Skylah, my daughter, (8 years old) and I arrived in Southern Spain in late September of 2017. The Journey getting here was preceded by a season of three deaths in my family, a serious health scare with my daughter, and my own deep suffering around this profoundly scary moment.
I was wrapped in the tightest internal fetal position, that only those who have experienced this level of fear, powerlessness, and grief can truly relate to. I had given myself permission during this time to go a little crazy, be angry, and cry my eyes out for days and nights.
My partner who had walked through all of this with me remained steady as a rock while simultaneously managing his own grief, fear, and stress of not only these events of the summer, but also being in his final year in grad school on the east coast. We have/had been spending many months apart from each other at a time, so that he could take this amazing opportunity at the school of his choice, and the reality of it, though amazing had some serious challenges. The conditions were ripe for total implosion.
And yet this is not a story about break down.
In becoming a mom one of my biggest dreams and desires in parenting was to be able to show my child the world. I had traveled extensively from my late teens through my twenties and being able to give my human creation the experience of the world was a high ideal on my list of what her childhood should include.
The idea to take a couple months to travel sprang from the realization that my commitment to leaving the country once a year had been derailed in becoming a parent, running a business, and general ideas of what being a “responsible” adult and parent looked like.
Nevertheless, life had started to get really hectic in all of its busyness.
My daughter had started first grade, which meant that instead of being to school at 11:30 in the morning, we were now out the door by 7:30am. It was a shock to both of our non- morning people personalities and there were many tearful mornings from both of us. I was mourning the loss of the days of waking up slowly and feeling into the day, drinking coffee, and staring at nothing. Indeed, those days were gone. “Hurry!” was our new mantra, and she hated it, and frankly so did I.
During this period, however, I had been listening to a podcast called “Tangentially Speaking” where a guy (Dr. Christopher Ryan) rants about all things interesting, intellectual, and political… while living in SPAIN. Seed planted.
I put the travel plan into action nine months before it happened by first boldly telling my friends and family that we were taking this trip. The responses to my announcement were all positive from even my toughest critics. However, because of the tragic events that had taken place in my family during the summer, the trip was on-and-off the table multiple times. The final decision to go came after the approval from an orthopedic specialist that my daughter’s health was stable and we could indeed travel. [GIANT EXHALE].
The plan was to take a cheap flight to Paris where we would spend a week. Then a whole month in Southern Spain. A stop in London, on the way back and then a week in New haven CT to reunite with my partner, and see the fall colors on the east coast.
Bags were packed. Passports and Euros ready. We took flight.
Our trip began with Skylah’s 8th birthday at the Eiffel tower. Paris was full of all things delightful and we walked miles and miles every day, enjoying as many baguettes and as much cheese as a mother and daughter could. My daughter has a most adventurous spirit, and we made amazing travel partners journeying into the unknown streets and cafes, and even dancing in the Paris rain one evening.
On our last night in Paris, Skylah had fallen asleep early as we had to be to the airport for a 6am flight the next morning. I was in my bed across the way, and what I noticed caused me to do a deep and frantic dive into worry and upset. She was itching her head… She was itching her head, in her sleep… Repeatedly. My skin crawling and my stomach beginning to tangle into a knot of anxiety, and my own head beginning to itch, I knew what was happening without even looking.
This was not the first time we had dealt with these microscopic beasts, but it was the first time that I would be given the task of removing them. I had, in the couple of times we had dealt with this, contracted this task out to the professionals paying nearly 100$ an hour to get make it go away. Powerlessness was pulsing through my veins.
Our flight from Paris to Malaga was uneventful, and we found tickets and the bus to Granada without any trouble. As we situated ourselves on the bus for the two-hour trek, I leaned over and did a double take on Skylah’s head. To my horror I could actually see the creatures crawling around. My own heads itchiness seemed to have increased as well and while on the bus ride I found two dead little bugs under my fingernails, as I had been mercilessly scratching my head. My skin was crawling. The view from the bus windows was a desert landscape, not my preferred scenic view and the grayness from the clouds was casting a certain kind of emotion that was a concoction of impending doom, and total exhaustion.
Our sweet Spanish host welcomed us into her home and invited us to have lunch with her once we were settled in our room. Her home, a simple three story Spanish Villa with terraces on every level had views of the Alhambra, and was located in the Albayzin, which is the oldest part of the city. The streets were filled with cobblestones and the passages to narrow for most cars. Our room was surrounded with shuttered windows which opened up to views of Arabic fortresses and gentle breezes. Our balcony was large enough to host a mattress with room to spare, and we took advantage of this space and slept outside many nights.
But I digress, the lice was a serious situation. There was the obvious need for discretion since I was bringing a bug infestation into our hosts home. Not that Skylah would have offered this information up (she was mortified by the situation), but this was not something one advertised upon arrival when one had nowhere else to stay and one was traveling solo in a foreign land with her young daughter. There was also the obstacle of the language barrier and my embarrassing inept ability to speak Spanish. I knew how to ask which way was north, and where is the bathroom, but neither of those things had anything to do with the removal of lice.
I did know I would need a lice removal comb which I had because it just so happened to already have been in my toiletries bag. I also knew I would need a spray bottle and some cheap conditioner to create a potion to spray on our heads so that the comb would move through the hairs on our head easily.
Conchi, our 73-year-old host, former activist turned sweet grandma, served us a simple lunch of brown rice, stir fried veggies, and tea, and then directed us towards the plaza where there was a square of shops. This would be our markets, butcher, and bakery for the next month along with a coffee shop and some other bars and restaurants.
Plaza Larga was just a couple of short blocks away and was filled with a bustle of tourism, locals, and street artists dancing, singing, and playing instruments. The cobblestones were tricky under our feet and the cigarette smoke billowed through the long corridors of buildings connected to the square. There were always patrons enjoying beer and sangria and small plates of food. Every day the shops and outdoor market closed down between 2-4.
Skylah and I arrived just as everything was reopening, with the intention of getting some snacks, food, coffee, tea and some fruit for breakfast along with our stealth mission of supplies for the removal of our louse infested hair. The conditioner was easy to find, but the spray bottle was an issue as I didn’t know where to find the item, and I didn’t know how to ask for it.
We found what looked like a hardware store. Don’t get me wrong this was no Home Depot or even your local small hardware store. This was a small shop with a counter in front with some screw drivers and hammers hanging from a cork board display.
“Hola” … Face turning red … “Agua” and then my hand making a motion as though I’m shooting something and my mouth making a noise that’s supposed to sound like spraying water. Totally demoralizing. Skylah is watching me giggling and thoroughly enjoying the show. She still now even several months later will say “Hey mom” and then mimic me trying to communicate I need a water bottle.
So I do this hand movement and mouth spraying sound a few times a little more vigorously with each try and then I see the man behind the counter’s eyes light up with recognition. Thank god. He shows me a couple of spray bottles and I celebrate and give him a couple of Euros.
We arrive back to the house. I am exhausted from not sleeping the night before, a long day of travel, and knowing I might have several hours of combing bugs out of our cabezas. Skylah and I take a shower, and prepare for the ritual of bug removal. There is a chair for her to sit in. A small table next to her which holds our combing potion, our lice comb, another comb, a brush, and a small bowl of clean water. Surrounding the chair and small table is a lamp to spotlight her head and I also have a head lamp on. I am not messing around.
Historically my daughter has not enjoyed having her hair combed. She like me, is tender headed, and brushing her hair has always been a point of contention. As she has gotten older and had the skills to brush her own hair I don’t push it and am respectful of her hair and head boundaries. This situation is of course, a change in that arrangement, as I am now at war with the beings who are using her head as a nest and place to procreate. She is understandably not happy with this change.
“Don’t Hurt me!” she cries out before I have even started to do the initial brush through of her hair. This is going to be a long night.
After preparing her hair by first brushing it, then lathering her head in conditioner, I pull the lice com through and on my first dip into the clean water in the small bowl I see four live little bugs struggling for their life. I am simultaneously grossed out and deeply satisfied. My desire to conquer has been awoken and I’ve got plenty of ammunition and a lifetime of bottled up anger. The lice have become representative of powerlessness, frustrations, the cruelty of time and not having enough of it, and everything else that has brought me angst, pain, and grief over the summer. With each pull through and seeing these little being destroyed I become more committed.
The eradication of these blood suckers could not be done in one night. After combing through her head thoroughly, it was clear this was going to be an ongoing job. I brushed through my own hair, and after not finding any eggs or bugs, we tucked ourselves in to bed and slept a long deep sleep.
We filled our warm Spanish days with long walks, read books to each other and to ourselves, practiced “acro” yoga, took Spanish classes, and worked on schoolwork. We explored every inch of Granada's Arabic and Moroccan Motif, drinking fresh mint tea in Moroccan cafe's. Skylah had come up with a game, and while on our adventures around town we pretended we were spies and someone was looking for us. This brought about endless amounts of entertainment and we found many places to hide out. Each day though, we returned to the ritual of brushing Skylah’s hair and removing whatever being would show itself on the lice comb. Over some time, these little bugs stopped being such a threat to me. I began to have a friendly inner voice with them and even began talking to them. Skylah began to sing songs to the little bugs and we both were transformed by what these little beings had to teach us. There was a kind of peace to this ritual that came from actually having the time to brush my daughter’s hair for an hour every day. She began to like it too. I was getting to be her mom, and she was feeling nurtured by our ritual.
I remember the last bug I found on her head. I remember it because I knew it was the last bug I would find. I had come to understand the life span and mating rituals of these little guys so well that I knew when I had found the last one. It happened just a few days before we left Spain, and although I was celebratory and oh so triumphant my feelings of elation were accompanied with a sweet sadness. Spending an hour every day hunting for lice and brushing my daughters hair had come to be something I enjoyed and it now represented the slowing down of time.
As I reflect on these unacceptable things that took place in my life over the summer I know I am a different person. The loss of my Father, Stepmom, and Grandfather, my daughters health scare and the bug infestation changed me. These events have shown me where my power lies and where I am so utterly powerless.
Acceptance of the unacceptable does not flow easily for most of us humans. It’s a process, an act of willingness to actually feel uncomfortable feelings, to cry and rage with anger in a safe container that can hold us, and wisdom to know where and when to have action. Learning how to slow down to brush my daughter’s hair in a way that felt good to her, whilst befriending the creatures inhabiting her hair was a crucial part of this education, and ultimately one of the treasured gifts of this time away.
It’s now a gorgeous Sunday in late January. We returned from our two months of travel in November, and have had one of the sweetest holiday seasons I have known filled with dear friends and family. Through the help of my partner and loved ones, my therapist, and coach I am healing and slowly moving through the grief around the losses of my loved ones. That tight inner fetal position that I was wrapped in has softened. Time and self-care has allowed my psyche to remember that not everything is scary not even a head full of lice.
There is a sweetness and deep intimacy that has been created between my daughter, my partner, and I as a result of walking through such hard times. My daughter every now and then will come to me in a quiet moment, since we have returned from our trip, and ask me to brush her hair. I’m reminded that nothing could be more important than stopping what I’m doing, to do just that.