Published on March 24, 2020
Weeks before COVID-19 hit in the United States, my husband and I traveled from Denver to San Diego for a two-week cruise. As is our usual course when we find ourselves confined in close proximity of others, we donned our face masks. Our masks are the fancier type with the charcoal filter and the side breathing port, the kind often worn by people in Korea, Japan and China, known to them as “courtesy masks” (they keep out pollution and germs). As is also the case, amid the snickers, whispers, stares and covered-up giggles from our unmasked counterparts, we suffered the feelings of embarrassment and a burning desire to explain ourselves.
What the unmasked do not know is how uncomfortable a mask is to wear, hurting the backs of ears, encouraging restricted, shallow breathing and making it difficult to be heard when speaking. I’m grateful my husband chooses to wear one to help stave off sickness that he would most assuredly pass on to me. In my case, what the unmasked also don’t know, is I have incurable cancer. It is currently indolent, and I, therefore, look healthy, but I can be extremely vulnerable to germs. My mask is not for your protection; I am not contagious. It’s for my protection. You see, your germs, whether big or small, can kill a person like me if my immune system is in a compromised state.
When I looked sick, cancer unmistakably showing with my bald head, ashen face and frail body, and I sported my cute pink mask, people’s eyes showed pity toward me, they opened doors, offered up chairs, and allowed me to stand in line before them. But with my hair grown back, color in my face and weight on my bones, I am a fear monger and am ridiculed.
Fast-forward two short weeks following our cruise, coronavirus is all the talk, and masks are the accessory of the day. Men, women and children, regardless of origin, are now wearing the sought-after, disposable, paper filters in pale blue and yellow, purchasing them at breakneck speed. No one is chuckling at me, pointing my direction and talking about me behind cupped hands. Instead, people are asking, “Where did you get your mask? I love it.” I no longer need to explain that I am not sick or that I am worried about germs as they may be deadly to someone whose immune system isn’t always up to par. I am no longer the odd-one-out, the freak with the mask wishing others would stop making fun. I am now part of the in-crowd, heck, with my stylishly colored charcoal filtered mask, I am the in-crowd.
What I’ve learned over the past few years of being a fashion-forward mask wearer, is that it takes thick skin to be sick. What I would like others to know is that when COVID-19 is no longer the topic of the day and masks become a thing of the past, you still have no idea why a person is covering their face; is it because they are gracious to you, or is it because they need you to be courteous to them?
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