Who Was That Masked Man?

On March 1st, I went to an appointment with a new doctor. Well, he’s actually a very well-established doctor. But it was my first visit with him. I approached a receptionist who was seated behind an open, sliding window. I had a mask in my hand. I held it up so the receptionist could see it and asked if I was required to wear it. When she told me masks were optional, I put mine in my pocket.

While I was checking in with that receptionist, a woman to my left was checking in at another window with another receptionist. Since the woman talked quite loudly, I could hear her say she was checking her husband in. I looked around the waiting room and saw no one. Assuming her husband must be parking their car, I turned my attention back to my receptionist. When our business was finished, I took a seat and waited to be called to see the doctor.

The entrance to the waiting room was to my right. I heard the door opening, looked that way, and saw an elderly man shuffling in, walker first. Though he was significantly older than the woman who said she was checking her husband in, she turned toward him as he entered. He immediately snapped at her, loudly and angrily, “Have you ever tried to take your jacket off in the bathroom?!”

You only get one chance to make a first impression.

Maneuvering his walker across the room, he sat opposite me, facing me. His wife approached him from his left and handed him a clipboard.

He snapped again: “What do you want?!”

She explained, gently and with more patience than the old bastard deserved, “You have to sign this form.”

He did. She took the form to the window and handed it to the receptionist. Then she took a seat to his right.

When she was seated, he said again, just as loudly, “Have you ever tried to take your jacket off in the bathroom?!”

She said, “No.”

Then he pointed across the waiting room at me and said, just as loudly as he’d said everything else, “What the hell’s the matter with that guy? And why the hell isn’t he wearing a mask?!”

I looked up and smiled.

His wife said, “I don’t know.” Then she got up, walked across the waiting room, picked up a magazine, and took a seat on my side of the room, three or four chairs to my left.

I sat quietly, occasionally glancing at Mr. Sunshine and waiting for him to say something else to or about me. He didn’t.

The Aftermath

Two days after that experience, I saw a post on Substack called, “I’ll Never Forgive the Coronamaniacs”. The entire post is worth reading. Its anger and resentment are completely appropriate and justified. But this jumped out at me:

I’ve seen on-line graduation ceremonies and gowns mailed to students so they could take photos in their backyards, and prom dresses and sports uniforms that were never worn. I’ve heard stories of teens breaking down and crying in their rooms because their youth was being stolen. I’ve seen people unnecessarily unemployed for eight months, desperately seeking work, via computer, ten hours a day, seven days a week. Tens of thousands more people fatally overdosed than in an average year. I was barred from visiting my very ill mother in the hospital. How many families couldn’t gather, either to break bread or to mourn the death of a close relative? Marriages have been postponed; how many children will not have been born because of Corona theater? Overall, how many billions of memories that could have been made, weren’t? Stolen time is irreplaceable.

I’ve seen many of those same things. I’ve seen my grandchildren terrified of wearing masks because they thought it meant they had the virus. I’ve been prevented from seeing my mother in the memory-care unit in which she lived before passing away in January. I’ve known people who postponed marriages. I’ve known people who were denied funerals for their loved ones. I’ve seen families fractured and friendships ended. I’ve seen all manner of panic. And I’ve seen vituperation directed at those who refused to panic.

I don’t know if the bug up the ass of that old son-of-a-bitch in the waiting room was the coronavirus or COVID-related. And I’ll forgive him and forget him with equal alacrity; although, I’ll never figure out why his wife puts up with him.

But I’ll always wonder: who was that masked man?


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. One of my teachers in college told a story about his very violent father who would take his belt to his kids for no good reason. Later in life they discovered that he had a tumor in his brain, pressing on some of the areas for self regulation, Once operated, he was not only the kindest fellow, he was also mortified about the person he had been. And his children were willing to forgive him.

    Whether that is the story behind your fellow waiting room patient, we’ll never know. His wife obviously was neither surprised nor mortified that he lashed out left and right, but when somebody behaves in uncivilized or irrational fashion, I think of my teacher and am grateful that I to the best of my knowledge don’t suffer from a similar ailment.

    • Beautifully thoughtful as always, Charlotte. The old boy’s wife was suitably perturbed that she got up and moved to the other side of the room. That makes me suspect grouchy might have been his normal state of being. But since I can’t know that, I’ll think of your teacher’s father and try to be a little more forgiving and compassionate.

      Thank you for being you.

  2. Oh, BTW, my wife is an NP and also has Lupus. I mask not as a political statement or to flip people off or to question the new world order or to support an agenda or show people how driven I am by propaganda from someone else’s misinformation or to repeat talking points but because I love my wife.
    Why do we have to make it larger than caring for each other? There is nothing larger, in my world.

  3. Hmmm. I wonder if, some when down the line, another person posts,
    “Rather than defend, I’ll explain the lack of balance in my post as a reaction, on a small scale, to the disrespectful, overtly belligerent old-timer in the waiting room.” and they’re referring to one of us. Or you.

    • Mac, I won’t be a bit surprised if it’s me. I have every intention of being (if I’m not already) an insufferable curmudgeon. (God, I hope humor doesn’t die before I do.)

      As for your love for your wife, my hat is off to you, my friend. Knowing you as I do, I’d expect nothing less by way of respect and devotion.

  4. Having worked in Public Health including previous work on pandemic flu, having worked in long-term care with vulnerable senior citizens, I know that using masks can help prevent the spread of contagious airborne pathogens. There are a robust conversations that could be had over risk/benefit, fact-based science, economic considerations, various restrictions, etc. There is a balance between respecting the rights and freedoms that go with individual choice, and how we respect and balance the rights of fellow citizens and respect their needs and desires to be healthy and not unnecessarily be exposed to something that could result in serious illness or death. I had a cousin who died of Covid. She lived in a group home. I have other family members who have been ill from Covid, one of them hospitalized for several weeks. Unfortunately, given the social and political polarization related to mask use and restrictions, those robust conversations do not seem to be welcome. Dispassionate discourse about how best to strike that balance is in short supply.
    Two of my brothers are dentists. They and their staff are up close and in the faces of their patients with oral secretions flying about. Many individuals infected with Covid are contagious to others even though they may have little or no symptoms. Masking is inconvenient but it does help to save lives and to mitigate the spread of potentially fatal yet preventable diseases.
    What is worse, to wear a mask to help prevent the spread of Covid or to wear a mask that blinds you to seeing the pros and cons in of this issue in an unbiased manner?

    • Victor, as always, I appreciate and respect your knowledge and your perspectives. Believe it or not, the first COVID fatality in Connecticut was a woman we knew.

      Rather than defend, I’ll explain the lack of balance in my post as a reaction, on a small scale, to the disrespectful, overtly belligerent old-timer in the waiting room. On a larger scale, it’s likely a reaction to the mixed signals, the governmental authoritarianism, and the lives ruined by reactions to and mandates deriving from the virus. My own sense is that a more measured response, targeting at-risk groups, absent the government’s making decisions about the “essential” and “non-essential” nature of businesses would have better served the public at large.

      I also appreciate your challenging me, as you do when you recognize the need, with civility and even-handedness.

      Thank you.

    • Mark, as our friend Melissa reminds us, once the amygdala activates we stop thinking and start reacting. It seems rare these days to have conversations about some topics without triggering someone’s amygdala. There is nothing to defend because nothing is under assault. The big part of me doesn’t like to be witness to or the recipient of another’s rudeness or disrespect but I can check my amygdala by invoking compassion. Hurt people hurt others. There is an awful lot of hurt going around. Some might advocate for tolerance but I personally feel that is more an exercise in self-restraint, a kind of mental brake to hold the amygdala in check and not get triggered. Compassion is a more soul-centered strategy where judgement about the correctness (or not) of someone else’s conduct or behavior does not guide your response. The Mayan expression “In lak’ ech” (taught to me by our friend, Zen) means “I am another you.” The masked man is another me, he is another you. There is a contrast to behold in the ways we show up and that provides wonderful opportunities to observe, think about, learn from, and celebrate. When we remove the mask, what is underneath? Another fellow human. Our paths crossed. We can either recognize or fail to recognize what dwells hidden within. I worked for years with the developmentally disabled until I realized what an arbitrary label that is. News flash #1 for me–we are all disabled in one sense. News flash #2 for me (years later)–underneath we are all made of the same God-stuff.

      It is not my intent to be preachy. I’m still trying to figure all this out. I truly admire your thoughtfulness, open-mindedness, and ability to self-reflect. In lak’ ech–truly!

    • I can’t imagine you’d ever be preachy, Victor. And your comments make me wish I’d crossed the waiting room to talk to that man.

      The other day, I commented to Dennis that getting triggered is an abdication of personal responsibility. I see room there for improvement in practicing what I preach.

      On the subject of the developmentally disabled, I’ll share this with you:

      I’m now Woody’s legal guardian. The world turns in mysterious and marvelous ways.

      Thank you, again and as always, for your friendship.

    • Mark, your story about Woody brings tears to my eyes. He is a wisdom teacher and doesn’t even know it, which makes his teaching that much more treasured. Woody teaches us about ourselves. The unnamed masked man teaches us about ourselves. I am thrilled by even having this exchange and I am soaking up the lessons. Thank you, my friend!

    • As you might imagine, Victor, there is a dark side to Woody. As his brother and his guardian, it’s one I have to intentionally ignore. That may be a story better told on another day. But it reinforces everything I learn from you about duality, acceptance, and humility.

      Thank you for, among many other things, this conversation.

  5. To this day there are those who hide their noses behind the masks, and why??? Your article gave me chuckles and I will think of it ever time I am waiting to see a medical appointment as I read the sign that says, ” A mask is required at all times while here”. Ugh!

    • Thank you for your comments, Lynn. One of my favorites is I had to wear a mask to enter my dentist’s office. WHAT?!

      Except that I love my dentist, I wanted to say, “One of us must be crazy, and I don’t think it’s me.”

  6. Mark: We have experienced and seen those situations you mention. Tragic and totally unnecessary in my opinion. Many people followed the pied piper (s) of medicine and political office as they whipped the covid issue into a world crisis like lemmings running off a cliff. For those that still think all this hype was justified, I suggest that “follow the money” may be good advice. How is it that some leading medical persons held 100s of patents relating to the vaccine before the disease even existed? Why did the big pharmaceutical companies have to have liability protection before a person could get the vaccine? Why were doctors and hospitals paid premiums for listing covid as the cause of death? It is my opinion that this is one of the greatest scams ever perpetrated on humanity and likely one of the largest genocide events in history.

    • Ken, I still can’t get past destroying economies, businesses, jobs, and lives the world over. And I absolutely love it when people ask me why I’m angry. Huh? We’ve just suffered the most reprehensible swindle in history, and we’re not supposed to be angry? If that’s so, please tell me when the hell anger is justifiable.

      The good news is I suspect I’ll live forever because if I can remain as naive as I apparently am, I’ll never get old.

      Good grief.

    • You’re very welcome, Laura. And thank you for your comment. It makes me happy to think of your smiling while you were reading and enjoying your coffee.