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Living with Unmasked Faces: Beyond Halloween

Living with Unmasked Faces: Beyond Halloween October 31, 2021

Here’s a picture of my friend, Phil Wyman, who is wearing his famed unicorn mask. The photo was taken September 26, 2016. I can assure you that Phil is always genuine, no matter what Halloween mask he’s wearing on any given day of the year.

Sometimes I have to wear a mask and a face shield along with a plastic blue gown when I visit my son Christopher’s rehabilitative care facility. COVID precautions require it at times given the level of risk on the premises. It’s about the closest I have come to dressing up in a costume this year, long before Halloween.

I greatly appreciate the level of precautions the leadership at the rehabilitative care facility have instituted. One of the supervisors told me just the other day that they have to remain on high alert, since so many of their residents are extremely vulnerable. Case in point, she told me that the rate of mortality for patients on ventilators who test COVID positive is 100%.

We are grateful that Christopher, who is in stable condition after enduring a devastating brain injury early this year, has been vaccinated. In addition, he has been breathing on his own for many months so that he does not have to rely on a ventilator. He has very strong lungs, too, which really help him in managing his secretions.

Christopher only has to wear a mask when he is out in the hallway in his wheelchair at the care facility. He doesn’t wear a mask when he is in bed in his room. That said, Christopher has never worn masks in his engagement with others. Prior to the TBI, you always knew where he was coming from.

Right now, it is hard to know what he might wish to express given that he is in a minimally conscious state and does not speak presently, at least not when we are there. He has uttered a few words like “No” over the past several months and has appeared to laugh. The majority of sounds that he makes are sighs of various kinds. He smiled at his mom the other day when she entered his room and squeezed her hand when she asked him to. Mariko is very adept at reading our son’s expressions. After all, she’s been with him the longest in life, dating back to Chrisotpher’s development in her womb. She has such an intuitive connection with her son, even as she speaks to him in Japanese.

One of the most striking features about Christopher’s face is that he has so many expressions. His mom and sister were commenting on it the other day with a sense of amazement and admiration. That has always been the case, except in the early months following the injury. Then his face was often expressionless. But now, since some measure of healing has occurred, Christopher wears many expressions and manifests a variety of mannerisms when he is alert. Even so, I can assure you, no matter the expression or mannerism, he is still the same Christopher gazing at you through his brown eyes. If only he could express himself verbally, you would know exactly what he thinks to the core of his being. There is no pretense. No trick, though maybe a treat. No mask. Just him.

How about me? How about us? No matter our facial expression, no matter our gesture, do people know us? I certainly understand the need to be guarded and discerning as to whether those around us are safe. We would be unwise to reveal the depths of our souls to just anyone. For one, those emotional and psychological secretions we cough up can be pretty gnarly and ghoulish at times. The only occasion to get rewarded with a treat for them might be on Halloween.

Even so, does anyone know us? Have we invested in relationships, where we can speak heart to heart, life to life? Or do we wear masks the whole of the year, not just on Halloween?

No doubt, people from various walks of life will debate the merits of wearing COVID masks and whether they infringe on our freedoms. But hopefully we won’t debate the need to wear our real faces freely, regardless of the expressions. May we guard against pretense while safeguarding civility and respect and fostering trust. Honesty and transparency in pursuit of healthy forms of intimacy are critically important in rehabilitating and building trust in relationships every day of the year, including Halloween.

I look forward to visiting with Christopher many times this week. I cherish the moments when he is awake and alert and I can share my soul with him. He listens with one of his countless genuine expressions and I wait with eager anticipation for what he might honestly and transparently share with me. No masks, no tricks, though a word or two would be the best of treats. Happy Halloween, Son.

For all the various updates on Christopher and our family’s unfathomable journey on life support, please go to this link. Thank you.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author and Editor of numerous works, including Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology (T&T Clark, 2005) and Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse (Cascade, 2020). You can read more about the author here.

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