On Pinkeye, Lice, and Love
“Mommy, my eye itches!”
The whiny voice came from the back of our minivan. We were trundling slowly down back roads, halfway to our vacation destination, loaded down with so many towels and flotation devices and industrial-sized bottles of sunscreen that the bottom of our van nearly scraped the highway.
“I’m sorry, Sweetie,” I said, not turning around. “Just close it and let it cry a little. Maybe you have an eyelash in there.” From the driver’s seat, my husband, Kevin (a.k.a. Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome), gave his silent nod of approval, renewing our secret pact: Keep it moving, stop for nothing. If we show even a moment’s weakness on road trips, then our four kids take turns declaring a bathroom or medical emergency every fifteen minutes.
“No, Mommy, it itches and burns!” The last word warbled dangerously close to a wail.
I plastered on a patient expression and twisted around in my seat. After a long search, I found my seven-year-old daughter’s eyes peeking out from behind a purple suitcase and three Pillow Pets. Her left eye was glowing red, Terminator-style. She hadn’t looked like that when we left the house.
“Oh,” I said. “Um.”
Kevin, who after 14 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, my mood plummeting.
And in the blink of a crusty pink eye, poof went 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. My mind flooded with words like miserable and contagious and quarantine.
“We need to stop now,” I said. “Like, before we even get there and she contaminates the hotel room. We need to get her on those eye drop thingies, and bathe her in bleach, and wrap cellophane around her hands so she doesn’t scratch her eyes or touch anyone, and then maybe—just maybe—no one else will get it, and we can salvage some sort of family vacation.”
“Um . . .” Now it was Kevin’s turn for the meaningful um. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
Out came the smartphone. I typed in, “Urgent Care in the Middle of Nowhere,” and we found our target.
Detour to Urgent Care underway.
At the Urgent Care in Podunk-ville, North Carolina, Kevin and I kicked into let’s-do-this-thing mode. We both agreed that because Kevin is taller and capable of being both charming 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. Without complaint, I accepted the painful role of Lucky Parent Who Gets to Entertain Three Bored Kids in the Overloaded Minivan.
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After eighteen rounds of Categories and Eye Spy (oh, the irony), Kevin and our daughter climbed back into the van, prescription in hand.
“And now, let the Thompson Family Vacation begin,” said Kevin, cranking the engine. He put his hand up, inviting me to give him a high-five. “If we all wash our hands, maybe none of us will get it.” His optimism was infectious. The kids cheered and I laughed. Kevin is right, I thought. I am overreacting. After all, it could be worse. At least it’s not a stomach bug.
We spent the afternoon in a flurry of unpacking and happy-dancing, accompanied by the kids’ giggly, giddy soundtrack. We were on vacation! Who cared if one kid had Pinkeye? Pinkeye, Schmink Eye! Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome and I even convinced the kids to go to bed early, with the promise that if they got extra sleep tonight, they’d swim better and have more fun in the morning.
We had just snuggled up on the couch, wine glasses in hand, when Little Miss Pinkeye wandered out in her nightie.
“My head itches,” she said.
“Honey, we already know your eye itches. The medicine should help it feel better soon,” I said. “Please go back to bed.”
“No. My head itches. My hair. Like, really, really bad.” She demonstrated by frantically clawing at her scalp.
A low-level alarm started pulsing in my head. No. Please, God, no. No no 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.
She scratched her head some more.
I sat frozen. Maybe if I close my eyes, it will all go away. She will go back to bed and the Lice Fairies will come rescue us, and we’ll forget we ever had this conversation. And we can still have our Thompson Family Vacation.
My daughter screeched and collapsed in a writhing heap on the carpet. My alarm leapt from low-level to imminent nuclear threat.
I began to negotiate with God. I’m sorry I complained about Pinkeye. 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 very clear that the bugs weren’t in her pants.
Casting Kevin my best save-me-from-the-firing-squad look, I handed him my wine glass and summoned courage from some mysterious inner maternal spring. I ushered my squirming daughter into the kitchen, under the fluorescent lights.
“Um,” I said.
“No,” Kevin said. “Please, no.” He was still sitting where I’d left him on the couch, clutching our two wineglasses in his fists—preacher or not, he was eyeing both glasses with a dangerous gleam in his eye. “Don’t say it.”
“Okay. But you’d better come look.”
The horror etched on Kevin’s face confirmed my diagnosis.
All reason abandoned me. I started hyperventilating. “I did this,” I moaned, “it’s my fault. I’ve been so terrified of lice that the bugs heard me, and they targeted us and 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 about curses and how my fear of lice must have caused the bugs to spontaneously generate on her head and possibly on mine, Kevin started riffling through the hotel kitchenette, searching for a paper bag for me to breathe in. He handed me the bag, 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 finally started breathing normally again, we debated strategy. We decided there was no use staying up all night de-lousing an exhausted child. The bugs would still be there in her hair when we all woke up in the morning, plus a few cute new baby lice. We might as well get some sleep. Kevin, who has the blessed gift of compartmentalizing his life and “letting tomorrow worry about itself,” snored blissfully all night. I tossed and turned and itched and scratched my way through lice-haunted dreams.
As is their custom, our kids woke us up at the crack of no-one-except-night-nurses-should-be-awake-right-now. While I stumbled toward the coffee maker and cereal, Kevin grabbed the car keys. “I’ll go buy the lice stuff,” he said. I tried not to cry.
Half an hour later, he made a dramatic reentrance, his baritone voice booming. “All right, all right, 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 gel and shampoo ever invented (none of which work, by the way), 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 these 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.
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Elizabeth works from home as a writer, editor, diaper changer, baby snuggler, laundry slayer, not-so-gourmet chef, kid chauffeur, floor mopper, dog groomer, and tantrum tamer. She is always tired, but it's mostly the good kind.