A Perfectly Lousy Day
by Carole G. Vogel
Originally published in Working Mother Magazine, Sept. 1991.
At breakfast the signs of an impending deadline are clear—newspapers strewn across the living room, dishes stacked high in the sink, and on the table, the remains of the previous night’s McDonald’s dinner.
As I hasten to replace the latter with bowls of Cheerios and glasses of juice, five-year-old Katy tugs at my sleeve. “Mommy, will you take me to the playground after school today?”
“Forget it,” advises second-grader Joshua. “Mommy never does anything fun when she’s writing something.”
I almost protest, but realize he’s right. As I rush my children through breakfast and out to the bus stop, I notice Joshua scratching his head. I make a mental note to switch him to a dandruff shampoo.
An hour later, with the children at school, I am working furiously at the computer. The phone rings. I answer, expecting my writing partner at the other end of the line.
“Mrs. Vogel?” asks an unfamiliar voice. It is the school nurse. “We did a check in school for head lice. Your son has nits in his hair.”
“Lice?” I gasp. “Are you sure you have the right child?”
“I’m afraid so. To prevent further spread in the school, please come for him immediately.”
My head beginning to itch, I rush to retrieve my son. All hope of meeting tonight’s deadline vanishes.
I find both my children sitting in the nurse’s office looking miserable. They clutch sealed plastic bags with their possessions that might harbor lice.
“I’m afraid your daughter is infested, too,” says the nurse in a sympathetic voice.
I eye Katy’s thick, waist-long hair and groan. My scalp itches even worse.
“Would you like me to check your head?” asks the nurse.
I submit to the nurse’s inspection, trying to contain my hysteria. She gently probes my hair using a wooden tongue depressor. “You’re clean,” she announces and I repress an urge to whoop and holler. The itch has miraculously disappeared.
“Head lice infestation is common,” the nurse tells me. “It has nothing to do with cleanliness and there is nothing to be ashamed of.”
As she explains how to combat the infestation my children remain in their chairs, uncharacteristically quiet. They look as if they need a hug. I am too revolted to give them one. After all, they have lice. I don’t. Immediately, I feel guilty.
On the way home we stop at a pharmacy to pick up lice shampoo. I haven’t felt as uncomfortable in a check-out line since I was thirteen and bought my first box of sanitary napkins. The woman in front of me notices what I am holding. She edges away and moves to the next line. My face reddens; I feel like a leper. The cashier gingerly handles the ten dollar bill I give her. She gives me change, making sure no skin contact occurs.
The telephone is ringing as we enter the house. This time it is my writing partner. “Where have you been?” she asks. “We have to get the manuscript in the mail today.”
“Lice,” I moan. “The kids have lice. If you help me treat them, I can get back to work sooner.”
“No, thanks,” she replies emphatically. “I’ve been through it before with my own children.” She then mumbles something about needing to return to her part of the assignment.
I understand. Every partnership has its limits. I decide to enlist the aid of my husband at work. After all, the infested children belong to him, too.
Mark is not pleased.
“Combs and brushes are communal property in our family,” I remind him. “You should check your head, too.”
I know his scalp is beginning to tingle. Within the hour, he arrives home and passes inspection.
We all gather around the kitchen sink and take turns shampooing with the pediculicide.
“I wonder who gave lice to the kids,” says Mark, beginning a speculation game that continues for hours. “I bet it was your sister’s kids. They’ve had it twice.”
We volley accusations back and forth but never learn the culprit. “These things happen,” my mother assures me days later. “Don’t blame anyone. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.” She pauses. “No one in my house ever caught them.”
The shampooing done, everybody changes into fresh clothing. Mark begins the first of 15 wash loads. To kill lice and eggs, everything washable that has come in contact with our children during the last three days must be cleaned.
I gather up the kids’ menagerie of stuffed animals. The bulk of the 30-something critters cannot be washed and must be sealed in large garbage bags for 30 days. From a distance, Katy and Joshua bid a sad farewell to their friends. Each animal has its own name and its own distinct personality.
“Mommy, stop!” sobs Katy. “You can’t put Jamie Bear in the same bag with Doggie. They fight all the time!”
It appears that Jamie Bear fights with almost all the other animals. So, I put him into solitary confinement–his own plastic bag. However, this upsets Joshua.
“Mommy, Jamie Bear will be lonely all by himself! He’ll cry the whole time. Even bad bears need friends.”
Katy solves the problem. “Let’s put Monkey in with him. Monkey doesn’t mind bouncy bears.”
Mark and I alternate cleaning tasks with nit removal. The latter is tedious. Although we find no adult lice on our children’s heads, we uncover hundreds of eggs—the nits—cemented to individual strands of hair. The fine-tooth comb that comes with the lice shampoo proves useless, so we remove each nit individually by grasping them between the fingernails of the thumb and index finger and pulling them down the entire length of the shaft.
Five hours pass. We take a break to vacuum the rugs, furniture, and mattresses. Anything that might harbor living lice or nits attached to fallen hair is attacked. We place combs, brushes, and pig-tail holders to soak in lice shampoo. Mark and I become nit-pickers again. The children become crankier. We are exhausted.
At six o’clock the door bell rings. It is my writing partner, carrying a package.
“Mark and I are nowhere near finished,” I blurt out. Is she really heartless enough to drop off work?
“This isn’t what you think,” she says. “It’s your dinner. I hope your family likes Chinese-style chicken wings.”
“The kids hate everything,” I say. “But Mark and I sure appreciate it.”
I am wrong. The kids love the meal. Between bites they tell me how good the food is and ask why I can’t cook like this.
I am tired. My manuscript still needs to be polished. I have blown my deadline. Hearing about what a great cook my writing partner is, is almost more than I can bear. She has provided everything, including the world’s yummiest chocolate chip cookies for dessert, and I am not feeling grateful. She knows I’m on a diet.
“Mommy, look what I found in the cookies!” Joshua hands me a folded slip of paper with my name scrawled on it.
“Relax,” the paper says. “I finished both chapters. The manuscript is in the mail.”