Vulnerability, contagion, and children
On the Monday morning of the week during which cases of COVID-19 began to multiply in earnest across the East Coast of the United States, I found a louse in my daughter’s hair. I had not yet poured my coffee; I was in my pajamas. Both my day and my week were as yet neonatal, unformed. By noon my daughter, who is almost seven, announced that I had pulled eighty-seven lice from her head. I do not think her counting was careful, but it is indisputable that there were many, many bugs. The literature on head lice refers to this as a “neglected infestation.”
There was an epidemic in her school, but the administration had failed to notify families. On the Saturday before we found the louse, my daughter told me her head was itchy. “It’s the pool chlorine,” I told her, with misleading motherly certainty. “We have to wash your hair better after swim lessons. We have to find you a good conditioner.” I placed the blame squarely on “we.” “We,” like the passive voice, implicates no one in particular. I had neglected to do anything helpful. I didn’t know that insects lurked on her scalp, feeding off her blood.
I was fretting about the virus inching closer by the minute from both directions: worming its way through the continental European populace and along the jagged line of the West Coast. I had already filled a large Tupperware bin with lentils and Annie’s Mac n Cheese and dried mangos—the pantry staples of the bourgeoisie, not a tinned vegetable in sight. In early February, when the disease still seemed very far away, I had read that children’s bodies bore the virus well. I had breathed out my fear on behalf of other, far away parents; I didn’t realize then that I would be implicated in this relative good news. But now, weeks later, I was worried about my community—the old, the vulnerable—because scientists and public health experts said to be. Also, these same scientists noted that not enough people were worried, and I like to be in the minority. I called my aging, immunosuppressed parents and asked them to hole up in the woods and allow my sister to buy them groceries. Anxiety—and titillation—were growing inside me: this was strange, and different. It was frightening and interesting.
The lice were not interesting. They were a logistical nightmare.
My husband had to teach a morning class. The pharmacy, which is across the street from the plagued school, was nearly out of lice products; only a few dusty and scuffed off-brand packages remained. (The hand sanitizer and soap were already long gone.) The options were undesirable, but I returned to my family with a chemical plan in hand.
Back home, my daughter shed her pajamas recklessly, with no respect for best lice-eradication practices; she lolled on the couch cushions. My toddler could not abide the attention I was lavishing upon his older sister’s head. He was bored by the minuscule parameters offered by the pink bathroom walls. He whined, he moaned. He wanted me to comb his hair, to douse him with the poisonous spray that did not, in fact, kill the lice instantly, as advertised—no, they simply waded through it across her scalp! In desperation I went to the attic and produced a bag of giant cardboard building blocks and a honking rubber pig. The toddler did not care for either. After an hour, during which I filled the toilet bowl with dozens of lice to the sound of his wails, I came to my senses and put on the television. He sat for the rest of the morning in a dull torpor as I worked my way through strands of my daughter’s dark blonde hair and pulled out bug after bug after godforsaken bug.
There was, of course, a lone louse on him, so he got the nit comb and the spray after all, as requested. As it turned out, he didn’t care for that, either.
There were seven nits on the nape of my own neck. My husband pulled them off my hair in a kind of tender, unerotic act of care that felt like a harbinger of marriage’s best-case endgame.
The lice filled me with dread. I could not shake the image of my daughter’s head as it wriggled with bugs. I have consumed a lot of horror movies and grisly thrillers about murder, more than you might expect of a squeamish person. This genre taught me that bodies covered in bugs are typically dead. That lesson clung to me like a nit, even as I sat in the sun of my bathroom window and held my daughter’s warm, alive head in my hands.
Frantically navigating the lice chores—laundry, vacuuming, combing—I felt miserable and afraid. Lice do not kill you, nor do they make you sick. Her head was covered in bites and scabs, and her pillow was flecked with blood, but these bugs could do her no real harm. I was afraid, however, that they would never leave. I was afraid that I had failed her.
My daughter missed school that Monday. She spent the afternoon wearing a shower cap over a head doused in fairly high-quality olive oil. It was unseasonably warm and she cavorted on the porch, alongside the toddler who was likewise wearing a “silly hat!!!”
“We have lice!” she announced to the neighbors. (I could not help wishing that I had been offered the same courtesy—a piercing announcement—by her school.) A few minutes later another set of neighbors ambled past: universities and offices were open, coffee shops were selling coffee. “We have lice!” she told them, too. They stopped to commiserate, but kept their distance. Who wants lice?
By Friday her school was closing to quell the spread of coronavirus. She returned home with packet after packet of dull worksheets. “I will be homeschooled now,” she announced. I noted her use of the passive voice. Our agency was removed from the situation.
That Monday, after I removed every bug from her head, I began in on the eggs, but there were so many that I could not win. Don’t let the bugs keep you up, my older and wiser sister advised via text. Each night that week, as it became more apparent that life was going to unravel in huge and frightening ways, my husband and I took turns pulling glistening nits from my daughter’s hair, dragging them with our fingernails along the strands upon which they had made their home. At first she was agreeable and accommodating, vacuuming the sofa after a nit-picking session, reveling in hours of television and the French braids that I was finally mastering, after years of requests. But as the week wore on her goodwill thinned and she wept.
My expertise in contagion grew in inverse relation to her patience: lice live off a head for not much more than twenty-four hours. The coronavirus survives on plastic for up to three days; its life on a wooden surface is shorter. Lice do not fly, but they crawl speedily. The coronavirus’s incubation period is two weeks—unless it isn’t; experts disagree. Nits alone do not indicate an infestation, because not all nits will hatch. I considered how long it takes for a nit to hatch into a louse (seven to ten days), and how long it takes for COVID-19 to replicate and expand and fill someone’s body with discomfort, misery, and then, perhaps, death (four days to several weeks).
The school closure will kill the lice. The children have carried the bugs and their eggs home, where they are almost certainly passing them back and forth between their siblings; but ultimately an adult in each household will vanquish the family infestation, pulling the final nit from the last strand of hair. This complete triumph would be impossible if the children continued to lean together over Ivy & Bean inside their brightly lit classroom, to roll like puppies on the spongy surface of the playground.
But where nits are small and countable, a particle of coronavirus is microscopic and nebulous: the schools darken and lock up, but still the virus wafts forward, infinitely for all we know, until perhaps something stops it. We hope.
On Thursday, the night before the schools closed, the bugs were back: only two, but they were crushing. I felt as if I were losing my kid to them, that they had rendered her seedy and contagious and un-huggable.
I was, by this time, angry that the schools had not already shuttered. But I was not worried that she or the toddler would become ill from COVID-19. I was not worried that they would die. I was afraid for my parents. I felt haunted when I watched our elderly neighbors drink their coffee on their front steps, inspecting their daffodils with proprietary pride. But I knew that, in the grand scheme of things, my children were safe. I took solace in the numbers.
On Thursday, however, as I watched the second round of lice wriggle under the flashlight of my cell phone, in the warm, low light of the living room, I felt newly afraid.
It was, I think, the repulsiveness—the fundamental wrongness—of the second generation of bugs on her head that somehow invited both the contemplation of her mortality, which is a path I try to avoid traversing, and the impossibility of stopping a plague. I had been so careful, and yet. The two bugs seemed to have arrived to remind me both of my daughter’s vulnerability, and the terrifying laws of contagion: I could do everything right—shampoo, comb, vacuum, wash and dry, braid, spray—and still the bugs could grow and multiply and skitter from head to head. It only took one live egg.
On Monday, my worry about COVID-19 had been gaseous and thin. It was vague and peppered with intrigue. What should I do? What will happen? How bad will this get?
But when the lice returned, my fear of the virus thickened, filled my throat. I still do not believe that it will kill my children, but the tiny, sand-colored bugs rendered visible the coronavirus’s ability to multiply with ease, in spite of our best efforts; what would I do if I feared that something so wily could truly harm her?
I have spent the last weeks in a state of uncertain caution:
Can I walk with a friend if we remain six feet apart? Should the children bike in the park? Should we get takeout? Should we open the post-box to mail this letter? Should I wash my hands again? Should we walk down the block to greet that friend who stands on the sidewalk? Should I wipe down my credit card after using it to buy groceries?
I am almost never sure that I have made the right decision: I could always have been more careful. I cleaned my wallet with rubbing alcohol after the grocery store, but I let the credit card fester. And I know that if my daughter’s warm, scabbed head were in mortal danger, I would have swabbed the card, my keys, everything—all without hesitation. I don’t wish that it had come for the children, this novel coronavirus. But would things be different if it had?
None of us know when or how this will end; how the failures, large and small, will destroy and rearrange lives. I can see kids scooting and skateboarding in the park outside my bedroom window. They look happy enough—schools are pretty tedious institutions, after all—but they may not fare so well when all is said and done. The virus looks as if it doesn’t kill the people whom we most sentimentalize, whose deaths we collectively find most unbearable. But that does not mean that anyone is safe.
My worry simmers. The element of titillation has seeped out of the pandemic: people near me sicken, and lose lifelines (income, access to others). A friend’s wife has a baby alone; partners are no longer allowed in the hospital. In the photos she holds both a newborn and an iPad, her smile concealed by a mask. My daughter looks over at my phone—we are together now, all day long—and I stuff the phone between the couch cushions: I do not want her to see this.
The lice are gone now, I think. They were terrible, but also fine; the logistical challenges that once seemed all consuming are already irrelevant—dwarfed, even, by new impossibilities. The bugs came and I killed them, but they left me with the nausea of seeing someone I love threatened by a random, predatory force.
Miranda Featherstone is a writer and social worker whose fiction has appeared in the Saint Ann’s Review. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.