On Pinkeye, Lice, and Love

Elizabeth Thompson Relationships

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“Mommy, my eye itches!”

The whiny voice came from the back of our minivan. We were trundling down back roads, halfway to our vacation destination, loaded down with so many industrial-sized bottles of sunscreen that the bottom of our van nearly scraped the highway.

“I’m sorry, Sweetie,” I said, not turning around. “Maybe you have an eyelash in there.” From the driver’s seat, my husband, Kevin, gave his silent nod of approval, renewing our pact: Keep it moving, stop for nothing.

“No, Mommy, it itches and burns!” I plastered on a patient expression and twisted around. After a long search, I found my seven-year-old daughter peeking out from behind a purple suitcase and three Pillow Pets. Her left eye was glowing red, Terminator-style.

“Oh,” I said. “Um.”

Kevin, who after fourteen years of marriage had become an expert interpreter of my meaningful ums, tuned in, his voice tipped with worry. “What? What’s wrong?”

“Um, it’s Pinkeye,” I said. And in the blink of a crusty pink eye, poof went all my glittering plans for a week of sand castles and shell-collecting and long afternoon naps in which all four children, exhausted from swimming, would actually sleep at the same time, allowing Mommy and Daddy to also sleep or . . . not sleep. “We need to stop now if we want to save this vacation.”

Out came the smartphone. I typed in, “Urgent Care in the Middle of Nowhere,” and found our target.

Minivan rerouted. Detour to Urgent Care underway.

At the Urgent Care, Kevin and I kicked into let’s-do-this-thing mode. We agreed that because Kevin is capable of being both endearing and slightly intimidating to medical personnel, he should take on the role of Parent Who Will Charm and if Necessary Threaten the Doctors Until They Prescribe the Strongest Medicine Allowed. I accepted the painful role of Parent Who Gets to Entertain Three Kids in the Minivan.

Eighteen rounds of Eye Spy in the Minivan later (oh, the irony!), Kevin and our daughter climbed back into the van, waving a prescription. “And now, let the family vacation begin!” Kevin said, giving a happy whoop. The kids cheered and I laughed. Kevin is right, I thought. I am overreacting. Pinkeye, Schmink Eye! It could be worse—at least it wasn’t a stomach bug.

That night at the hotel, Kevin and I had just snuggled up on the couch, wine glasses in hand, when Little Miss Pinkeye got out of bed and wandered out in her nightie.

“My head itches,” she said.

“Honey, the medicine should help your eye stop itching soon,” I said. “Please go back to bed.”

“No. My head itches. My hair. Really, really, bad.” She demonstrated by frantically clawing at her scalp.

A low-level alarm started pulsing in my head. No. Please, God, no. We all have our parenting fears, and lice is pretty much number one at the top of mine, even above amputation and loss of spleen.

With a screech, my child collapsed in a writhing heap on the carpet. My alarm leapt from low-level to imminent nuclear threat.

I began to negotiate with God. Please don’t punish me for complaining about Pinkeye. I LOVE Pinkeye! Please, if you just give us ALL Pinkeye, AND a stomach bug, I promise I will never complain again for the rest of my life—just please, I beg you, no lice. ANYTHING BUT LICE.    

“Mommyyyyyy!” she wailed, jumping to her feet and doing a violent ants-in-her-pants dance around the room. Only it was clear that the bugs weren’t in her pants.

Casting Kevin my best martyred look, I handed him my wine glass and ushered my squirming daughter into the kitchen, under the fluorescent lights.

“Um,” I said.

“No,” Kevin said. “Please, no.” He was still sitting on the couch, clutching our two wine glasses in his fists—preacher or not, he was eyeing both glasses with a dangerous gleam in his eye. “Don't say it.”

I started hyperventilating. “This is my fault,” I moaned. “I’ve been so terrified of lice that the bugs heard me, and they tracked us down. And they did it on purpose on this week, to ruin our vacation.”

When I started scratching my own head and babbling, Kevin started riffling through the hotel kitchenette, searching for a paper bag. He handed me the bag, commanded me to breathe, and I made him check my head. Meanwhile, our daughter stood there scratching and yawning, a strange smug smile on her face. “I have pinkeye and lice,” she exclaimed. “On the same day! Wait till everybody at school hears about this!”

I screamed into my bag. My husband combed through my hair.

When Kevin pronounced me bug-free and I started breathing normally again, we debated strategy. There was no use staying up all night de-lousing an exhausted child. We might as well get some sleep. Kevin, who has the blessed gift of “letting tomorrow worry about itself,” snored blissfully all night. I itched and scratched my way through lice-haunted dreams.

In the morning, I stumbled toward the coffee maker while Kevin grabbed his keys. “I’ll go buy the lice stuff,” he said. I tried not to cry. Half an hour later, he made a dramatic re-entrance, his baritone voice booming. “All right! Who’s ready for a lice party?”

I gaped at him. From his arms swung grocery bags filled with a hundred dollars’ worth of every de-lousing tool and shampoo ever invented, and in his hands he balanced two cups of steaming coffee, teetering atop boxes of donuts. “Okay, everybody, we’re all taking turns eating donuts and getting our hair brushed with fancy new combs!” The children squealed with glee and tackled him, as if this was the Best Way to Start a Vacation Ever. “A lice party and donuts, a lice party and donuts!” they sang.

Tears threatened again, but now a different kind.

I watched in awe as my laughing husband paraded across the hotel room, holding donut boxes aloft. Two children swung from his elbows; another clung to his ankle, her bug-infested head covered in a shower cap; the baby clapped and cooed at him from the floor.

In fourteen years of marriage, I had never been more in love with my husband than I was in that moment.

Maybe later that week, if we were no longer a threat to society, we might break our quarantine to swim and search for shark teeth and brave the local aquarium—but I knew that I had already experienced my favorite vacation memory. Eventually I might take some pictures to memorialize sandy baby toes and happy sunburned kids . . . but this was the picture I’d always treasure.

This, I thought, is love. This is family. This is real. I have married a man who can take pinkeye and lice on vacation, and turn it into a party . . . now that’s a good man. That’s a good life. And this might just be the best vacation ever.


About the Author

Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Laing Thompson writes novels for teens, and blogs about the perils and joys of baby wrangling, tantrum taming, and giggle collecting at . She is always tired, but it’s mostly the good kind.

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