Masks I Have Worn

Susan Hatters Friedman


October 1981
Strawberry Shortcake mask to go trick-or-treating. My mom worries about Halloween masks being hard to see out of when trick-or-treating at night on the Pittsburgh hills. We strike a deal that I can get the mask if I promise that any time I’m walking, or at least when crossing the street, I would put the mask on top of my head. Then I could pull it down when I rang people’s doorbells. That doesn’t work great because of the cheap elastic. By the end of the night, I end up just holding my mask in front of my face. It is awkward because I have to use the other hand to hold my big orange plastic pumpkin. And then how am I gonna get candy?

July 1989
Tusa SCUBA mask. Turquoise with matching fins. To be defogged by rubbing with spit. For years, my dad had told us stories of his SCUBA adventures with his friend in Bermuda before I was born. I was finally deemed mature enough to take PADI SCUBA lessons, and got to dive with my dad. Every summer we had visited my grandparents in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Who knew that 100 yards off the shore, there was a coral reef? The weightlessness of an astronaut, breathing underwater. Seeing the fish through my mask, magnified. Like I was part of an aquarium. It was a crazy expense for the matching mask and fins, but I promised to take good care of them and keep them until I was old.

June 1996
Tusa SCUBA mask. Matching turquoise fins. Cleaned with toothpaste. SCUBA diving in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea with my fiancé. We were crazy young and in love. We held hands SCUBA diving.

March and April 1998
Surgical face masks on obstetrics/ gynecology rotation and surgery rotation. I can’t imagine what wrath would come my way (through a chief resident’s mask) if I were to leave the mask off my nose or if I had not figured out how to make my glasses not fog up. I needed to see to perform the critical medical student job of holding the retractor in place during surgery. But really, the chances are that I wouldn’t remember any insults anyway. I was getting up at 4 a.m. to make it to the hospital to pre-round on patients at 5 a.m., before rounds at 6 a.m., so surgery could start at 7 a.m. And that was on the three days of four that I got to go home at night. So remembering non-critical details is not so easy. 

July 2004
The Mask of Sanity in my forensic psychiatry fellowship. The Mask of Sanity was the 1941 ground-breaking book where psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley described psychopathic personality. (How did they not know this before the 1940s? There were like thousands of years of people before that. Iago, anyone? I mean, I guess at least they knew there were psychopaths since Hitler?) Cleckley called it the mask of sanity, and we all remember from high-school Shakespeare, “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” The mask of sanity is the mask psychopaths wear, to appear to be just like the rest of us, in order to fool everyone. And I wonder about wearing a similar mask when I evaluate psychopaths, since “if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” (I didn’t know Nietzsche yet, but my 29-year-old self somehow knew this intuitively.) 

July 2005
Tusa SCUBA mask with matching turquoise fins. Diving with my newly SCUBA-certified son. Who had been hearing two generations of SCUBA tales. Little did we imagine that someday he’d have an internship as a SCUBA diver, diving with sharks at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Many SCUBA trips would follow. 

October 2010
Tusa SCUBA mask with matching turquoise fins. Diving with my newly SCUBA-certified daughter. Who had been hearing three generations of SCUBA tales. 

September 2011
Stormtrooper helmet. My friend works as an internal medicine doc at the hospital where I work. But his real love is acting. Ironically, he has found himself cast as a physician. He shares my love of Star Wars, though he is partial to the Dark Side. He bought cosplay-caliber stormtrooper costumes. The helmet’s paint job got botched, and he decided to buy another several-hundred-dollar helmet. Knowing I would treasure a (slightly imperfect) stormtrooper helmet, he gives it to me one Friday at work. When my husband and kids are watching our family Friday night movie, I sit down on the couch in the helmet, to see if I’ll surprise anyone. My husband and daughter do not notice. My son turns to me, straight-faced, and says “TK-421, why aren’t you at your post?”

April 2017
Hello Kitty face mask. My son is on his first of five years working in Japan. I fly up for a week from New Zealand where the rest of us live now. He meets me in Kyoto where he takes me to so many temples and he tells me stories of his new adventures. He shows me around Osaka and Nara, the city of deer. He explains that the Japanese people wear face masks when they are themselves sick in order to prevent others from getting sick. There were not many words in English anywhere but the convenience store is Family-Mart. Family-Mart has a whole section of fun-themed masks and I buy a Hello Kitty face mask for if I happen to feel sniffly while I’m in Japan. And because it reminds me of my best friend from first grade, whose family lived in Pittsburgh for only a year, and who had every single thing Hello Kitty and let me play with all of it.

January 2020
Gold collagen anti-aging mask. My daughter is at university in London and I’m at Cambridge studying for a part-time master’s. (The plan was to go to Cambridge every couple months for a week at a time, study and see my girl, and work on homework in between after work back in Cleveland.) We’re both a bit sick and decide to spend our planned night out in instead. We order curries, pour some wine, and pamper ourselves with the fancy facial masks. I don’t know how at 20 she could possibly think an anti-aging mask is doing anything other than costing money, but she insists that you need to start a good skincare routine early. 

March 2020
The surgical mask and the N95 mask. Again and again. My husband and I work at hospitals and COVID is everywhere, could be anywhere. I order fun face masks from local sellers online. They promise to arrive in a few weeks, but take much longer.

April 2020
The surgical mask and the N95 mask. I special-order boxes of surgical masks from China because other hospitals are running out of masks for employees. I order rolls of blue shop-towels because websites have done testing and claim that they work like N95 if you stuff them in your mask. They cost a shit ton.

May 2020
The surgical mask and the N95 mask. A friend who went to New York to help out in the ER sends a photo of himself, in what looks like a space mask connected to a full-body space suit. Another friend in New York tells me that he is the only doctor working in his ER who hasn’t been sick with COVID. He jokes that he is the Typhoid Mary of New York. 

June 2020
The surgical mask and the N95 mask. The patient we see on hospital consults has had a stillbirth and does not want her baby to leave her side. Her family can’t visit due to COVID restrictions. And she is despondent. It is hot in the hospital room and the baby has been in with her for many hours. This is the saddest consultation ever, and the only time I am thankful for my mask.

June 2020
Star Wars-themed masks. I special ordered some for my parents in Florida, too, and shipped them down. 

July 2020
Harry Potter-themed masks. In my parents’ garage in Cleveland. They’ve come back from Lauderdale-by-the-Sea because the COVID rates in their snow-bird winter home were sky high.

August 2020
Summer-themed pandemic mask. My husband tells me that he can’t wear his in public because there are bikinis in the fabric pattern. 

September 2020
Ruth Bader Ginsberg pandemic mask. We find out about ICE performing involuntary hysterectomies on women. RBG is dying.

October 2020
Halloween-themed pandemic mask. I get, at no small cost, a mask for my husband with characters from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” It doesn’t fit right.

November 2020
Light blue pandemic mask. It turns out that it looks too much like the hospital masks and was not such a great purchase.

December 2020
Christmas-themed pandemic mask.

January 2021
Vera Bradley purple pandemic mask. It is my birthday and I get myself a special treat in lieu of, you know, getting to see the kids in person even once in the past year.

February 2021
Valentine’s Day-themed pandemic mask. 

March 2021
Super-cool PADI masks with SCUBA-diving themes on them. They’re even made out of recycled ocean plastic. I buy enough that I’ll be able to give them to the children, too, to remind them of our many diving trips together. But then I realize that by the time I see them, in real life, back in Cleveland from London and Tokyo, maybe they really won’t need masks?

April 2021
My red and blue The Beths pandemic mask. While visiting my parents in their garage again in the rain. Yes, we’re all vaccinated now. But my husband and I are physicians who work in hospitals. And we worry about any risk to my parents. The Beths is my favorite New Zealand band, and the mask reminds me of when we saw The Beths on tour in Akron in July 2019 just after we moved back from New Zealand to Cleveland, before all these masks. And New Zealand has taken the virus seriously, has effectively managed the pandemic. But we don’t live there anymore. Now we sit in the garage with our New Zealand masks on. And we wait for another week of working in the hospitals.

Author Bio

Susan Hatters Friedman is a physician working in Cleveland. She works as a forensic psychiatrist evaluating people experiencing mental health challenges in the criminal justice system, and as a reproductive psychiatrist with pregnant and postpartum mothers experiencing mental health issues. She has studied satire writing with The Second City. Her recent creative writing can be read in (or is forthcoming in) Hobart, Eclectica, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and X-R-A-Y Literary, among others.

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