Two & a Half Blocks: On Masks, Friendship & Death. (Mental Health, Personal Essay)

“There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights, the light of all lights.”
– Bram Stoker, Dracula.

The first memory I have of masks, outside of the ones depicting ghosts and goblins worn by kids on the tail end of October each year, was on television, back in the 80s. On the wall in the office of quirky, bespectacled Dr. Jacobi in the town of Twin Peaks. When I search to verify it using Google Image Search and turn up nothing, I question my own memory of the event. Of course, memories sometimes fade or get mixed up over time.  But the lack of  an internet record of my mental visual reference makes me question if it happened at all, which makes me wonder if that is the future where we are heading. A future that lies only in the truth being found within a search engine’s algorithm.

The fact remains that masks are featured prominently elsewhere in the series, at least in other scenes. This I can verify by Google. A small boy wears a near featureless mask, save for a punctured orifice for the nose and an elongated appendage in the middle of his forehead. They are jarring scenes. A mask can often have powerful effects on the person wearing them, but the real magic gets cast on it’s audience.

For a time I pursued, purchased and collected a small quantity of masks. Mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Within the confines of the studio apartment I rented off Queen St. East, nestled behind a vintage furniture store.  I had several mounted on my living room wall just above the grey framed Sony Trinitron. I would stare at the mysterious square eyed, square mouthed masks with raffia for hair and they would stare right back, in silence.

It was inside that same darkened studio apartment I was presented with an email about eleven years ago. You know the kind of email I received, we’ve all been subject to at some point. It was one of those chain letter affairs. Normally I would pass over and delete this category of communique, but in this instance, when I caught the name of the sender, I paused for a moment.

It was from John. John was a friend that I knew from high school. I hadn’t heard from John in awhile.  But for a time in those high school years he was everywhere. He was an integral part of our tight knit crew. After graduation I saw him less and less, until he just seemed to fade away, a ship slowly sailing off into the horizon. Then one day the ship becomes a speck you barely see, a moment later and it is gone. Plucked away by the hand of circumstance or fate. There was no malice or ill will associated with the slow fade that occurred. I had always assumed he was eager to discover his own identity after high school. At the time, I shared the same sentiment. It is the same reason that young people leave small towns every day.  The yearning for something more.

Of course, years later, if one has the opportunity to do so, rekindling old relationships can induce a greater appreciation of the friends one made in high school.  Friendships forged in grade school certainly comes with a life long bond. But the friends made during the period of awkward puberty that follows are exceptional. Because they are the friends you make while you are discovering who you are as a young adult. And so, by default, in many cases, those very friends become an important part of your own permanent identity. Many of their personality traits transform into major influences of the man (or woman)  you come to be.

For me, John was one of these people. When I think of John, I think of him bounding down our high school hallway. It was windowless and dark with a row of metallic, foul smelling lockers on either side.  John was the burst of colour in our monochrome lives that we so sorely needed.  He seemed to glide down those hallways, belting out a new song every day. Quick with a grin, peppering us with jokes, random thoughts about a book he was reading, the lyrics to a song. He exuded life, always full of curiosity and wonder. He remained a staple in our small group of friends throughout our high school days and more importantly, our weekend expeditions of teenage debauchery. That same face would come out of the darkness in parks, ravines, backyards and basement parties. Always with a joke, a song, a prank, a story, often somewhat shocking, but never spiteful.

For a brief period in the years that followed our simultaneous graduations, I would see John sporadically. On dance floors pierced by green lasers overhead, John’s face would appear at raves, clubs and parties, sometimes seemingly appearing out of nowhere through a fog of dry ice, always with that same disarming, mischievous grin. Back then we danced to forget. Now, I dance to remember.

In his final year at the school we first met, John played the starring role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. For a character that was described as having “… a mighty brain, a learning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse… there was no branch of knowledge of his time that he did not essay.”  It was a perfect role for John.  And one that he had reportedly played flawlessly – (I had managed to tunnel out and surface at a different institution by that stage, and so sadly missed out on the performance.)

Inside the concrete lined snow globe of cities, we scurry from our jobs to our homes, and back to our jobs in a perpetual cycle. Like hamsters that hobble from their daily treadmill routine to their feeding tube each day, passing through a labyrinth lined with garbage and forgotten dreams. We like to imagine ourselves as free and mobile, but we are often chained just as prisoners are, in horizontal striped uniforms, chipping away at rocks by the side of the road.

Cities seduce, with brightly coloured boutiques, multi flavoured restaurants and shiny cars. But they also have a habit of breeding poverty and worse yet;  loneliness.  The frantic pace of human activity can isolate us against ourselves, especially if someone falls off the running track. I have never gotten to know anyone on my apartment floor. There are some neighbours that I have never seen, in six years of living in the same building.

It is easy to lose sight of some people. Even if they only live a few blocks away.

One night, about three years ago,  I was walking down the downtown street I live on, now on the west side of the metropolis. I don’t remember exactly where I was going. I know it was probably a week night. I remember it being at night, sometime after dinner in the early evening, in fall.  I was walking quickly, deep in thought, my eyes focused on the ground.

A voice called out to me.  I looked up.  He seemed to float from the street towards me, through the heavy glow of neon signs and street lights, calling out my name. After about two seconds, I recognized that face. After nearly twenty years, there was still no mistaking it.  We embraced. I asked where he had been, that all of us missed him. I told him I was married and that I lived just down the street. He pointed vaguely behind where I was standing, told me that he had been singing in a church, situated somewhere close by. He told me I should join him to sing with him at some point. I replied, okay. Knowing at that moment that there was little chance I would pursue this opportunity. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to re-connect with John. Four years in a Catholic penitentiary had rendered me with a severe allergy to churches. He smiled at me, walking backwards, away from me. The city night seemed to pull him away, plucking him up and placing him back to his corner of the labyrinth.

I never saw John again.  A chance encounter had become a brutally savage, missed opportunity.  Two and a half blocks might as well be two and a half million miles away.

I found the news out on Facebook. Someone I know has labelled it the perpetual obituary machine.  A tribute takes place. Photos are posted. Comments are made. Sad emojis follow. The irony is, all of this transpires on the same social network John had shunned, for his own personal reasons and for most of his adult life. Even in death, there is no escaping technology.

While masks are used in indigenous tribes to communicate with the dead and re-enact rituals and stories, urbanites wear masks in their daily lives simply to cope with the complexities of human relationships. I wear one mask for my place of employment, another for my friends, one for my family, another for my wife.

Our lives sometimes feel as though they are disintegrating around us with anger, sadness, illness, addiction or despair. Yet, when our friends, our families, our colleagues ask us how we are, we reply that we are fine. We disguise ourselves in cloaks of perceived success and happiness because the truth feels too painful to share. Rich, poor, young and old; life is often a heavy burden for all of us.

I realize now that John had worn his mask that conveyed joy and happiness. And while it may have helped those of us to have known him feel lucky and good during those halcyon days, it also may have managed to help conceal some dark forces at play.

When someone we love dies, after the initial shock and sadness, there is often guilt. We play the “what if” game, the “if/only” setup. If only I had set aside my prejudice against church. My discomfort with religious based singing. What if I had made a greater effort at keeping in touch with John. Maybe, by some force of magic, willpower, or fate, he would still be here today.

Of course, it is a pointless exercise. It is also an unforgiving, painful one. I have since tried to re-frame the last physical encounter I had with John.

It was a gift to see his smile one last time.

As with all tragic affairs, there are lessons to be learned. The absolute finality of death offers no second chances with it’s victims. The door remains closed. But it’s a different story for those left behind.  I am going to try harder to keep in touch with my friends. I am going to try to set my masks aside.  And I am going to try to be there for people when they feel they can remove their own.

As for those masks that used to reside on my living room wall; I sold them to a friend a few years back.  I rarely miss them. After all – they were just masks. It’s what lies behind and beyond them that really counts.


Top image, Bakuba Congo mask, wikipedia, courtesy of unknown

Middle image, Indonesian mask, wikipedia, courtesy of Dohduhdah.

Bottom image, Devils mask for the Pátzcuaro celebrations, Michoacan, courtesy of  Hubertl.


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