The phone call

They say 84% of the fears we have never come true. That leaves a 16% chance they’re well-founded.

In late April of 2009, I had just finished coordinating the gala fundraiser for arts programming at the girls’ school. While there was plenty to do to tie up loose ends, the biggest pressure was off, and I was living in the gleaming satisfaction of having completed a monumental job.

One day, which began like any other, I scurried the girls off to school and then attacked my to-do list: call gala patrons who had left the event before learning they had won art in the silent auction, update the list of final bids, and make sure all the event rental places got their items back.

As I sipped my coffee between tasks, the phone rang.  

“Hi, Mom,” Flicka said, her voice low. “I’m in the nurse’s office.”

My mind rushed to the last time I had gotten a call from the nurse’s office. Then, the nurse told me Ricka—a kindergartner at the time—had taken a spill on the playground and split her chin open, she undoubtedly needed stitches, and could I take her to the ER right now? When I picked up Ricka from school that day, her shirt was soaked with blood, but it wasn’t alarming to me. I was calm on the drive to the ER and cool during the six stitches. But today’s call felt different from the start.

“Hi, honey,” I said, wary. “You didn’t throw up, did you?”

“I have lice.”

My mouth went dry. My heart pounded. Of all the maladies announced by the school nurse on those sheets of paper traveling home by backpack—strep throat, impetigo, pink eye, scabies—head lice was the insidious pestilence I dreaded most.

“Okay,” I said, quelling my panic. “I’ll come and get you.”

I thought head lice was something the school was supposed to keep on the down low to protect the victim’s identity, but when I arrived in the main office, the nurse came out of her room to show me—in front of a handful of onlookers—exactly what to look for, picking through Flicka’s hair right there. And in that moment I cared more about the information than my pride. I needed the knowledge ASAP. I was a rapt student, but while I could see the adult lice all right, I wasn’t seeing the nits she pointed out with a toothpick.

I took Flicka home and called Husband to share the news. His reaction mirrored mine. Next, I phoned my sister. She had been there before. She said she had some leftover products and a good lice comb I could have.

“Do you want me to check you too?” she said when I got to her house.

“I suppose.” She started picking through my hair.

“Uh oh,” she said.


“Yeah. And you better check everyone else in the family too.”

I left feeling hopeless—and itchy. Husband got home early, and I checked him. He already had a case of the crankies—and now this. I checked Ricka and Dicka too. We all had the scourge, and the job ahead of us seemed insurmountable.

I devoured information online, shuddering through a delousing video or two, boiled all the brushes and hair supplies in the house, and then tackled the job on the girls’ heads—spending an hour on each—praying my novice eye would detect everything. I spent time on Husband’s head too, but since no one else in the family had the eye for it, I did what I could on myself and hoped for the best.

We started The Big Eradication. We bagged up every stitch of bedding and clothing in the house—whether we had worn it in the last month or not. The stuffed animals that weren’t washable got bagged up for the prescribed two weeks to starve the intruders. A hot dryer was a good thing, I read, so we lugged the twenty-eight garbage bags of laundry outside, heaved them into the truck, and sped off to a laundromat. As I watched countless loads swirling around in the industrial washers, my head crawled. The mental torture is the worst thing about a case of head lice; you’re never quite sure you got them all. And your dreams are haunted by that truth.

I sprayed the furniture with a special lice pesticide when we got home—something I learned later was overkill. In fact, much of what I did was overkill. But what else to do when stuck with the proverbial Old Maid card for the first time?

I wish I could say our first confrontation with head lice was our last, but our kids go to school with other children. And they’re girls—with clean, silky hair head lice love and a penchant for hugging their friends and having sleepovers. The second time the little buggers hit our house, I panicked again.

“’You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness’,” I said, delivering Psalm 91 in funereal solemnity over Flicka’s head while picking through her hair.

Just then while extracting nits, I had an epiphany. If “the arrow that flies by day” was north Minneapolis’ gunfire, then “the pestilence that stalks in the darkness” was what I was trying to banish from my girls’ hair. And the second was more terrifying to me.

Wide-eyed, Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka watched my meltdown without a word. Before I went into full hyperventilation mode, I caught myself.

“Girls,” I said, taking a deep breath and putting down the fine-toothed comb. “Let’s all calm down here. We’ll get through this thing. No need to panic.”

They burst into laughter. Sometimes we moms are the only ones overreacting.

I struggled with striking a balance. Should I allow my girls to have friends, or cut them off from human contact to protect us all from further infestations? As it was, I had become obsessive and developed a hidden agenda when I hugged my girls: it was a way to see their scalps more closely. And I subjected them to monthly head checks for years. In the end, I allowed our girls the pleasure of friendships, and the unwelcome pests came back to visit more times than I could count on two hands. But I had developed a sharp eye for the critters and got their annihilation down to an efficient system.

Eventually, worn down by life and lice, I made peace with the possibility of the unwanted bugs. And I realized the 16% of our fears that actually happen aren’t really so bad after all.


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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.