50 Stories, Week 14: Unbelievable

For the Vietnam veteran who laughed at my husband and I for wearing masks outside…

On Thursday, Jason and I embarked on our first mid-pandemic ‘vacation’ with a road trip to visit his Mom outside of Chicago. The last time we saw his parents was back in December when they visited us in NJ. Well before a pandemic was declared, and before my father-in-law succumbed to COVID-19. After an overnight camping on a Christmas tree farm in Ohio, we made it safely to the town of Frankfort, IL, where Jason lived as a teenager with his family. The town is idyllic. A small historic downtown with restaurants and boutiques, surrounded by both multi-generational family homes and healthy sized mini-mansions with manicured lawns.

As we’re only here for the weekend, we’ve spent most of our time with Jason’s mom, who also had COVID but a mild version from which she has fully recovered. Last night, we ventured downtown to have dinner outdoors at a local restaurant. For Jason and I, living near the epicenter of the virus in the U.S., we are used to seeing most people, inside and out, wearing masks and keeping their distance wherever possible. While Illinois had about seven thousand confirmed COVID deaths, the majority of these were in Chicago and its suburbs so I thought there would be more people in masks but it was solely the waitstaff. (Which was better than a restaurant we stopped at for take-out in Angola, IN where a young woman was serving multiple groups of elderly people inside, neither waitstaff or patrons were masked.) It was our first time out at a restaurant since early March and I didn’t realize how much I missed it.

This morning we decided to take a bike ride along the Old Plank Trail, a nearby 20 mile public trail that runs through the surrounding towns. Jason led the way and kept our pace leisurely as it was building to be another scorching summer day. There was a steady stream of cyclists, runners and walkers along the path, and while everyone was friendly, we were the only ones wearing masks. At one point, we were nearing an intersection where an older gentleman was walking the other direction. I was getting ready to say ‘Good morning,’ when he looked at us, laughed, and said loudly, “Unbelievable!” While I try not to assume that everything is about me – it seemed clear that he was referring to the fact that we were masked, outside. We continued on our way, shrugging our shoulders, and Jason saying to me, “To each their own.”

After a few more miles, it was time to turn around and this time I led the way. Eventually, we were coming upon the same man. I considered saying something as we passed but I’ve been practicing letting things go, so I continued to enjoy the mild breeze created by the simple act of moving in space. After a minute, though, I could sense that Jason was no longer behind me. I looked back and saw that he was stopped, talking expressively to the man who found us unbelievable. I slowly made my way back, trying to ascertain how heated their conversation was getting. By the time I got there, I could see the man clearer – probably in his late 60’s, early 70’s, wearing a green Vietnam veteran t-shirt. I heard him saying how the numbers are incorrect and there is zero chance that we’d spread it. And then Jason said “Even if there is .0001 percent chance, why would we risk that? My father was a healthy 74 year old. He served in the 82nd Airborne and was an FBI agent, and he just died of COVID. Before you laugh at someone wearing a mask outside, maybe consider that they’ve been affected in a way you can’t imagine.” The guy tried to counter, and Jason said neither of them were going to change each other’s minds, so we began riding again. Apparently, Jason had stopped when we approached him on the way back, and asked him point blank if he was laughing at us wearing masks, to which he replied yes because you can’t catch it outside.

I’d recently read a quote about how you don’t always have to speak in a given situation because it wouldn’t change the other person – however, if you don’t say something, it might change you. I’m proud of my man for speaking his heart and mind but I think about this older gentleman, and the many others who are full of both harmless and potentially dangerous opinions during this time of crisis, and I wonder –  what will it take to be both informed and kind to our fellow humans?

Is it because we get old and stuck in our ways, so unmoveable in our beliefs that we fear ‘other?’ I am always saying that won’t happen to me as I age, but perhaps there is something natural about that evolution. And yet, I know people who are significantly older than me that have managed to keep an open mind, to change their opinions when they are presented with new information, and who do their best to give people the benefit of the doubt. 

If you’d asked a younger version of myself if I thought, given the information that currently exists, would I continue to wear a mask outside, I’d probably have said no. Because that’s what we do when we’re young and naive, when we believe that ‘it’ won’t get us or if it does, we’ll be fine. Maybe I would have been right. Maybe there would be zero chance of transmission when we are talking or coughing or laughing or sneezing (allergies!) while outside. But what if I was wrong? Or worse, what if you were? 

If you believe I’m a fool, someone uneducated or incapable of critical thinking… Am I a danger to you if I’m the one wearing a mask? 

No, I’m not. 

So why the need to shame us? To laugh at us? Trust me, there have been plenty of times in the last couple of months where someone has passed me running or riding their bikes without covering their face when I’ve thought – stop breathing at me without a mask on! But the opposite? No. Because even if you’re right, and there is no evidence of it spreading outside, where is the harm? Does it offend you that we are being overly cautious? Do you believe we are being manipulated by an elite agenda?

Well, get over yourself, sir.

Because my sweet husband and his family lost their dad. And they can do whatever they want right now. They can wear masks until the cows come home. They can wear masks after there’s a vaccine, when there’s a cure, or if it’s 2030. Because that’s what happens when you survive something horrible – you get to play that card, at least for a little while. I would imagine that surviving the Vietnam war, you might understand what that feels like. You may have returned and wished for there to have been more compassion for your service. For you to have been provided with more resources or not had people questioning your reality, like so many veterans experienced.

So, what will it take, sir? For you to look at someone who isn’t harming you in any way, and just let it go? Evaluate whether or not they are a risk to you, in their oddity, and then move on if they are not.

But take note – the opposite is true, as well. James Baldwin said “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” So, if it turns out that you have been endangering my life by not wearing a mask, by thinking only of the individual and not of the societal collective that you benefit from, then we have a problem. One which will likely cause me to yell “Unbelievable,” as you pass me by.

I like to think that while we may not have changed that man’s mind, perhaps Jason’s vulnerability and honesty changed his heart. And that’s what we’re going for here, isn’t it?


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