The author and her daughter, Johanna. Courtesy photo

The eyes are the window to the soul.

Never has there been a more appropriate time for this saying than right now- as smiles and other facial features are masked due to coronavirus precautions.

While eyes may be a window- it’s the controversy surrounding the wearing of masks that has taken center stage in public discourse. 

I’ve been surrounded by masks for the past 23 years- since my youngest daughter had her first brain surgery at three months old. That first night in the PICU was a whirlwind of lights and monitors, medical and neurological terminology that would later become a second language for me.

I remember the doctors and nurses wearing scrubs and white coats, with a few of them wearing masks. For the most part, visitors didn’t have to wear masks in the PICU because sick adults wouldn’t readily consider visiting a fragile baby. 

But I vividly remember the first visitors that were required to wear masks because they were my children. 

The kids were 10, 6, and 3 at the time my youngest was diagnosed. They hadn’t seen their baby sister in days and were very confused. My eldest daughter overheard us discussing the results of brain scans and remarked- “Mommy if ‘cats can’ see Johanna how come we can’t?”

My eldest son and daughter at 10 and 6 seemed to grasp the severity of the situation to the extent that they were able. 

My 3-year-old daughter was simply happy to be in my arms and ready to touch her baby sister once again. 

The one restriction we were given for our kids to visit was that they needed to wash their hands (as we all did entering and exiting the room) and they needed to wear a mask.

The older kids readily complied- but the mask was too scary for a three-year-old who was already overwhelmed by the blood-filled tubes coming out of her baby sister’s head.

The nurse smiled and said it was ok as long as I held my daughter at a distance from Johanna’s face. A friend took a family picture of us with her camera that day because we weren’t certain our baby would survive the surgery.

That picture is one that I treasure — Johanna smiling at her masked brother and sister — fixing her infant gaze on their eyes as she cooed at her sweet 3-year-old sister who covered her own mouth with her tiny hand. Even then, Jo recognized their voices and those beautiful blue eyes which held out hope for their baby sister.

Over the following years, we learned a lot about the brain, about staph and shunt infections, and weird stuff that most people never experience. 

Each time I accompanied my daughter into brain surgery, I wore head to toe PPE. Johanna locked her eyes on mine and listened to the familiar sound of my voice as she drifted off to sleep in the operating room. Every time I tossed the protective gear in the garbage outside the OR these past 23 years, I hoped it would be the last.

At home, I wore masks and gloves and head to toe equipment when I accessed Jo’s central line. It wasn’t always comfortable but it was nothing that we questioned because I knew it was just the right thing to do to protect her from infection.

When the COVID pandemic began and the run on masks produced a stir- I was thankful for those high insurance premiums which afforded us homecare dressing kits, masks, and gloves. I checked the supply and was comfortable that it was enough, considering the three of us were spending most of our time in quarantine at home.

Early on, I scoffed at the “science” behind not donning a mask in public- knowing what I had learned about infection control all the years. It was a decision that was made to ensure PPE supplies for healthcare workers.

Now, as the truth unfolds and hospitals are well-supplied- the mandates for masks can seem confusing and a battle-weary society is sometimes too tired to care.

But when I read the posts of friends who I know hold great respect for all human life who now scoff at their liberties being infringed upon- I grow weary and overwhelmed with some great concerns.

When I dare pick up vegetables on a Saturday morning, I am concerned. As tourists crowd the fields and kids and parents play on the playgrounds with little distance or masks between them- my anxiety grows, wondering if my daughter or even me and my husband- will survive a surge.

I get it. It’s hard to wear masks in public. 

I’ve never liked shopping but when I run out for a few things- wearing a mask of course- I find anxiety welling up in me. Last week- I went to a box store for the first time since the pandemic started. 

I tried to focus on getting what I needed and getting out. But somewhere around the baking aisle ( I NEED CHOCOLATE), I began to feel faint. I started to sweat and all around me — all I could see were people wearing masks. It was overwhelming.

But then I saw a familiar face across the aisle and I recognized the smiling eyes of a friend.

It had been too long since we’d had a conversation face to face and even longer since I had been able to congratulate her and her husband on the birth of their first-born granddaughter. 

I could see their smiles were broad and beaming from behind those masks and their eyes danced with delight as they spoke of their beloved granddaughter. We conversed from across the aisle — filling each other in on life in pandemic times and beyond. 

Life touched me from behind the masks and I knew I would be okay.

In our home, we wear masks inside the house when an aide is present. Right now, we are finally building a handicap accessible bathroom which was on hold for the past 18 months due to DOH and pandemic delays. 

The contractors all wear masks as they build the structures which will enable my daughter to live more safely at home. We wear masks when we interact with them, grateful for their help and to show that we respect their lives too. 

Outside, we enjoy the air and distance from the very few people who stop by our home. Even the dogs and the chickens are used to us wearing masks.

These examples from years of wearing PPE in our home and in the hospital are thankfully not the norm for most people. But we wear them because they work to filter particles and protect others from infection.

Pardon the pun, but it’s a no-brainer to wear a mask to protect others from exposure to this highly contagious virus. COVID-19 is unlike any virus we have encountered in recent history. Airborne viruses need containment — especially when it’s transmitted by people who are asymptomatic.

It’s unfortunate that the issue is politicized but honestly, I just don’t care. We wear masks to protect others.

My three-year-old who was nervous about wearing a mask? In her late teens and early 20s, she donned full PPE including masks, gloves, and covering as she administered medication into her little sister’s central line. It was done out of love for her sister without a care for her own comfort. 

If you are struggling with wearing a mask because of anxiety or because you feel it infringes on your liberty, consider another’s right to life and health and look in their eyes.

Jesus said it this way-

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” Matthew 6:22-23

Look into the beautiful life in another’s eyes and you may see the light. 

Correction: Due to an editing error this column was initially published under the byline of the editor, not the author.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen