my hair at the roots. Sure enough, there they were: nits.
I HAD LICE.
Back at home, we had another late night, re-combing my daughter’s hair, treating my own, finishing the laundry.
The rest of that week passed in a blur. Every night stretched on for hours with no promise of rest, a whole day’s worth of responsibilities tacked onto the end of the regular day. More lice treatments, hours of combing, hours of blow drying and flat ironing, hours of laundry, hours of research. I made my scalp bleed, my daughter’s hair sizzle. We washed and re-washed every sheet and stuffed animal and towel in the house.
I hit up every mom I know for advice. At some point, somebody suggested that the lice might be helping us cope with the pandemic by allowing us to focus on something within our control.
The lice were uncontrollable. Every night I found crawling bugs and fresh eggs. And still, every night I found crawling lice and fresh nits. The treatments didn’t work. The worst part was that with lice inside the house and coronavirus outside, nowhere was safe, not my home, not even my own body. I was already neurotic, a picker, and now I spent hours leaning over the sink pulling at my hair and obsessively eyed my daughter’s hair. Hugs became fraught. My daughter needed me to comfort probably more than any time since infancy but I was afraid of passing bugs back and forth and had to fight the urge to socially distance myself from my family.
I looked forward to the day that the the only thing we had to worry about was COVID-19. This was before I knew that a mild case could still mean serious illness. This was before I knew that not everybody I loved would take the threat seriously. This was before I knew about the economic impact. I was myopic in my misery.
On my phone, I toggled between reading the news and personal experiences with lice. In each case I was looking for good news but kept getting hit over the head with worst case scenarios. One night, I was sitting on my bed reading about a family who dealt with lice for months on end–every time they thought they had it beat the bugs came back stronger–when my husband came into our room with the latest coronavirus projection: up to 2.2 million Americans, dead. I clawed my head, fell into the fetal position, and sobbed.
By the end of the week, we were ready to try anything, even the insecticide solution available by prescription only that Google told us was for gardens and animals. Given the public health crisis, it took days to get the doctor to call in the right prescription and even longer to track it down at a pharmacy. I was careful not to use too much on my daughter, but I soaked my hair and left it on for twice the recommended time. The next day my brain hurt. It worked, though. It would take me several more days and increasingly acute outburst from my daughter for me to stop picking at her hair, and a few more weeks to stop checking mine, but the lice are gone.
A mom I know said, if it comes back, I should talk to her. Her kids had it a lot. You get used to it, she said. I shuddered, refusing to even wrap my mind around that.
More recently, my boss, the one who watched me pick lice out of my hair for six hours of video calls, called to check in. “How’s the lice?” “Oh that! It feels like a million years ago.” My daughter and I laugh about it now, too. “Remember how freaked out we were? Remember how we cried? Remember I couldn’t stop combing your hair? Remember how all we needed was the right medicine and it went away? Remember how we thought you’d be going back to school in three weeks? Remember how we thought we were going on a spring break trip? Remember how we thought you would still get to have a birthday party? Remember when we could still go to playgrounds? Remember when we didn’t have to wear masks? Remember how we thought the doctors would find a vaccine within the year? Those were the good old days.”