While cockroaches are expected to outlive us all, head lice are the only creatures that would perish in a world without humans. This I learn from Ciara, the friendly Irish woman who is in my bathroom combing through my nine-year-old daughter, Annika’s, wet hair, while cheerfully dispensing information about the sesame-seed-sized animals that pay her bills.
“It’s kind of depressing, really.” Ciara adds with a wry smile.
I think about what this means as I watch her work. Could it be that while we humans think we are the center of the universe, the universe does not need us? Worse still, are human beings, with our careless consumption of natural resources, nuclear capability and pollution, a bigger scourge on the planet than any insect? It’s a sobering thought, and not one I expected to be pondering two hours after our return from a family ski trip on which we discovered that lice, and not the ski helmet, were responsible for Annika’s itchy head.
But this is not our first rodeo in Lice Town. That occurred in Sweden, also during a vacation, when both of our two daughters and I became hosts to the vile bugs. Naively, we thought that mineral oil-based lice shampoo and our daily swims in the North Sea would eradicate the little beasts. Not so, I learned. Combing and more combing is the only way to get rid of lice eggs, or nits, as they are called. And as for the drowning method, a louse can hold its breath underwater for at least two hours, so unless you have scuba gear and a couple tanks of oxygen, immersing yourself in water is useless.
Back home in San Francisco with several generations of squirmy, undocumented, Swedish insects living on each of our three heads, I sought advice from a fellow mom.
“Call Martina,” she advised, “she’ll come to your house and is worth every penny.”
The owner of Lice Patrol, Martina, like her associate, Ciara, is an Irish native and philosopher to boot. Demand for her services is high and appointments can be hard to come by. Fortunately, I was able to secure one with only days to spare before the first day of school. As I stood awaiting my turn under the comb, I proclaimed my hatred for lice and asked, in what was intended to be a rhetorical question, if there was any point to their existence.
“Well,” Martina said, “I reckon everything in this world has its purpose, lice included.”
While I assumed at first that she was joking, I could see from the thoughtful expression on Martina’s face that she was dead serious.
Now, two and a half years later, in my bathroom with our second bout of lice, I try to reconcile the wisdom imparted by Ciara with that of Martina. Perhaps, as Ciara suggested, humans are not as essential as we believe ourselves to be. Yet, as Martina pointed out, we must have some purpose, at the very least, to perpetuate lice. But what is the purpose of lice? This, I still cannot fathom.
Annika, who I have to chase around the kitchen with a brush most mornings to untangle her silky, blond hair, sits in quiet meditation on a swivel chair, while Ciara, in hospital scrubs and magnifying goggles, methodically sections off and rakes through her hair with a small metal comb called the Nit Free Terminator. Next to the sink are the tools of the lice trade: combs, spray bottles, hair clips and magnifying glasses, all neatly organized in a pink shower caddy, along with paper towels and a bowl of water. We watch in disgusted fascination as Ciara dips the comb into the bowl, releasing a myriad of mature bugs, nymphs and eggs caught in the tines.
An hour and a half and nearly two hundred dollars later, the entire family has been checked, treated and declared louse-free.
“Don’t forget to schedule a follow-up in five days,” Ciara says, packing up her shower caddy and swivel chair.
Since the tiniest eggs can escape the Terminator, Lice Patrol recommends a second treatment to catch any nymphs that hatch after the incubation period. Ciara tells us she will be in Mexico by then, so Martina will come for the follow-up. We chat briefly about her trip, thank her sincerely and wish her the best. A few minutes after she has gone, the realization hits me: lice provide jobs, jobs provide money, and money, though it may not always provide happiness, pays for a lot of nice things, like beach holidays in Mexico, for example. And that, in my unscientific opinion, is the meaning of lice.