I had my arms wrapped tight around my squirming toddler so he'd stop trying to rub the goopy lice treatment out of his hair when the woman combing my own head for bugs said the words I'd been dreading, but knew were inevitable:
"I found an egg."
All told, she found 13. A baker's dozen of parasitic insect eggs embedded in the hair at the back of my head, where I'd been hoping the itching I'd felt was psychosomatic. Because wouldn't you feel itchy if you'd recently combed about 200 brown eggs and 20 live — like, literally crawling around — lice (lice!!!!) out of the soft, curly hair of your cuddly 16-month-old boy?
My son had already caught every possible daycare disease since I'd gone back to work in October. Colds that turned into ear infections. Colds that turned into ear infections that turned into pink eye. Viruses. Rashes. More colds. More ear infections. He could barely speak and he walked with the enthusiasm and precision of a drunk, but at just over a year old my son already knew how to blow his nose.
"He's building his immunity," other working mothers would assure me as I dipped my hands in Lysol after washing the gunk out of my son's infected eyes. "Daycare is so good for him. He'll become socialized," they'd tell me when — after shelling out $70 for a stronger ear antibiotic — I'd start fantasizing about moving my family off the grid and learning to make beeswax candles.
"We just need a break," I'd tell myself as my son sneezed snot rockets down his face and toddled over to the tissue box. "I just have to make it to Christmas."
Then, a week before the holidays, my son started scratching his head.
As the brave woman at Lice Squad (yes, it turns out lice are so common that you can pay a professional to de-louse your entire family) combed a thick paste through every strand of my hair, and my son ran wild and free around their offices with his own hair sculpted into a waxy pompadour, I asked if she would also check my husband's head for creepy crawlers.
"I'll check," she said. "But grown men don't usually get lice. The bugs don't like their pheromones."
Of course they don't.
At the time, I thought that catching lice from my toddler ("He's the second-youngest child we've ever treated in our entire history at Lice Squad!") the week before Christmas ("You're going to want to wash every fabric in your house after every lice check.") after five consecutive ear infections and a recent bout of pink eye ("By the amount of eggs I'm seeing here I'd say he's had lice for a month.") was my absolute breaking point.
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"I can't come to work because I have lice and my soul is dead," I wrote to my managers. I worked from home for days, partially out of shame, partially out of depression, partially because even after 15 shampoos I still looked like I'd electrocuted myself and then rolled in butter.
The fact that it was nearly Christmas didn't help, as the pressure to create the perfect holiday for my child morphed my stress and depression into rage. I threatened to leave my husband when — after our second trip to a craft store in two days — we still couldn't figure out how to make baby footprint Christmas ornaments (eventually we realized that if we strapped my son in his high chair, and I painted the baby's feet and pressed them onto the ornaments while my husband combed his hair for lice, we could kill two birds with one stone. This teamwork may have saved our marriage).
Finally, my son and I were both cautiously lice free, the nearly marriage-ending ornaments were wrapped and, as we drove two hours to my sister's house for a well-earned holiday break, I thought: "We made it."
A week later I was riding in an ambulance with my arms wrapped tight around my toddler as my husband drove frantically behind us. My son — who looked impossibly tiny and bewildered strapped into an adult stretcher — was being whisked from one hospital to another as his oxygen levels dropped from a virus that turned into an ear infection that, this time, turned into suspected pneumonia.
As we bumped along the road, the ambulance's siren blaring and the nurse telling the paramedic to pump my son's oxygen even higher, I cradled my baby's head next to mine, whispered "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" into his ear and didn't give a thought to the lice that were probably marching into my hair at that exact moment.
Our little family spent two days in isolation in a hospital three hours from home. As we waited for the antibiotics, bronchodilators and oxygen to start taking effect, I nursed my son constantly, because he was dehydrated and I no longer cared about weaning. My husband and I took turns rocking our son to sleep at all hours of the night, because he was scared (and we were scared) and whether or not he slept in the hospital crib was moot. We watched hours and hours of The Wiggles, because it calmed him and screen time no longer mattered.
In those lonely, agonizing hours, I apologized to my son for being disappointed that he'd been too whiney to open his Christmas presents; for continuing our holiday travels from my sister's house to my mother-in-law's place another hour away after the first doctor said it was just a cold virus; for giving him antibiotics (after he was eventually diagnosed with an ear infection) that made him projectile vomit; for trying to get some work done when I thought he was improving; for fighting with my husband when he got worse; and, most of all, for not noticing that he was having trouble breathing (the nurses who'd seen us in the ER every day for nearly a week assured me his respiratory symptoms had come on too suddenly for me to really see any signs, but isn't that my job as his mother?).
I thought getting lice was my absolute breaking point, but I was wrong.
We're home now, and my son is nearly back to his old cheeky self, but every time he coughs I picture him strapped to that stretcher. My husband and I are taking turns working from home and using sick days so we can both be with our baby while he recovers. And after we put him to bed at night we're kinder to each other than we were in the weeks leading up to that ambulance ride.
This morning, as I was cradling my son during his nap, he reached up and lazily scratched the back of his head. If I'm being honest, I've been scratching my head all week.
But if getting lice is the worst I can expect from 2018, I've never been more grateful for a head full of parasitic insects (and, oh, the tales we'll tell the woman at Lice Squad).
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