Every day for the last year, I put my hair into a long ponytail and adjust a mask over my face. Never before has such a small piece of cloth meant so much. It’s a daily reminder to me of how life has changed.
The papery fabric rubs against my face, rubbing off my foundation and smudging my lipstick. I gave up on that makeup months ago so that my mask would remain clean and I could save it if needed. Scarcity has been palpable and powerful. The incredulous “what ifs” have become tangible realities.
My mask hides my face and its expressions, whether desired or not. It hides sympathy for a weeping widow and disagreement with a cantankerous woman. Sometimes I feel as though I am not completely seen or that I as fully see my patients. During the physical exam, I ask people to remove their masks so that I may examine their mouths. There are times that it is a surprise and I think, “That’s not what I pictured.” It is revealing of how my mind will fill in the hidden places.
I wonder how many emotions have been pressed down, unseen, and filled in during the last year.
The mask has muffled my voice, both audibly and metaphorically. People don’t hear me quite right with this barrier obstructing my mouth. Those that are hard of hearing feel lost since they can no longer read my lips. My questions and messages don’t get through. In this contentious season, it also feels like that in regards to medical issues. My job is to hold up a mirror and speak truth to difficult places. Sometimes I find stubborn, angry, and deaf ears. It feels like the warning of an oncoming train, either to be heeded or dismissed. I’m exhausted, which causes me to make mental calculations as to whether I want to engage in the disagreement. Sometimes it’s easier to let things slide and let the mask silence my voice.
This covering has ushered in a season of heavy cost and momentous losses. In the same manner, it is the simple tool that has allowed me to press through and care for others.
This thin piece of blue and white material has served as my protection against microbes. For years, I have fearlessly worked with coughing patients, in clinics and hospitals, in the States and overseas. I carried a certain sense of (false) invincibility, as if the white coat had a protective cape attached. I worked under the pretense that my body and person were of little consequence. My husband has brought this lie to light and how my cavalier attitude harms myself and our family. And so, I have been faithful and fearful as I fit this mask over my nose and mouth, hoping that my caution will protect me from inhaling this dangerous virus. I am reminded of my humanity and fragility. I am reminded of my frailty and that each breath is given by the Lord.
Wearing this piece of protection has allowed me to continue working and interacting with patients. The tight seal of an N95 left impressions on my face as I worked in the hospital COVID unit. It allowed me to do the work that I studied and trained a decade for. People were lonely and frightened, struggling for breath, scared of what the future might hold. We conversed, laughed, and cried together in those places, united in unexpected ways.
The mask has become a symbol of COVID and 2020. It is a visible reminder of how my fears and my views of medicine and of people have shifted in the last year. I am less naïve and more battle weary than before. I feel both bitter at the necessity of a mask and yet grateful for the protection it has afforded. All of these emotions have been wrapped into this simple cloth attached to two strings. And every day, I start with tying my hair into a ponytail and fitting a mask over my face.
Aimee is an Asian American physician, recently married to the love of her life. She loves deep, honest conversation, being silly with her husband, and pondering God’s presence in this broken world. She is honored to contribute to Red Tent Living but requests anonymity in respect for her personal and professional privacy. b