Life is absurd. And life is precious. Family is a lot of both.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Carry On Baggage

When our fifth child was just four months old we flew our entire family from our home in Germany to Ireland. It was a sleep-deprived decision, but we knew it was likely our only chance to see that beautiful country and it still ranks among our favorite trips ever. This in spite of the fact that we took along more little creatures than just our children.

It began on the plane ride when Baby Girl started scratching her head. A lot. By the end of the two-hour flight I'd lost count of how many times her chubby 2-year-old fingers had raked through her beautiful blonde curls. But it was enough times for my mother instinct to kick in and a hot, sinking feeling to take hold. My husband and our traveling companions had noticed nothing, and I was not about to announce anything to anyone until I knew for sure.

In the craziness of deplaning, gathering luggage, and attempting to fit us and our stuff into a mini-car, I forgot all about it. Until we headed out for lunch and Baby Girl was scratching like crazy. As we stood in the bright sunshine deciding where to head first, I casually parted her locks and peered down. HOLY LEPRECHAUNS! Her head was crawling with lice.

I wanted to throw up. I wanted to run. I wanted to disown this infected little girl. Of all the children we'd had in all the schools over all the years, we'd never done lice. I mean, really, don't only bad parents have licey children? I know logically that lice do not signal an unclean home, an uneducated family, or neglectful behaviors. But there anything ickier?

I cleared my throat and told my husband the bad news. He gaped at me. As if I thought this would be a funny joke to pull on everyone. "I'm not kidding," I told him. "And I think I'm going to be sick."

My problem-solving husband sized up the situation and proclaimed, "Well, I guess we'll have to shave her head." It was now my turn to gape.

"Shave her head?!" I yelped. And then I actually considered it for a few long seconds. But first things first, we had to tell our friends and the owner of our rented cottages.

Our friends had a family sort of the opposite of ours. The kind of family with two quiet children, ironed clothing and a spotless car. I was surprised they'd even wanted to travel with our circus. And I was pretty sure they'd regret it instantly when we told them our circus had lice. As for the cottage owner, I had visions of being kicked out and trying to find an Irish homeless shelter for the week.

Our friends took the news pretty well and the lovely owner informed us cheerfully that lice are a common problem in Ireland and she had to treat her own kids several times a year. She even had lice combs we could borrow. We smiled weakly and inquired where we could purchase treatment. She directed us to a large supermarket and the dads left to find what we needed. I stayed back doing my best to keep an itchy toddler away from everyone and off of anything upholstered.

The men soon returned with a few boxes they had chosen from an entire aisle devoted to lice treatment (lucky for us the Irish may have no snakes, but they are prepared for blood-sucking parasites). We broke the news to the other kids and proceeded to treat everyone except the bald-headed baby and the close-cropped Army guys. The first half of our pictures from that trip show plastered heads and towel-draped shoulders while we waited for the noxious stuff to do its job. The box said in order to be extra cautious the subject could sleep in the gunk and wait until morning to rinse. We were extra cautious.

It was pretty strong-smelling stuff and we were happy to wash all that hair, throw open the windows and get to seeing the sights. I, of course, spent most of the trip peering at Baby Girl's head instead of at the cliffs and castles and clover. It was an irresistible obsession. Those creepy crawlies were my worst nightmare made real. I shuddered every time I thought of them, and was delighted at how thoroughly the treatment rid our little one of any trace. Her pretty head was squeaky pink and clean.

It was after we returned home that I discovered the treatment's active ingredient was a chemical long banned in the United States.

In hindsight, shaving the child's head might have been the way to go. Because if having lice in the first place is not a sign of bad parenting, I'm pretty sure choosing a treatment that could potentially poison the whole group just might be.

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