“I thought this was supposed be like The Little Mermaid,” I whispered to my son. We were sitting in the audience at the play Once On This Island and it had taken a dark, sad turn. The big-hearted, generous-spirited heroine was dying right before our very eyes. It was nothing like the movie!
“Not the Disney one, the real one,” he whispered back.
I did not know there was a “real one.” This would have been good information to have when I bought tickets for us to see the musical on Broadway a few years ago. I was expecting a Disney-type musical and was completely unprepared for the heartache and loss I felt. I hadn’t even brought tissues and was wiping my tears on the “cashmere” scarf I had just bought from a street vendor.
Later, when I researched it, I learned that the original story of The Little Mermaid, written by Hans Christian Anderson, is really upsetting. The mermaid loses not only her voice, but also her tongue. Every step that she takes on her new legs feels like she is walking on sharp knives. In the end, the prince marries another woman and the mermaid loses everything, including her life.
It strikes me as distinctly American that, in the Disney version, the pain is erased and the ending is changed. It becomes a love story and a celebration of individualism. Sure, there is some hardship, but it all works out in the end.
I thought of these two different versions of The Little Mermaid story when I was browsing through social media over the weekend. I can’t quite comprehend the very different daily experiences people are having during this global pandemic. I see posts with updates about loved ones in the hospital fighting for their lives right next to posts of college students partying without masks. How can both of these things be happening at the same time?
In the town where we live, the public schools are back in session and masks are not required of students. Right down the street from these schools, though, our church building is closed until at least Thanksgiving. Youth athletics in our county are happening, but our bank lobby is closed until the COVID numbers stop climbing. The doctors and dentists in town have closed their waiting rooms, but restaurants are open. The university nearby has over 3,000 reported cases of COVID, but Greek life events continue. I can’t reconcile the parallel universes that are swirling around me, every single day.
It’s almost like we aren’t all watching the same play. Some of us are expecting a fairytale ending and some of us know that The Little Mermaid is actually a cautionary tale. There is a Disney version of COVID and a real one. I get why avoiding the real one is tempting, but its negligent.
Less than a year after we saw the play on Broadway, Caleb was honored to have a role in Once On This Island at our local theater. When people unfamiliar with the play asked me what it was about, I told them about the gorgeous songs and the wonderful characters. I told them that it was about a peasant girl in the Caribbean and was based on The Little Mermaid, but not the Disney version. I told them that it was sad and haunting and beautiful. I also told them that they should bring tissues.
I told them the truth about the play because once you learn something, you shouldn’t willingly unlearn it. I get why people are avoiding the hurt and danger of COVID— its disruptive and hard and heartbreaking to take the necessary precautions. I have two kids at college who are being careful, but I still worry about them. My family wears masks any time we are indoors and we feel very home-bound. I wish that our lives were more “normal,” but this virus is real and deadly and the least we can do is not make the situation worse.
After reading first-hand accounts and talking to people who work in our hospitals, I can’t un-know what I know. How can anyone look at data showing over 194,000 deaths in the U.S. and not feel the tragedy of these times? I feel more and more alarmed that we aren’t through with the worst of this. However, if I am wrong and things magically turn around, I’ll be thrilled. But if not and the non-Disney version of COVID is what we are witnessing together, we are going to need tissues.