The day I learned fear

There’s a scream that if you hear it, you’ll never forget it. Afraid that whatever caused it may be coming for you. I was a child when I heard a scream like that and it paralyzed me. Pain and terror sounded across our small corner of the world like a war-time siren that caused me to hush breathing. I can’t describe it. The best I can do is tell you what I remember, as close as I can.

It was a typical Sunday. Daddy was home, the only day of the week we usually saw him for more than an hour or so, and we had company. It was sunny and bright, a beautiful day. We were on the patio behind our house in Hardy, Kentucky. A couple and their young son visiting.

I don’t remember if they were staying for dinner, I really don’t remember them much at all. People came and went when I was growing up and it’s difficult to put faces and families together sometimes. Yet, I loved our revolving door of company. This day, I remember my mom and dad and the other couple talking and laughing, while I listened. I remember their young son tagging along after my brother and both boys avoiding me. No problem. I was a couple of years older and enjoyed the adults.

The boy was younger than my brother Ric (Ricky) by a year or so, I’d guess. Probably no more than three-years-old. The two had wandered up the hillside behind the house, not out of sight, probably looking for rocks and stuff, as boys sometimes do. No one paid much attention. Dad had cleared and planted much of the hill and we considered it part of our yard. Ricky and I were always roaming that mountain.

The two youngsters, I suspect, were headed back down and Ricky must’ve been in front, the younger boy perhaps dawdling behind. The turn of events that began this nightmare unfolded in less time than it took to write this sentence, in the time it takes to skim a rock across a lake. It lasted over a period of probably ten or fifteen minutes. Yet, even in my remembrance, it feels like hours. That ordinary, peaceful day that turned into tragedy.

If the boy fell, no one saw it, we only guessed it much later. Our first attention to him was the scream. We turned and watched him upright, trying to fight something off, watched him fall to the ground his arms flailing, his little legs kicking. He tried to get up, screaming, nightmarish cries, like something horrible had a hold on him. I can’t remember where Ricky was, but our dad and his dad were already racing up the mountain.

Adults can process things faster than children and maybe from their taller perspective they could just see better. But, the two men seemed to know what was happening. By the time they reached him, the boy had given up the fight to his invisible antagonists.

My dad scooped him up, his tiny arms now mostly limp. About halfway down the mountain I heard the buzzing, saw the halo of yellow jackets swarming. They were mostly on the boy, moving in that vibrating stop and go motion that makes them seem more animated than real. But, they were on the men too. Angry bees still fighting for their ground nest the youngster had obviously fallen or stepped into. The women were now screaming, concern for the boy, not because yellow jackets invaded.

Someone yelled, “Turn on the shower,” as the men dashed across the hilly slope and toward the patio. Mother ran into the house as the boy’s mother cried through terrified tears. I think I was crying too.

The adults rushed into the house and Ricky and I fell in behind them, but yellow jackets buzzed here and there and we stopped at the kitchen hallway. We could hear the running water, hear his mother crying, hear the men loudly talking.

Scared and curious, I finally made my way down the hall and peered into the bathroom. The two dads stood fully-clothed in the tub, shower water drenching them all, picking bees off the boy. Swearing occasionally. The boy’s mother talked to him, adding her tears to the cascading water as she reached through the downpour to pet him. Dead bees floated and live bees tussled in the tub and on the puddle-flooded floor where the open shower water splashed as the men struggled to save innocence from anger. And where bees still flew about. The men were as soaked as the boy. Their eyes as determined and stunned as they were fearful.

Until that day, I’d never seen terror in my father’s eyes, never heard fear in his voice. Until that day, I’d never felt such fear. Mother, I think, was on the telephone to the hospital.

I don’t remember hearing the boy make another sound. I just remember the men dripping as they ran through the hallway and kitchen as though a deadline was imminent. The boy’s dad holding him to his chest. The two men and the boy, along with his mother, then got into the car and peeled out of the driveway.

Mostly, for us, it was over.

Mother was left to deal with Ricky and me, her two traumatized children, a house strewn with water, and full of dead and angry yellow jackets.

How fast things can change.

I don’t remember praying that awful day. My brain, I think, stopped. Stunned. I’d like to think I’d asked Jesus to comfort and heal the boy. A tiny prayer is all I could’ve mustered at about six or so years of age in that state.

When Dad came home later that night, he had redness and swelling, but refused comfort or care. Doctors were with the boy, he assured us, his voice quavering. They thought he’d be alright. I’m pretty sure that last part was for Ricky and me. Apparently, there was a critical period and he wasn’t past that yet. When he passed it, he’d be out of the woods, a terrible analogy.

That very night, Daddy sped up that hill with a wide, determined stride, clenching a can of kerosene. I cried, not wanting him to go, afraid he’d be attacked. But he went. Poured toxic oil straight down into the yellow jacket’s nest. He didn’t say much afterwards, but he was visibly shaken, and I’m pretty sure he cursed a few bees.

I know my parents prayed for the boy because that’s what we did. Not outwardly for my dad, but my mother and her mother next door. I feel sure they prayed for my brother and me, too, so thankful we’d been spared.

After that day, I changed. Probably forever. Certainly, the way I looked at that mountain was altered. Until then, I’d had no reverence for it or the critters it might hold. Until then, I was pretty much fearless.

Yet, God was with us. As the events unfolded that tragic day, they seemed choreographed. Everyone had a purpose and role, except for Ricky and me. Certainly, we saw the power and love of God revealed. Two dads putting aside fear, plucking the boy from atop a yellow jacket’s nest, having wisdom about choices, being repeatedly stung, yet not flinching or complaining. Fearless to my way of thinking. Heroic.

I’m fuzzy on the part that came after that day, but here’s my vague recollection: Mother, I think, called daily to check on the boy, even as we went about our everyday routine. And then one day, he was okay. He’d survived. We were thrilled. He was “as good as new” she said, or some such cliché Mother’s use to reassure children.

All was right in my world again, except that I’d learned fear. Learned that a footstep could compromise my family. That my playground wasn’t quite safe. That parents can’t always protect children. That children can die . . . Fear teaches many things.

As I’ve aged, I’ve put that fear to both good and bad use. Certainly, there’s a healthy fear–that keeps us from engaging in certain behaviors, that alerts us to screams. However, for me, the comment that most helped put fear into perspective was spoken by Franklin D. Roosevelt at the start of World War II. He said: “There is nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

Living is dangerous. Ask the person with a broken leg or a broken heart. Makes no difference.

Some people hide from life, addicted to  comfort. Afraid of failure, of losing a position, of emotional pain, of bees. They fear the reality and the philosophy of life and living and God. They’re tuned into the “What about me” and “I deserve what I want” mantra that plays in every theatre and venue across our nation.

The Lord knows I’m a prime offender. Some of my excuses: My fibromyalgia might flair, I’m too old, I can’t travel that far, people are cruel. What if I fail? “Do not lose heart,” St. Paul says in 2nd Corinthians, “even though the outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.”

Sure, I could step into a yellow jacket’s nest, yet if I don’t take that chance, I’ll never play on the mountain. And I’m not ready to quit hunting wild flowers and dancing in the rain, though I act it at times.

In 2nd Timothy we read, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Let’s take God at His word! No, He doesn’t protect us from all the world’s ills, but He is there with earthly and heavenly angels, gathering us to Himself. Just like He did with that little boy. Never leaving or forsaking, never putting more on us than we can bear. He gives us what we need to show the dedication, obedience, and fearlessness of His Son. Sometimes in the worst of circumstances.

I want to be a person who runs to help.

As Christians, our life is not our own. It was bought with a price. We are God’s change agents in this world. Let’s get out of our recliners and start acting like we believe His Word and His promises. 1st John states: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love cast out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” Perhaps, more than at any time in history, God needs us to put fear aside, to show the world the love, the passion, the hands of Jesus Christ.

I only have one life, and I’ve seen how fast it can end. In church we sing, “When we all get to Heaven what a day of rejoicing that will be,” and then wail when it’s our turn to go. Living isn’t just about the here and now. It isn’t so much about yellow jackets or even heartbreak. I know this sounds harsh. But, it’s about preparing our hearts for eternity. A very long time compared to this life.

We are spiritual, ever-lasting beings, not made for this world, but for the world to come. If we really believed God’s Word, wouldn’t we be more forgiving, more giving of our time, our money, and our heart? We may not know what tomorrow holds, but we know who holds tomorrow. It was heart-wrenching watching that little boy suffer the yellow jacket’s stings, but, oh, how much worse the tragedy, if he stopped climbing mountains.