Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bees and BandAids

One of my favorite dresses in second grade was a light cotton with blue flowers. It had a full skirt that would twirl around nicely without going up too high if I were in a twirly mood, and full sleeves loosely gathered at the elbow with elastic. Like most of my dresses, this one buttoned down the back. My mother had made it, and although she was an accomplished seamstress, she hadn’t gotten the neck quite right, so it gaped open slightly. And somehow, on a bright, windy April day, on the playground during lunch recess, a bee managed to fly down my dress and get caught in my sleeve.

I was generally a calm child who prided herself on being controlled. If that sounds as if I were exceptionally mature, I wasn’t---just self conscious and somewhat aloof. During recess I had been eyeing the bees. They tended to cluster near the swings where dandelion, clover, and other flowering weeds covered the ground. I was very careful not to step on or otherwise antagonize them, but I also didn’t totally avoid them, preferring to tell myself that they didn’t really scare me. I thought if I was afraid of them they would smell my fear and come after me in swarms.

So I dallied at the swings, waiting my turn, demurely twirling once in a while to feel the dance of cotton around my legs, when suddenly I felt a buzzing against my undershirt. I froze mid-twirl and stood very still, trying to will the bee not to exist. But the buzzing continued as the poor creature, who must by now have discovered it had not found its way into a giant exotic flower, began to buzz even louder as it made its way from my bodice to my sleeve.

After ten long seconds, I threw all caution and self-control to the wind and began to scream and cry and flail at myself, trying simultaneously to both kill the bee and set it free. Help came running in the form of minions of other second graders who began to scream with me when they discovered I had been attacked by a bee. “Bees!” they screamed. “Bees!” I could hardly point out that it was only the one bee since it felt like a dozen. Our shrill chorus seemed to go on forever, but it could only have been a minute before I caught sight of my teacher, Mrs. Barnes, lumbering toward me.

Mrs. Barnes, with her graying red curls that bounced off her glasses frames when she moved quickly, as she was doing now, whose feet filled her solid shoes and overflowed, just a little at the ankle, whose hands had wrinkles and big, brown spots on them like freckles, only different, was as divine to me now as the brightest angel I could imagine. I was engulfed as she pressed me to her ample bosom. Then, shielding me with her large body, she nimbly unbuttoned my dress, whipped it over my head, shook it out, and had it back on me and rebuttoned before I had time to stop crying.

My screams stopped immediately; I was so shocked at this public undressing. But no one else seemed to have noticed, so I clung to Mrs. Barnes, weeping quietly in what I hoped was a ladylike fashion while she escorted me to the nurse, Mrs. West. They examined me and found that I had indeed been stung on the upper arm. Amazingly, I hadn’t felt anything, but the terror of the bee itself had been so great that a mere bee sting was probably anti-climactic. I quieted in Mrs. West’s office, and Mrs. Barnes hurried off to class as the bell rang. Sipping water, I pressed a cold wash cloth to my face while Mrs. West put alcohol on the bee sting.

And then Mrs. West said, “Would you like a Band-Aid?” They were the words I didn’t even know I had been waiting for, but when she said them I had to fight the urge to grab the Band-Aid box and spill its contents as I searched for the perfect shape and size. “Yes, please.” I said, using my most polite and grown-up voice. And even though I had not felt the sting and the minute bleeding had stopped and the little itch that was left after the stinger had been removed was a fading memory, I breathed a sigh of relief as the adhesive bandage was placed on my arm. Even though I knew that when I removed it later it would painfully tear the tiny hairs of my arm, I felt healed.

I lost my fear of bees after several years, although I never was one to seek them out. I thought I had also lost my love for Band-Aids until a few months ago when I found myself sitting in a small room with a different nurse, waiting for a vaccination. A needle was involved, and that needle engendered some of the same feelings the bee had 50 years before. I didn’t cry or cause a scene, even though I wanted to, but I fretted a little as the nurse rubbed alcohol on my arm just before piercing my flesh.

Surprisingly, I barely felt the shot; in fact I complimented the nurse afterward on her gentle technique. She smiled, pleased at this, and dabbed my arm with a cotton ball. ÒI think you’re bleeding a bit,” she said. “Would you like a Band-Aid?”

“A Band-Aid?” I hesitated. Maybe I was too old for Band-Aids. But as I peered over my glasses I could see a tiny spot of blood that seemed to reappear as fast as the nurse could wipe it away. “Yes, please,” I said. “I’d like a Band-Aid.”

As I felt the adhesive stick to my skin, the trauma subsided. Something was holding me together; I had been patched up. Suddenly I understood that the healing power of a Band-Aid is not limited to children. It can be a  concrete manifestation of the knowledge that we will not break apart, that whatever happened is now over, that help has arrived. It is a badge that tells the world you are a survivor.

I left my Band-Aid on all that night, even after I had discovered that what I had thought was a bleeding needle hole was merely a freckle. My arm hurt, a side effect of this particular vaccine, and I couldn’t bear to expose my wound. Every time I moved, my arm would throb and I would wake for a few minutes. But the Band-Aid was still there and I would drop back off to sleep knowing I was still holding together.

Comfort comes in many forms: a homemade cookie, warm from the oven, the purr of a cat as he settles into your lap for some serious petting, the beauty of a bouquet of white roses in your favorite vase. And sometimes it’s as simple as a small adhesive strip with a soft spot in the middle.