The Mask

Credit-Vanderbilt University

Credit-Vanderbilt University

In a closet, on a high shelf, Jaylan’s radiation mask. It gapes at the ceiling, tape softening the edges of the yellow Kevlar shaped around the eyes and mouth. Tape haphazardly patched over the forehead, the temporal and parietal bones, in uneven layers, at angles. I could do better, I think, than these crooked lines. The lines form an uneven Venn diagram in blue, red, and black ink, marking the topography of the mask in a code that indicated to the radiologists how much radiation to direct into his brain, and to the millimeter, where. 

Sometimes I still imagine Jaylan wearing it.

In the belly of the Growler, a World War II-era submarine now preserved at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space museum in New York, I was fine until I wasn’t. Somewhere between the first porthole doorway and the engine room, the air started to look different – wrong. I couldn’t tell whether I was looking into the officers’ quarters through Plexiglas, or whether there was no barrier at all. Jaylan was across the aisle just hip-width away, looking at the vinyl-covered kitchenette. How did they get fresh air underwater? I asked. He probably answered me, but I don’t remember what he said. I was mentally spinning out. We’d been the last ones in line before the attendant had clipped the velvet rope in place but here came more tourists and fat tourist children moving loudly, quickly toward us, and I had to get out had to get out right now right now. I squeezed past them making cheerful apologies—It’s just like the subway!—and excuse me, excuse me, and then I was up the stairs and through the retrofitted doors and on the deck, weak-kneed, crying. I had made it halfway through the submarine. As I keep relearning, I have problems with small spaces.

It had happened before, in a cave in the Peaks District when I’d gone to visit my brother, who was living briefly in London. Two hundred feet of stairs below the surface, we stepped off the platform into a boat just large enough for three or four people and a guide, who used his hands to push us along the curved wall of the low-ceilinged cave for seconds which became minutes which became hours which lost connection with linear time entirely. You’re fine, I remember telling myself. There’s plenty of fresh air. It’s cooling itself along the water to you. See? Then I doubled over, wheezing, sobbing, and afraid. It happened in the narrow staircase leading to the painted ceiling of the Duomo in Florence, and in the Viet Cong tunnels widened for war tourists in Củ Chi. This problem, I think now, has something to do with control. When I realize that I can’t physically get out of a space quickly, I find a sudden need to do exactly that. Logic doesn’t help. The air becomes visible, oppressive. My mind shuts down and my body follows suit.

I imagine sailors asleep in the Growler’s close bed racks. VC soldiers squatting on their heels in the darkness. Jaylan clipped to a table, unable to move.

Every day for six weeks of radiation treatment, Jaylan put on the mask. It’s made of Kevlar that’s been dipped in water and molded to his face. You’re bulletproof, I told him. Before the mask technology was developed, patients had small markings tattooed on their faces to ensure that each dose of radiation was directed to precisely the same spot. I try to imagine wearing the mask and having my head snapped to a table for ten minutes every day for six weeks. If given the choice, I would prefer facial tattoos.

I can smell my olfactory cells burning, he said once after treatment. I didn’t understand. It smells like burning rubber when they’re irradiating me, he explained. I think it’s hitting my olfactory nerve. Maybe I won’t be able to smell or taste after this.

Horror rose quietly in my throat as I imagined this and other consequences we knew were possible: loss of memory, personality changes, uncontrollable emotions. Healing, we were learning, could be harmful.

Autopsies of infants who died of SIDS in the late 19th and early 20th centuries revealed that the cause of their deaths had likely been their enlarged thymus glands. The thymus gland is located near the collarbone, around the trachea. It was thought that the babies had been suffocated by their own abnormal thymuses. Doctors came up with a simple fix that became common practice among conscientious parents in the ‘20s and ‘30s: radiation. Tens of thousands of babies were irradiated in the hope that shrinking their thymuses would prevent death from SIDS. More than ten thousand died from thyroid cancer as a result of the radiation by the time science realized its error: there had been nothing wrong with the thymuses of the babies who’d died from SIDS. Rather, something had been wrong with the thymuses of the bodies that the doctors had used as a comparative standard. At the time, autopsies were generally only performed on the bodies of the poor. Poverty, it turned out, and its attendant chronic stress, had the effect of shrinking the thymus.

The babies had been irradiated for nothing, and the radiation had killed them. Right, I thought, upon learning this. Radiation causes cancer. But somehow, it is also used to treat the disease.

Two weeks into radiation, Jaylan felt fine. Three weeks in, his hair began to fall out. A month in, he slowed down. Walking exhausted him. I did my best to match his pace. We shuffled from the elevator doors up the inclined parking garage floor to the car, from the car to the hospital entrance, down the hallway and another elevator to the basement level and radiology. Every day for six weeks, he put on the mask. Every day for six weeks, they snapped his head down and strapped his legs to the table and mechanically lifted him into the machine. I waited, imagining a tiny radioactive miner chipping away at the cancer. Radiation treatment ended a few weeks before Jaylan’s twenty-ninth birthday and he joked about how he felt he was turning ninety-two. On the last day of treatment, he walked out with his mask in a plastic bag. Some people make it into a Chia pet, the doctor said.

A Google search turns up images of radiation masks that have been turned into fine art, or painted to resemble the masked faces of superheroes. Some are feathered, bejeweled, their original purpose and form unrecognizable. People burn their masks, symbolically reclaiming their power over cancer. Some hang their masks on the wall. We put Jaylan’s on a shelf in the closet.

How do you feel about the mask? I asked recently. He shrugged. It was just part of the treatment, he said. I don’t know if he’s touched it in the two years since his radiation treatment ended.

Sometimes, in secret, I reach for it. I run my hands over the tape, explore the ovoid holes of the Kevlar grid with my fingertips. Sometimes I fit it over my face. Sometimes I reach behind my head and grasp the edge of the rim firmly, pinning myself between the mask and my own arm. I imagine that I am strapped to a table, waiting for the radiation, wondering whether I’ll continue to know the world by its smells, whether I’ll wake up tomorrow with a new personality or unable to remember being a child.

I try to understand.

The mask is light as air.


  • Melissa says:

    Another stellar piece, Nicole. I love what you’ve done here, moving in all sorts of directions out from the mask. As a sidenote: I also love how you describe your experience of claustrophobia. I feel similarly in pitch-black dark– the kind of true dark where you wake up and can’t tell which way is up or down or how big the space is or where the exit is. The panic comes on fast & can’t be reasoned with, just as you describe.

  • Nicole says:

    Thanks, Melissa! I wonder whether you always responded that way to the dark? Not that we have many opportunities to experience it. Growing up in Alaska, I was used to darkness for long stretches. When I moved away, I missed it. I still do. I know there was a time I loved small spaces. I’m not sure why I started to fear them.

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