The Guest House

The Guest House

I wonder: have you ever had the unique privilege of hosting lice in your home?

We've hosted these guests twice. Travelers from school lockers, crowded hallways and backpacks, these visitors arrived one spring week with a warning, a note from the school nurse. For weeks we had daily head checks but couldn't find them. Every itch and scratch made us wonder, "Could we have lice?"

The day we found them - the lice are much smaller than you imagine - I groaned. There were six of us in a relatively small home. My sons' shared a room. My two teenage daughters both had manes at the time: extra thick hair that lay half way down their backs.

How on earth would I eliminate the lice?

That afternoon I researched various lice shampoos and solutions online, headed out to the drugstore, and came home with plastic shower caps, bottles of lice shampoo, a lice killing solution, and two sizes of lice combs.

Such began our adventure. One child would wash their hair with the lice shampoo, soak their scalp with the lice solution, and then tuck their hair under the shower cap.

Fifteen minutes later - after the solution had done its work - they'd take off the shower cap, and sit on the floor in front of me while I sat behind them on the couch. One inch of hair at a time, I'd comb their hair with a lice comb, removing the (hopefully dead) lice and eggs, or nits.

Then the next child would have their turn. And the next. And the next. And then my husband.

Then it would be my turn.

The term nit picking took on new meaning for me.

In between the picking, we washed all the bedding. All the towels. All the hats and other accessories that could be carrying lice. All the combs and brushes.

This process took hours, so we'd often watch a favorite movie while we combed each inch of hair:  the Lord of the Rings series was a family favorite and also has a long running time.

Two days later, we'd do it all over again. It's been a while since I've read the science of lice killing, but the general idea is this:  like fleas, it's not just the live lice that you have to eliminate, but also the eggs that have yet to hatch.

It takes a solid two weeks to fully eliminate the lice. And if you miss one nit, off you go again. In our house, as soon as one child was itching, it was easy for all of us to get reinfected.

Every morning before school the rounds of combing continued: I'd check each child to make sure they were lice and nit free.

I worried that I'd never be done nit picking, and began to feel victimized by these itchy little buggers. (Writing about this several years later, I notice that my head's beginning to itch.)

It took several weeks and many, many rounds of nit picking and head checks until we'd eliminated the lice from our home.

During this time my resentment of the lice changed. I was going to spend hours combing hair; I might as well enjoy it. What else did I need to do? Where else did I need to be?

Today, if you asked me to share my favorite memories of my time with my children, I'd tell you about the weeks we spent in our living room picking nits, watching movies, and washing load after load of laundry.

Picking the nits off my children's hair felt akin to readying a bride for a wedding - the chaos, the scramble, the attention to detail, the camaraderie of grooming and being together, the care of the body; even the exasperation and moments of frustration.

It didn't matter whether I was combing to eliminate nits or combing to prepare the way for a veil. I wanted to be with my children - and I was with them.

There are so many things in my life that I've dreaded. A sensitive one, anxiety has been a longtime friend and companion. Like lice, anxiety can be a challenging and tiresome guest.

The spin of anxiety can leave me feeling overwhelmed and frightened about impending challenges like weeks of laundry and nit picking. I can feel panic over the imagined stress and pressure of future disasters.

But nit picking my daughters and sons wasn't the burden I thought it would be. I was forced to slow down. And in slowing down, I was granted a glimpse of something akin to a wedding feast.

I only have one child at home now, and my days of lice picking may be behind me. How interesting that writing that sentence brings up a tinge of grief, and not the relief I'd imagined. There's so much we try to eliminate from life because we think it's a pain in the ass. But what if it's the good stuff?

If lice should once again come courting, I wonder how I'd bend my knee to that privilege. Perhaps I'd ask my children - or maybe it will be my grandchildren, or a niece, or a neighbor - to teach me three part harmony.

I think we'll sing.

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