I wear many masks. Dress-up masks that let me assume new identities on holidays or when acting. Defensive masks that conceal pain and protect me from getting hurt. Façades that I put on to compensate for weaknesses and cover up insecurities. But nowadays, I’ve added a new mask, and unlike the other masks I wear, this one reveals more about me than it hides.
There’s nothing pretty about my COVID mask. Blue and sterile, tri-ply and functional, it matches neither my outfits nor my moods. No flower prints, unicorns, or painted smiles for me. No music notes, leopard spots, herringbone or lace. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time.
My mask is uncomfortable, especially in the summer’s heat. It makes me sweat, muffles my voice, covers my smile, and, as the day goes on, begins to tickle.
And yet, I wear it.
I wear my mask when I’m in public or with anyone I don’t live with. I wear it because the coronavirus spreads when people are pre-symptomatic and because some people who have it never get symptoms of COVID-19 at all. I wear it because anyone around me may unknowingly be carrying and spreading the virus, and because I may be doing the same. I wear it to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
I wear my mask to protect the vulnerable among us: my friends with heart conditions and diabetes, my coworkers with family members who are immune-suppressed, and the ventilated children in my husband’s medical care.
I wear it because we are one global community, and although I live in Israel, I am connected to China, Italy, and the United States.
I wear it because even if the first wave of the pandemic was mild in my country, I carry with me the trauma of what happened in my hometown of New York. I wear it for the doctors who wrote their wills and even committed suicide because of what they saw and were powerless to fix.
I wear my mask for my cousin, who avoided being hospitalized, but was sick enough to ask his family to pray for him. I wear it for my father’s computer programmer, Nishanth, who has been cycling through waves of reinfection for over 100 days. I wear it for my Facebook friend Hadassah, who still has fatigue and brain fog three months after recuperating. I wear it for my elementary school classmate Ellen, whose husband is legally blind because COVID-19 attacked his eyes.
I wear my mask both because of what we know about the novel coronavirus, and because of what we don’t yet know. And one of the things that we know now, even if we didn’t at the outset, is that masks stop spread.
I wear my mask because we do not yet know the long-term significance of the damage COVID-19 does to our lungs, even in people who don’t have symptoms. I wear it because we are just starting to learn what the coronavirus does to our brains, and how people continue to suffer even after being cured.
But wearing my mask isn’t easy.
Beyond the physical discomfort, my mask is a wall between me and my adult children, who are old enough to live out, and young enough to come home on weekends. Our combined masks, together with sanitized hands, protect us when we need a quick pandemic hug, in the new abnormal. (Or so we hope.)
My mask is a barrier between me and my grandson. It challenges me to find innovative ways to compensate for my lost smile. And when this bundle of joy stretches out his arms for a hug, too young to ask with words, my mask reminds me that life today is about risk assessment. I weigh my choices carefully.
My mask makes me envious of people who are young enough, optimistic enough, and naive enough to think that masks are unnecessary. I am filled with despair when I pass people wearing their masks as surgical chin warmers, mouth guards, neck scarves, wrist bands, or ear pieces; or wearing no masks at all. Because no matter how conscientiously I wear my mask, it can’t really protect me and those around me unless we all wear our masks, correctly and consistently. Noses included.
My mask makes me bewildered as I walk down deserted streets, knowing that if I were to pick up the pace and jog, I could legally huff and puff with my face uncovered, even when passing others. How much easier it would be if the regulations made intuitive sense.
My mask brands me as “old,” even though I don’t feel old. I’m young enough to work full time, to crawl on the floor with my grandson, and to binge write all night. But there’s no fooling the coronavirus. And even if there were, it attacks people of all ages.
My mask marks me as “at risk,” even though I’m not particularly at risk. But I’m at risk enough. We all are.
My mask marks me as cautious and law-abiding, as a person who strictly follows rules, as someone who wants to avoid mistakes, and would rather be safe than sorry. Since life has given me reason to feel vulnerable, I plead guilty to all the above.
Some people think my mask reflects my politics, but it doesn’t. It is motivated only by concern for health.
Some people see my mask as a statement of lack of faith. In my religion, though, we are not meant to rely on miracles, and must actively do our share.
Some people think that being forced to wear masks infringes on personal freedom. I give up that freedom willingly, for the sake of a greater good.
My mask is a plea for mutuality and consideration. It is an affirmation of collective responsibility, a sign of respect, and an expression of empathy. It’s a life raft I cling to while waiting for a vaccine. It’s an expression of hope that I will live to hug many grandchildren in a world without alcogel. And that my mother will too.
If you haven’t been wearing a mask, I hope that reading this helps you mask up.
If it does, it could save your life.
Or it could save mine.