I have combs with sharp metal teeth, magnifying lenses of varying sizes and strengths, and a desperation I can feel in my bones. Still, I cannot extract all the bugs from my nine-year-old's hair.
Under the bright lights of the bathroom vanity, she sits in front of me on a folding chair while I hover over her scalp, moving through her waist-length locks inch by inch, looking for critters no larger than a grain of rice. They are fast, these pests. And smart. They seem to know someone is coming for them. Whenever I find one, it tries to scurry away from me, back into the labyrinth of Angie's thick brown mane.
The sight of bugs in my daughter's hair triggers every doubt I have about being her mother. Sometimes I wonder if I'm good enough, kind enough, if I'm too demanding or too lenient. I worry whether I'm doing things the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons. I worry because the world feels scary and unsafe. There are car crashes, diseases, disasters and pedophiles. Every day, on our walk to school, I scan the streets for unfamiliar faces and dangerous drivers. We say goodbye at the playground gate, and I spend the rest of the day counting the hours until I can go back and get her.
“Are you almost done, Mama?” she asks. I don't answer. She is being patient and quiet, probably because she doesn't understand yet that she has lice or that we will be here for hours, combing and searching. Lice outbreaks happen all the time in elementary school, as kids share hats and headphones without thinking. I've checked her head a dozen times before, never finding anything more than crumbs from breakfast or glue from art projects.
This time is different. This time, the crumbs are moving.
Whenever I find a louse, I pinch it between my fingernails as punishment for existing, for biting my child's pink scalp and feeding on her blood, for reminding me that I'm not the mother I'd like to be. I drop the tiny bug into the toilet and flush without letting Angie see.
Later, when I close my eyes to sleep, I will see them and see them and see them. Crawling, biting, laying eggs.
I will never be able to unsee them.
As I move to a new section of hair, it occurs to me that Angie's head is the only home these creatures have ever known. I should have empathy, but I don't. I hate these bugs. I hate their segmented, see-through bodies and their stupid, stumpy legs. The only thing I hate more right now is myself, because I should have known before now that my child had lice. I should have seen her suffering and done something sooner. I should have protected her.
Angie started itching a few weeks earlier, first at the nape of her neck and then behind her ears. When I looked, I saw tiny flakes of dry skin – not unusual in our arid southern California climate. I switched her to a thicker conditioner, rubbed coconut oil into her scalp and made her drink more water. When none of that worked, I scolded instead of helping. “Do a better job rinsing in the shower,” I said. But that didn't work either. Now I know why.
By the time the letter came home from school, her head was infested. We went on red alert, pulling the sheets and blankets from her mattress and putting them through the wash. Hot water, extra soap. We bagged up her favorite stuffed animals, including the floppy old cow she's been sleeping with since she was three years old, and put them outside so the bugs would die. We bought special shampoo at the drugstore up the street, along with combs in every size, shape and material. Now I am pulling these little bastards from her hair, wondering what kind of mother doesn't know the difference between dry skin and head lice? What kind of mother can't protect her child from something the size of a sesame seed?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be perfect—perfect grades, perfect looks, perfect athletic abilities. I thought being perfect would please my father. I thought, if I can make everything just right, then he'll stop drinking. Then he'll be happy.
In high school, I got straight A's, was captain of the basketball and field hockey teams, and graduated near the top of my class. I went to college on scholarship, married a man in the military and worked as a reporter at the local newspaper. Ten years later when Angie was born, I decided to be the world's best mom. I quit my job and stayed home to take care of her. I taught her the alphabet, took her to the park and the petting zoo. I made her food from scratch with fruits and vegetables from the farmers market. I was the gatekeeper at the threshold of her life. Nothing would get by me, not even an artificial sweetener. Not on my watch.
Then when she was two years old, our perfect life crumbled. Her father fell in love with another woman. Angie and I moved out of our family home and into a tiny apartment. She went to daycare and I went to work, filling prescriptions at one part-time job and answering phones at another. Still, I tried to be everything for my daughter. I tried to be the best mother. I tried to be her father too. I baked muffins from scratch and cleaned the house, did art projects at the kitchen table and read bedtime book after bedtime book, thinking that if I could make everything perfect again, if I could save her from sadness and pain and disappointment, then maybe I could save myself from those things too.
I couldn't then, and I can't now.
Angie squirms, her patience running thin as I pluck the bugs one by one from her hair. Each parasite is a doubt, a fear, a vacillation about what kind of mother I am, what kind of daughter, whether I'm good enough, and if my child and I are safe in a world where bad things happen. Each flush is a chance to let go, to forgive and acknowledge that no matter how hard we try, no matter how well- intentioned, we can never be perfect parents. There will always be something that gets by us – something big like disappointment or pain, or something small like lice.
I pull another crawler from Angie's head but instead of flushing it down the toilet, I place the insect on a square of tissue paper where we can both get a good look at it. Her favorite subject in school is science. She loves things that gross me out, like the metamorphosis of silkworms and the human digestive system. Through our magnifying lens, the bug looks prehistoric, with its beady eyes and tiny antennae. It is simple and oblivious and entirely vulnerable.
“It looks like a baby scorpion,” Angie says, disgusted but also fascinated. She and I will be here for another hour, maybe longer, combing and culling, fidgeting and forgiving.