Darlene Kuszyk likes waving at people — it makes her feel better.
The 68-year-old widow from Penn Hills doesn’t sleep much through the night. She takes anti-depressant medication and hasn’t gone to the gym as often as she’d like. She’s unable to volunteer at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium anymore, and she doesn’t see her friends often right now.
But every so often, she musters the courage to pull out an old costume she made years ago for a Halloween party. On those days, she stows it in her car and drives to an intersection where she knows she’ll be seen by a lot of people driving past. She parks the car and dons the costume, a face mask and sunglasses. She grabs her sign that reminds people to “Bee Safe” and stands at the intersection and waves.
And so for the next hour, Kuszyk becomes the Bee Lady – waving at passersby who also are living through a pandemic that has isolated, sickened and killed.
The smiles, waves and honks the Bee Lady receives make her smile.
“It cheers me up,” she said.
Kuszyk met her husband when she worked as a secretary at Westinghouse in Churchill. He was an engineer, the shy type who kept his head pointed toward the ground as he walked. She was a secretary. It took each of them a while to realize they had met their soul mate.
David Eckhardt and Kuszyk dated and then married during a trip to Las Vegas when she was 41. He was 49. Throughout their marriage, they traveled. He introduced her to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and its docent program for volunteers.
Every year, the docents threw a haunted house Halloween party for children and guests. Kuszyk would make sure to dress up with her husband, who also served as a docent. One year, she found a unique fabric pattern and decided to stitch together bee costumes for her and David. They both wore their costumes to the party.
One winter, the couple traveled to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic for vacation. When they returned, the gutters at their Penn Hills home had frozen. David grabbed a ladder to get up to the gutters and hose them down, his way of unfreezing them to prevent damage.
Kuszyk joined him outside to shovel snow from the driveway. Moments later, David’s ladder slipped, and he fell. She heard him crash to the ground, she said, his head hitting the brick.
Doctors performed surgeries, but the next day David’s brain had zero function, she said, and he died. They had been married for 17 years.
“He had an exceptionally acute intellectual ability and a relentless curiosity about the world,” reads his obituary from January 2011. “David was a simple man, really, but a perfectionist through and through. He loved to fix mechanical things or solve any problem that came along.”
Kuszyk revisited the beach in Punta Cana last December. She took his ashes and sprinkled some inside a heart she drew with her finger in the sand. As the waves carried the ashes away and erased the heart, she said goodbye again.
She doesn’t put on the costume every day, but the Bee Lady has tried to get out in Penn Hills as often as possible since mid-April to bring levity to a heavy time. She started one day in her neighborhood. The response she got from people driving by encouraged her to keep at it.
On one of those days, someone approached her. It was Irether Carter, who works as a nurse at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. She was on her way to run errands that afternoon when she saw the Bee Lady waving.
“And I thought, ‘How wonderful is that? Something to make people smile.’ So I parked my car and went over to thank her,” Carter said.
Carter, 58, said a friendship bloomed from the encounter.They discovered they are neighbors. Now they walk together and check in on each other. Carter plans on joining Kuszyk as a bumblebee sometime soon to make others smile. She’ll wear the costume Kuszyk made for David all those years ago.
“As horrible and difficult as this time has been, I have a new friend out of it. I’m excited about it,” Carter said.
So is Kuszyk.
“I like waving at people,” she said. “Isn’t it nice how one person can affect another?”
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