Saturday, November 25, 2006

the four-letter word

“Mama,” said the plaintive boy-voice, “my head is itchy.”

“Where, can you show me? Let’s see if it’s a bug bite or something.”

“The whole back of my head itches.”

Oh shit, I’ve already muttered to myself. It’s Monday night and I’ve been running hard for four days, late nights and barely a moment to myself.

“Bring me your new headlamp, the one you got for your birthday, and a magnifying glass. Madeleine, could you bring me my glasses from my purse, and my comb? Let’s see what we see.” I type the four-letter word into the Google search box and hit return, to look for a picture of what I fear. I read it silently.“The first sign of an infestation is usually itching around the lower part of the back of the head, and behind the ears.” I wince, hide the photos, and go back to the kitchen table.

“You look funny in my headlamp!” Brendan giggles, switching on the light for me.

“I used to wear one of these every day,” I say, reminding him of my former work as a cave tour guide, with boys his age. But this is my life, now. I diagnose. I treat ailments. And I’m hoping beyond hope not to turn zoologist or entomologist today. “Brendan, when did you get so much hair?”

“I needed a haircut for a long time, mama. It’s in my eyes, see? I want a short, stick-up haircut like my friend Will.”

“B, I don’t see any rash or bites. I do see this little scab-thing, though.” I scratch at it and the whole hair pulls out. Brendan’s face registers betrayal and he yells at me for pulling out his hair.

It looks like a tiny droplet of blood dried to his hair. I put it in the one-inch square plastic box with the magnifying lid, made for viewing pond life. I find a second one, too. They are too small to view with my tired eyes at this time of day, even with glasses. Madeleine remembers the very powerful magnifying glass on my keychain, which has lived there so long I’ve forgotten it. I slip it out of its protective case. These things look like a droplets with a clear coating.

Scott walks through briefly, on his way to a tutoring appointment. “I give up! What on earth are you doing?” I gaze steadily at him for a silent moment, from under my headlamp. “Oooooh, wait a minute,” says Scott the Squeamish. “I don’t really want the answer to this question, do I?” I nod slightly to the computer screen. He reads quickly and whistles an aha. “Call me if you need me to pick up anything, once you know anything for sure. Are you ready to shift your schedule tomorrow, if need be?”

I nod, and trap the two miniscule droplets into the magnifying box again, and put the lid on tight. Madeleine picks up her violin to play and I’m singing along, looking through B’s hair when he pouts, “You’re saying there’s something wrong with my head!” and his tears begin just as I say, “Well it looks like these might be eggs for a bug that likes hair,” I see movement under my comb and I’m just fast enough to catch it between my nails.

“Open the box quick!” I say, and he does. I drop IT in. “We got a kicker!”

The tears cease immediately as he watches the offending critter in the magnifying box. I look for more, but his hair is thick and lush.

“LOOK AT THAT COOL THING! THAT WAS LIVING ON MY HEAD?!” he shouts. Madeleine runs over with her violin still in hand, and pronounces it “as-sgusting.”

“B, how would you like mama to give you a haircut tonight?” His eyes light up. Madeleine would make a good surgical assistant—immediately she runs for my good scissors and a towel.

“I never knowed that you cut hair, mama!” he lifts his face beatifically, with eyes shut in expectation. I think of my own mother, all of the emergency room visits, watching the stitches and tetanus shots, being strong, then collapsing in the corner to cry when the need to be strong had passed. She was squeamish like Scott.

“I cut Daddy’s hair twice,” I say as I cut a guiding line across his forehead, and brush the trimmings downward. “The first time, it looked good, and the second time only half of it looked good, and I haven’t tried again.” I remember ears are the tickliest part and I don’t want to leave those until last, like real barbers do. I trim another guiding line around the curve of one ear, then the other.

“Brendan, I think we need a home day tomorrow, you and me.”

“Can we bake?” he asks.

“Hmm. We’ll see about that. Mama has to learn what to do about these little hair bugs.” He looks in the little viewing box at the bugs, and nods okay. I remember the basics of hair-cutting, smoothing sections of hair up from the nape of the neck, cutting a curved line parallel to the shape of his head. I cut it from three inches to perhaps ¾ of one inch. As I cut, worst case scenarios brew, and I think of Madeleine’s delicate scalp, how she howls at the hair brush. I interrupt her violin practice again.

“M? Does your head itch?”

“No,” she answers. “But as soon as anyone says the word itch, my nose itches, and then my whole face itches!” I laugh with her. Then I think of my own worst, worst case scenario. I’m handling wildlife pretty carelessly. Madeleine runs to get me a length of yarn, and ties up my hair until I can deal with it. I do what mothers do in all crises: I boil water in the teakettle, between snips. When the cutting is done, I comb and find a few more critters and a few more eggs. Brendan runs to see his new “do” in the mirror, while I drop the comb and scissors into a bowl of boiling water.

“I LOVE my new stick-up haircut!” he exclaims, and I am glad to see his eyebrows. I sweep the floor obsessively, putting what appears to be an entire head of hair in a Ziploc bag, putting the Ziploc into the trash, hauling the trash to the porch.

“Now,” I say, bidding my emergency assistants one more time, “bring me all of your bedding, all of your pillows, all of your pajamas and your teddy bear.” Brendan starts to tear up again, and I read the suggestions to run everything through a hot dryer for thirty minutes if it cannot be washed. I explain that we will dry Pinky for thirty minutes tonight, then wash her tomorrow. Brendan sets the timer for thirty minutes. I whisper a prayer that thirty minutes does the trick.

They walk through the house, systematically gathering every hat and scarf, every sweater worn in the last week, every item in the clothes hamper, every towel, while I phone Scott and say, buy whatever the pharmacist recommends. Thanksgiving is in three days, and I don’t want us to miss it.

I send Brendan to the bath so I can go over Madeleine’s hair, and she gives her best to look over the back edges of mine. Neither of us find anything. I prepare her to deflect the following day’s questions from classmates, to protect Brendan. He’s been particularly irritating to his classmates, and this it the worst possible time for him to have a contagious disease. I phone his teacher to set the notification process in motion. Vanya agrees it’s sad timing, just when repairs are needed.

Children tuck into bed only a little late, remarkable for the amount of activity and the loads of laundry gathered. I read a little more about various treatments, and I obsess. I am not prone to obsession, but this seems a worthy occasion.

“Proper combing with the special lice comb can require 1-2 hours for coarse or long hair,” reads the website. My hair is both coarse and long. I can’t rely on anyone to comb it twice daily, as recommended. I’d be lucky to find someone patient enough to do it once.

Were I not so weary, I wouldn’t sleep at all after those closeup pictures of lice. Were I not so tired, I’d worry into the night.

Brendan wakes me in the morning, and I continue the laundry, and comb with “The TerminNit-er” comb, gathering another tribe of eggs and a few more “kickers.” I throw away the tissues I wipe the comb on, wash my hands and massage a quarter of a cup of olive oil into my hair, as one website recommends. I use a little less for Brendan and cover his head with a shower cap, to keep him from touching the oil or his hair. He sets the timer for two hours and pulls out his bin of little cars and trucks. I feed Madeleine and get her ready for school. I try to put out of my mind the image of my squeamish husband submitting to the lice comb, or combing my hair with it.

After I switch laundry again, I look over to see the oil has migrated down his forehead, and his eyelids and lashes glisten. A bead of oil threads its way down his nose, but he is concentrating on his traffic. I think of olive oil and the Old Testament, how riches and gratitude were expressed by “oil running down the beard of Aaron” in a dry land where olives truly were life. Twenty-five years it takes for a tree to bear olives. Seventy-five years, the olive trees life expectancy. I wipe the little drop from the bridge of his nose.

“I like having a home day with you, mama,” he says, as I bring him a small plate of Clementine slices.

“You are good company, too, Brendan.”

The timer rings and we agree that I should wash my hair first, which takes three washings to remove most of the oil. I run a bath for Brendan while I comb through one more time. Many more eggs come out with the olive oil, and a few bugs that are no longer moving. We wash his hair three times with the lavender shampoo.

We head out for a bagel and to pick up Madeleine, and Brendan says, “I feel special today, you know, in my special haircut from my special mama.” Tomorrow might be hard at school—who knows how long it might be hard for Brendan. He is working through more than just a case of head lice.

I remind him that he has been patient with everything I’ve asked him to do, today. I agree that it’s been a special day to be together. And I pray that we have better excuses to be together for special days, and never another stretch of days like this for my boy who is delicious to bugs. I pray the rest of us avoid the plague. And I pray a prayer of thanks. It’s not so hard to do what is necessary, step by step until it is done.

And like my own mother, I am looking for the right moment, when no one needs me, to collapse for a few minutes until I am needed again.


Byron K. Borger said...


Well, not really. Beautiful is more like it. You can even take this unpleasant incident and see it as a moment of grace. I wish I could be so strong, and our family so cordial.

And written at 2:30 am, too. I know your not making this stuff up.

Tell me more about B's school issues...

Denise said...

The children are cordial when I get that dead serious sound to my voice, when I barely mask a very serious panic. I cut out the line about Madeleine's all afternoon tantrum the day before, because it didn't fit in the story! I assure you they are human, and even now the two children are bickering over the wood workshop they have built in the living room. And I hope they have not permanently nailed anything to the floor...

more about B in private. suffice it to say, he is a tempest.

Denise said...

Oh, and I typed it at 2 a.m, but I wrote it at an all-evening self-fest at Starbucks, sponsored by my spouse who saw my suffering and responded. My version of collapsing is much more satisfying than my mother's.

And even the 2 a.m. was due to excess caffiene, self-indulgence. Never fear-- my life has stretches of incredible luxury, interspersed with work, work, work. I'm a closet hedonist.