Today, I did something that felt so weird. I took down the hook.
For the past nearly 14 months, a small Command hook has hung by our front door. That’s where we put the “answer the door mask.” We realized we needed one there after a few instances of reaching to open the door and then suddenly realizing we needed to put on a mask first. The first few times, we held up a “wait just a second” finger and would then run frantically through the house trying to find a mask.
As the pandemic progressed, I also noticed that, when I answered the door wearing a mask, it was a signal to the person who knocked that we were not only willing to help protect his or her health, we also wanted visitors to do the same for us.
Now that our family is fully vaccinated and the CDC says we’re safe indoors and out, the mask hanging by the door can stop standing guard. As I pulled its sticky tab down, the small hook let go of its hold on the wall. But it left me wondering if we are ready to stop holding on to the safety rituals we’ve relied on for so long.
Is it just me, or does anyone else feel a strange mixture of sweet freedom and reckless exposure? It’s both liberating and scary to remove this soft shield I’ve been holding in front of my nose and mouth. For more than a year now, it’s been the only thing standing between me and an infectious droplet that might be right around the corner. It feels like the end of a “just in case” era.
Of course, I’m keeping a Ziplock bag full of masks in my car since there are several businesses with mask policies still in place. I also have an “emergency mask” stashed in my purse. But I don’t bother wearing a mask in parking lots anymore, and it’s incredible to feel the breeze on my entire face again. I am literally and figuratively breathing so much easier than I have in more than a year.
But change is tricky. And for people who have attached the concept of safety to these small patches of fabric, it’s not as easy as we thought it would be to simply rip it off and leave it behind. Part of me has this nagging feeling I’ve forgotten something important. The other part of me feels like I’m breaking the rules and should be ashamed of my bare-naked face. I have the urge to make eye contact with strangers and whisper, “It’s OK. I’m fully vaccinated. Don’t worry.”
In my head, I silently remind myself: “The experts said this is fine. It’s OK to go back to normal.”
But the truth is, we’re living in a whole new “normal.” When someone coughs in public, it registers with me differently than it did before. I’m at least fifty times more suspicious of public door handles. And my hands? They’ll never be the same.
While I’m sure pandemic anxiety has etched new worry lines on my face, it’s my hands that have aged the most. Maybe it was all the extra hand washing combined with a long winter. Maybe it was all those extra squirts of Purell I slathered on throughout the day, every day.
About a month ago, I noticed how much older my hands look now. I’ve tried nearly every hand cream the drugstore has to offer, but so far nothing has helped. And here’s the thing. It’s not hard to avoid a mirror. (In fact, I’m a real pro at it after a year of practically living in pajama pants while mostly staying home.) But it’s impossible not to see my own hands. Every time I look down, there they are. Sometimes I hold them closer to my face to inspect them, as if I’m not quite sure they’re even mine.
But in the grand scheme of things, I’m lucky. So many of us are. My hands might be a little bonier, drier, and more spotted, but my lungs weren’t ravaged by COVID. My family is still healthy, still together. And we’re heading into a mask-free season with the sun on our faces, the wind at our backs, and no mask hanging by the front door.
Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book is available on Amazon.