I just sneezed.
I tried as hard as I could to stifle it, but it was a sneeze, and rarely have I been so self-conscious. I am on the ferry heading to work. I’m wearing my mask; I’m surrounded by people in masks, but the days when a sneeze was just cause for a “God bless you” or “Gezzundheit!” passed us by about five months ago. Now a sneeze raises an eyebrow, causes bodies to shift away, makes me want to proclaim, “It’s not COVID! I swear! I think? I’m pretty sure. Oh boy I hope I’m right.”
I say nothing. I sit here, breathing in and out behind my hospital-issued yellow paper mask, dreading the next eight hours I’ll spend in this mask, and realizing that a mask is really so much more than a mask. It’s a totem for our times.
Yesterday was my first day back to the office since March 12. I’m required to come into my Manhattan office 2-3 days a week, and wear a mask all day as I work in my cubicle. If I had an office, I could unmask. But because I do not, I get to re-experience every warm exhalation that my body makes, wondering if my headache is just hypochondria or the beginning stages of hypoxia. (Maybe both?)
For the most part it is tolerable. Annoyances arise when I am on video for a meeting and look like I just stepped out of surgery but oh most definitely did not. Worse is when I have to talk at length in my mask—yesterday, I became so light-headed I needed to steal a few cleansing breaths. I’ll confess that sometimes, when no one is within even 60 feet of me, I lift the mask to take a deep breath. It feels like coming to the water’s surface after a deep dive. Sweet relief!
The mask is a nuisance. It is a constant reminder of how quickly life has changed. It’s an impediment and an intrusion, both to wear one and to communicate with others who are masked. It’s a requirement, and I do feel resentful. How did this happen? How did life change so quickly? Why can’t we just go back to being normal?
I shift my gaze out the ferry window and see the Statue of Liberty, the Freedom Tower. I think about the last great challenge to us as a society: Sept. 11, 2001. I remember how prior to 9/11, our loved ones walked with us to the airplane gate, and airport security didn’t involve pat downs and body scans. And then our lives were threatened, and we changed. We collectively accepted that we had to give up some conveniences, even some freedoms, in order to be safe. And now we walk through security in our socks and measure our toiletries
to fit 3 ounce bottles, and shrug.
I am not yet shrugging about my mask. But I will. I need to build my mask tolerance, and that will happen over time. And then just as you know to chug that water bottle before you go through airport security, soon I’ll learn how to breathe so my glasses do not fog up, and safe ways to unmask without risking the safety of myself or others.
This is a new world. And just life after 9/11, the idea that things will go back to the way they were is provincial. There is no storybook ending here, no “happily ever after.” COVID-19 has changed everything, and we can either continue to do what is needed to stay healthy, or take unnecessary risks that can have long-lasting consequences. Wanting this to be over doesn’t make it end, it just prolongs the sense of loss.
So instead, I mask up. Nose to chin. I don’t enjoy it, but this is not about me. It’s about being a citizen, a respectful coworker, a role model for my children. It’s about moving forward, finding a new normal, and living not just for today, but for tomorrow.