Detail from "Rosalynn Carter and Amy Carter - Brushing Amy's hair in White House Private Quarters," Fr. 3-35. Photographer: Harry Benson. From the National Archives Catalog.

“Hours and hours and hours,” the nurse says. “It seems like forever now, but really it’s just a blip.”

She aims a flashlight at my daughter’s blond head and in seconds detects first one nit, then another. The half-hearted comb-job I’d delivered after the chemical shampoo has not done the trick. So here is what awaits: hours and hours of picking under bright light. “Sunshine’s your best friend here,” the nurse says. She is telling me this not just as a nurse, but as a mom and grandma; she’s been in the trenches with those critters. She will not yet give me what I’ve come seeking: a “nit letter,” a phrase that suggests a paper teeming with tiny white eggs sacs, not a declaration of their total absence.

My rushed attempt to kick a case of lice has failed, leaving me with nothing but the nurse’s words and my own stark sense of failure—as if I’ve been handed a different sort of doctor’s assessment, one to carry home and toss onto the stack marked MATERNAL SHORTCOMINGS.

My own little critter hops down from the examining table, anticipating a sticker, maybe even a cupcake from the bakery next door. She has bugs living in her hair, and it is on me to kill them. There is nothing to do but go home and finish the job right. Outside, the sun shines brightly, gloriously—a gift to the nitpicker.

* * *

Hours earlier, we’d gathered at the breakfast table, 7:30 a.m. on a Monday with the Cheerios and the tepid coffee. My daughter was complaining that her head itched. Funny thing—my head had been itching, too.

“It’s probably lice,” she said, in that matter-of-fact way mastered effortlessly by six-year-olds everywhere. I dismissed that idea, in that effortless way that parents do to their children’s suggestions.

But when I stood over her as she slurped cereal, smoothing her bedhead bramble into a simple ponytail, there was a small dark flash—

—or was there? Was I imagining things? I got down close to her scalp, parted hairs with my fingers. There it was. There it wasn’t. Did I see something? I called my husband over. The brown speck disappeared.

Wait! There!

Don’t let it fall off your finger onto the floor! 

Pinch it! Let me see it.

We eventually trapped what did, under a magnifying glass, bear a striking similarity to the image of a louse my husband pulled up on his cell phone.

“Maybe she does have lice,” I said. My day—begun, like all my days, with the balsa scaffolding of a plan, some wobbly checklist of tasks and goals—began to fold into a tiny, disposable square. We would send her off to school anyway. After all, shouldn’t the school nurse hand down the official verdict?

An hour later, the school’s red front doors clanked shut behind us, and my daughter crowed gleefully, “I knew I had lice!”

“It’s not exactly something to be happy about,” I said.

But I understood her sense of triumph. She’d solved for X. Health sleuth, age 6. As soon as we got in the car she asked to see the Xerox sheets Nurse Jenny gave us and read them all the way to Walgreens, where a smiling young pharmacist with thin, straight blond hair just like my daughter’s showed us the ropes of lice treatment, Western med-style. My scalp crawled. I dug my nails in, picturing my daughter standing at the edge of my bed in the middle of the night, whispering, Mama, can I cuddle with you?

* * *

To which the answer is always yes, honey. It is an indulgence I allow because numbered, I am certain, are the days I will hear her whisper those words. In my mind I see us from above: our prone and tangled bodies, my arm thrown over her waist, our heads touching while extraordinarily tiny creatures journey from one to the other like birds from tree to tree.

We are so close in those moments that we become a kind of ecosystem. We are often so close. When I stand in my bedroom I can look down a very short hallway into hers. I can observe her with stuffed animals in hand, doing their voices, positioning them, covering them with blankets, putting them to bed. I love to watch her from this vantage. She is never far away, but in the night, she wants to come closer. And now we are both hosts.

* * *

We head home from the clinic. My day has been folded and discarded, a page unfinished, unwritten. I will continue to rotate around this one burning, tiny sun, like it or not. This is the natural order of things. Mine is a life of interruptions, of reasons why I can never get enough done. My daughter and her lice are just following the program.

But in this is also a secret brand of freedom, a blissful letting go: the moment when there is absolutely nothing you can do but tend to your child, doing what you must do by them as a parent. The responsibility is deliciously satisfying, a slap in the face to all the other demands hissing in your ears. I relax into my new itinerary.

We sit on our front walk where the sunshine hits. Thalia nestles into the V made by my outstretched legs. Her blond hair falls to her upper back. I pile those glossy fibers on her head, securing them with a hairclip of my own, then pick out an inch-wide lock of hair and peer close, way close. I’m gonna git you, suckers.

It doesn’t occur to me just then that the 15 feet of walkway between our house and our street is maybe a strange place to pick nits. Later, when it does occur to me, I still won’t doubt my actions. What would a passerby see but a mother caring for her child? Keeping her healthy, keeping her safe? Is there any higher purpose?

But later, I will fall silent about the lice. I will not turn it into a funny anecdote for friends and neighbors. I have to ask myself, why not? Why so boldly perform a ritual task but withhold it from public discussion?

If I’m being honest, I do feel the itch of embarrassment, the impulse to duck and hide. I know my child is not unclean; I’m confident in my parenting; I have faith that the people around me are of a similar mind. Don’t we all know better by now? Doesn’t a little case of elementary-school lice invoke empathy and knowing eye-rolls nowadays more than revulsion and whispers? All the same, I fear the doubt that might creep into other parents’ minds, their knee-jerk concern for their own children. My child, the culprit. She could be the source, in a sense, of a most irksome problem that might now have to be solved. Beware, beware! They’ll wonder if their kids could have picked up bugs from my daughter, and, if so, without being exactly culpable, I will have erred, igniting a flicker of annoyance, if not judgment, in these other parents’ minds. Whether you think you’re in the game or not, a culture of competitive parenting comes with its own rule book. Make it difficult for others to perform, you might get nicked a few points.

And so I stay quiet.

* * *

We take our places in the midday sun, and my daughter is compliant. She brings with her two dolls, both with long blond hair. While I hold strands of her hair between my fingers and stare as hard as I can, searching for those almost invisible aberrations, those minute translucent bumps, she ministers to one of her own young charges, supplying both sides of a muttered dialogue I can’t quite make out even with her head so close to mine. I concentrate hard. Spotting a nit, I run my thumb and pointer down that one filament of hair, flicking the offender into the dirt where spent tulip foliage bakes in the late April sun. I will do this as long as it takes. I will do it well. There can be no cutting corners, no getting away with a slack job. That nit-letter must be had.

It doesn’t escape me that, beyond the modern trappings of lice removal—the Xeroxed FAQs and doctor’s notes and multitude of removal options both highly chemical and utterly natural—we are participating in an ancient, timeless mammalian ritual. It’s one we’ve watched on many a Wednesday-night episode of Nature, our family’s favorite ok fine, let’s eat dinner in front of the screen viewing entertainment. I remove parasites. I am one with the wide, wide world of primate parents. That’s nice. 

Every so often we both need a break. I scroll through emails and Facebook while Thalia places one of her dolls in the crepe myrtle, as if said doll had climbed there of her own volition. Chattering to herself, she finds a stub of chalk on the front porch and takes it to the pavement just in front of our house. Absorbed in my thumbing and tapping, I remind her to watch for cars. 

When I look up, she’s written a message on the street: Dills have lice. (Dills is my husband’s last name, and hers.) There is even a visual aid, a thin oval with stick legs shooting off in every direction, a fair approximation of what I’d seen on my husband’s phone that morning.

“Oh honey,” I say. “You can’t… you shouldn’t… don’t tell everyone…”

I falter, not sure what I want to say. Shouldn’t I make the point that lice is not, in fact, something to be ashamed of? But if it’s not, then what’s up with my need to tell her not to spread the word?

We tell our children one thing, perform another. We follow rules we don’t believe in; we pass them along, whether we want to or not. I tell her the words on the street cannot stay, but I’m also trying to tell her not to give into the tug of shame, that it’s nothing I want her to feel. Not now or nearly ever. My words are a bumbling mess, I know. If only I could see things simply, dole out the expected lines. 

She’s unbothered by my request to remove her message; she’s just pleased that she made me laugh. When I look again she’s scribbled through her bug drawing and the word lice; above it, she’s written fun.

Dills have fun.

* * *

By late afternoon, I stand naked in the shower and apply the remaining clear gel shampoo to my own head, then lather and rinse. (Later I read that you’re not supposed to do it this way. Skin contact should be minimized.)

Afterwards, I pull the special comb through my own long hair, so much thicker than my daughter’s. It quickly becomes clear that I can’t manage this task alone. And that’s where this story will end: with me on our screen porch, sitting next to my husband on a fragrant April evening, him gently tugging the comb through my hair, the two of us acting out the script of care that the chimps know so well.

These are the things we do for the ones we love most. These are the jobs required of us. We look for the things that might not be there; we do for each other what we ourselves cannot do. We look closely, we become shameless, we sit very still and let ourselves be freed from threat. I close my eyes and let him look and look and look.

 

Susannah Felts

Susannah Felts is the co-founder/co-director of The Porch, a literary center in Nashville, Tennessee, and the author of a novel, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Longreads, StorySouth, Literary Hub, Oxford American, The Sun, Wigleaf, Smokelong Quarterly, Quarterly West, and other publications. She is currently at work on her second novel.

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