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What a very cold and impersonal world we must now live in. It is a world that I could never have imagined. One in which I and everyone around me are forced to be deprived of the most rudimentary of human interactions; the appearance, the look of one's face.

I recently learned of the passing of an acquaintance. I use the word acquaintance because, although I knew the gentleman's wife very well, I never came to be very familiar with the unfortunate man himself. I guess we just didn't have the same interests, frequent the same dining establishments or maybe it just wasn't meant to be.

When I did find myself in his company, he seemed to be someone with a very cordial nature and quite amiable. He always remembered me and often referred to a conversation we had during our last meeting. I suppose I now regret not getting to know Steve better, but I guess I'll just file that regret away along with the rest of them in my life.

The funeral service was to be held outdoors at the gravesite. I have become all too familiar with this variation from the traditional indoor church service as the number of funerals I attend has quite noticeably increased. The lack of any indoor gatherings has become routine as the virus, the evil that brought this terrible pandemic to the world in 2020, has compelled many traditions to fall by the wayside.

I arrived at the Noel Cemetery about 20 or so minutes prior to the start of the service. Although it was December, the weather was good. The sky was blue, only a mild breeze was present and the temperature was at an acceptable level. I recall thinking that, although it was a sad occasion for the gathering of friends and relatives, at least the possibility of inclement conditions had been avoided -- one less thing with which to concern myself.

As I followed the narrow dirt driveway around the far end of the cemetery, I wondered how many faces I would recognize. I felt somewhat ashamed of that concern as I knew my thoughts should have been on the deceased and his family, but it is strange how my thoughts seem to somehow wander off.

The plethora of cars and trucks, mostly pickup trucks, were lined up one after the other, so I parked behind the truck I followed into the cemetery. Before turning the key to the off position, I wondered if I had forgotten anything and, yes, I had. I opened the lid to the center console and removed my black cloth face mask.

For a moment, and a very brief moment, I considered leaving the mask in the truck. I don't wear it so much for my benefit but rather for the reassurance it must provide for those I come into contact with. I suppose one might say that I wear the cloth covering for the sake of others.

I stopped not far from my parked truck and stood by a granite marker with which I was familiar. The marker had two names on it; Mary Louise Fine and Floyd Fine Jr., my mother and father. I hadn't previously noticed but, although the date of my mother's departure from life was etched into the stone, the date of my father's demise was not present. How odd and even neglectful, I thought.

Nevertheless, I wasn't there to visit the graves of relatives but rather came to pay my respects to Steve. I suppose that there were a hundred or so attendees already present and a line near a canvas roofed pavilion was surely occupied by those wishing to sign the visitation book. Without speaking to anyone, I positioned myself at the end of the line while all the while trying to maintain an appropriate distance from the woman in front of me.

That woman and the gentleman before her placed a glove on their right hand before gingerly grasping the provided fountain pen. Once they scribed their names both removed the glove and returned it to their pockets. One could only speculate that the writing device itself might be the carrier of the covid-19 virus.

The service began as people moved away from other onlookers, making certain that comfortable distances were maintained. The master of ceremonies, the pastor, quoted verse after Biblical verse and several times asked that all bow their heads in prayer. I felt as though this service held in the time of the pandemic was unlike any I had ever attended. Sadly, I feel as though the fear of the microscopic illness was so prevalent that respect for the departed was not, and could not, be given the appropriate measure.

The tears of sadness fell not upon the cheeks of onlookers but were rather absorbed by the edges of the cloth face coverings. Extended arms were pulled back as many were fearful of decreasing that "social distancing" distance, thus hugs of sympathy were not offered. Some apologized for their caution, "sorry but you understand."

I left with only a few distant waves given as I bid goodbye to those I knew. As I walked toward my truck and as soon as I thought prudent, I forcefully removed the cloth barrier from my face. I know the mask wasn't the enemy, but it represented the things that I didn't at that moment care for, things which I could not abide.

It is my fear that this virus, this pandemic, this scourge of the past year, may, when no more than a harsh memory remains, leave behind changes -- unwelcome, unanticipated and irreversible changes. I have grown accustomed to the world around me and although it is not a perfect world, it is one which I have come to know so very well.

My memory of this past year will be of the virus and those who woefully succumbed to the illness. I will with great contempt remember those awful face coverings that stole the image of our faces and muffled our spoken words. I know I will never forget those cloth masks and the images of those who wore them, those people without faces.

Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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