At the risk of letting my inner geek out, I think I’ve figured out the real reason Spider-Man wears a mask.
Oh, don’t worry. This isn’t one of those oddball columns that discusses Superman’s immigration status or Batman’s patent protection. You don’t have to know the mighty Marvel footnotes in order to hang around here or care about how Hollywood treats caped crusaders. (Though if that sort of thing does light your fire, I’ll track you down for coffee later, OK?)
No, this has its roots in more familiar territory: in hospitals, in family, in simple conversation. And, as with so many things in this space, it starts with Heather and Missy.
My wife Heather got to spend the night at Good Samaritan hospital recently. Regular readers may remember that we’ve been chasing some medical mysteries worthy of Dr. Watson and not getting much in the way of answers. To move things along, Heather’s doctor suggested it was time for a sleepover, so that all the tests Heather needed could be run at once instead of strung out over weeks.
Logical. Helpful, even. Certainly appreciated.
But it did mean explaining a few things to Missy.
Despite her mental disability, Missy can be pretty sharp. Sharp enough to guess that when one of her guardians goes into the hospital and doesn’t come back right away, something may be wrong. Vanishing without explanation was never an option – not only do we respect her too much for that, but she’s stubborn enough to sit in the bay window for hours waiting for someone to come home if they’re not back on schedule.
So I took her up to the hospital in the afternoon and let her see that Heather was in good spirits. Missy lost her own mom to cancer, so we assured her that this wasn’t like that, that the doctor was just having a look around to see what was going on so Heather could feel better.
Even so, on the drive back, I could see Missy wasn’t entirely buying it. Not judging by the sniffs and red eyes and careful glances out the car window.
“It really is going to be OK, Miss,” I told her. And I believed it. But at the same time, as I tried to keep Missy’s worries at bay, I felt a sudden kinship with the ol’ webslinger.
Spider-Man, like I mentioned, wears a mask. The comics always have plenty of good reasons, starting with the need to protect his family from supervillain retribution. The fact that his real-world boss is a Spidey-hating jerk offers some extra incentive.
But masks hide more than just an identity. They hide feelings, too, especially fear and anxiety. Comic geeks know that one reason for the wallcrawler’s constant string of wisecracks in a fight is that he’s covering for nervousness, so that he can keep being a hero, to the world and himself. A mask makes that all the easier.
And it’s one that I think many of us have put on a time or too ourselves.
A good parent doesn’t lie to their child, or a guardian to their ward. I firmly believe that. But there are times when you stay brave to keep them from worrying, when your own fear and uncertainty have to stay out of sight so that you can help them through a tough situation. There are times when sharing everything you know and feel would just make the situation harder, especially when the real quest isn’t for information – it’s for reassurance.
I’ve been on the other side of this long ago, when Mom had to deal with breast cancer while my sisters and I were in grade school. We knew that Mom saw a lot of doctors and even went to the hospital sometimes. But Mom and Dad never weighed us down with stress we didn’t need. We knew we were loved, we knew we were safe, and we never knew about the anxiety they felt in the small hours of the night until much later.
There’s a funny thing about reassurance, though. If you provide it enough times, you can start to feel it yourself. “Fake it ‘til you make it,” Mom is fond of saying. I can’t argue: not only is Missy doing better, so am I. In talking to her, I was somehow talking to me, too, and making both of us stronger.
Sometimes, over time, the mask can create the hero.
And that’s a marvel more real than any radioactive spider.