| Arts & Culture
Movies ‘The Mighty Ducks’ Movies Taught Me How to Survive a Pandemic
I’ve found an unavoidable kinship with the Ducks. It could be, at least in my estimation, a quintessentially black American story.
I’m quarantined at my parents’ place in Indiana, a far cry from my cramped Brooklyn apartment. Here, I can be with the people I love, riding out wave after wave of this global pandemic together. It’s a nightmare outside of this house, but at home, always, there is sanctuary.
Things have changed a lot since I’ve lived at home full-time. For one, my parents are more economically secure than they’ve ever been. There are no more whispered conversations to be overheard about choosing between one essential service or the other. Nowadays, things are comfortable here, peaceful.
But my mom’s asthma is as bad as it’s ever been. It’s being managed, sure. But that, combined with her allergies, always make springtime a fraught few months in the Johnson-Pack household. Lots of coughing, lots of sneezes, lots of hand sanitizer, and an ongoing chorus of bless you s. This year, though, I can’t shake the gripping fear that each cough is something more sinister.
I know the statistics. I’m subscribed to New York City’s Covid-19 alert texts, I listen to NPR religiously, I watch MSNBC when the radio gets too monotonous. I sop up every bit of information about what’s going on, as though being educated will be enough to save the people I love from a virus that no one really understands. The details change every day, but the same words cycle through every broadcast: immunocompromised , and preexisting lung conditions , and disproportionately affects people over sixty .
So I peek into my mom’s bedroom every night before I go to sleep under the guise of walking to the bathroom and wait for a cough. I wake up every morning and the first thing I do is listen for the sound of her breathing. I wipe down every surface, then wipe it down again. I ask her to not so much as step outside on the porch to retrieve a package. I am living on the knife’s edge of panic and anxiety—one move too far in either direction and I will lose what tenuous grasp I have on holding my world together.
We are sitting ducks, ticking time bombs. I’m convinced that one of us has already been made a victim, already fallen prey to a stray droplet, waiting to make its presence known. Everything feels urgent. Every hug, every muttered I love you , something like a last rite.
The first time I think about a world without my mother, I’m fifteen years old.
My mom is larger than life. We bump heads often because I am young and foolish and angry at things I don’t yet have the language to name. But even when we’re at odds, she is still the clock by which I set my entire life—steady and sure.
This is not to say that my mom is invincible. I am young still, but I’ve already seen her broken. And perhaps that’s at the heart of her heroism, her ability to get knocked down nine times and stand up ten. She is a fighter. Rocky against Drago. Most of her battles are on behalf of her children. I am old enough to feel guilt at how little that leaves her for herself yet too selfish to change my behavior so that she can rest.
But today, my mother is not my mother. Or rather, my mother is my mother stripped down to her barest form. Her asthma, which has always been a low-simmering cause of concern, has become dire. She can’t breathe. We’re at home and she’s wheezing and this moment isn’t going to pass. Her inhaler isn’t enough. My stepdad is working nights and, at the moment, unreachable. My mom, in true form, doesn’t want to go to the hospital.
I don’t concern myself with the whys. I do not understand insurance, and how much a trip to the emergency room will cost. I haven’t been around long enough to know that when we reach the hospital in our rural-adjacent Midwestern town, we’ll be not only the singular black people waiting to be seen but the only visible black people, period. That our presence will be alien and unwelcome. So I strong-arm her into the car. I wrangle my little sister into the backseat. I use my learners’ permit to get my mom to the safest place I can think to take her.
As long as my mom can’t breathe, and my big sister—who is twelve years older than me—isn’t here to do her usual due diligence of bulldozing the nurses’ station and demanding answers from passing interns, I’m pulling double-duty as the eldest and the surrogate mother.
I’m jittery as we wait. I can hear the pinched straw whistle of my mom’s lungs working overtime to ensure her survival, and I want to cry. I want to scream. I want to ask someone why we haven’t been seen yet—why no one feels the same clawing urgency I feel to get my mom the help she so clearly needs. Isn’t it obvious? Don’t they get that this is Rocky in the fourteenth round, barely standing? That one more punch and she falls down for good?
So we wait. They call her back. We wait. A nurse comes in for vitals. We wait some more. This can’t be legal, leaving a woman in so much clear distress to her own devices for this long. It’s their job to help her. They have to help her.
Finally, someone comes in with a nebulizer. They give her a breathing treatment that alleviates some of the stress but doesn’t cure it. I’m in a chair in the corner, legs tucked underneath myself, uncharacteristically silent. To speak would be to suck the air out of the room that she desperately needs. To speak would be to admit how scared I am, how terrifying it is to watch the unbelievably strong body that has carried me emotionally and financially and physically for fifteen years, fold under the weight of its limitations.
I cannot comfort my little sister. I cannot soothe my mother. A doctor comes in. He’s asking questions in clipped sentences, like her very presence in his hospital is an inconvenience. She lowers her mask and answers quietly, slowly—so unlike the bold and boisterous woman who leads my youth group at church or who stands in front of a classroom during the week.
This can’t be legal, leaving a woman in so much clear distress to her own devices for this long. It’s their job to help her.
And have you been taking your medication ? he asks, without making eye contact.
My mother’s No is barely audible.
Well, why not? He’s not asking the right questions. His tone is all wrong.
My mother is shrinking, becoming impossibly smaller somehow, under his glare. I couldn’t afford it , she answers.
At this, he nods, mollified. It’s almost startling, the clarity with which I watch him formulate a narrative about who we are. Another welfare queen and her brats, here to score some quick steroid and skip back to the projects. I’m enraged, inarticulate.
W-what we can afford doesn’t matter. What can you do for her now , I demand, voice shaking.
If there are right questions to ask, I’ve failed to learn them. This failure begets failure—me failing my mom and the doctor failing her as a result. If only I knew what to say, how to say it, to make him understand that this isn’t her fault, that she’s doing the best she can, that she shouldn’t die just because she had to choose between her medication and our dinner, that that that that
The first time I realize that I won’t ever be able to save my mom, I’m old enough to know it won’t be the last.
When the coronavirus nightmares begin, they are simple enough. Only the most fragile vestiges of fear hold on in my sleep. One dream: I’m at IKEA assembling a table in the warehouse when I suddenly remember that I can’t touch anything or anyone. I wake up just as I’m running through the potted plant section, attempting to escape.
Or another: It’s been six months since I’ve seen my family, six months since we’ve been separated by distance and disease, so I walk into a restaurant to meet them for dinner. As I round the corner to where they’re sitting, my heart rate kicks up in excitement. At the table, the first face I see is my mother’s. She turns to me, her eyes heavy, forehead and mouth lined with premature age. Although I know instinctively she’s my mom, she is virtually unrecognizable. In six months, she’s become someone else entirely.
This is the vision that I can’t shake off one morning. The nightmare where, though my mother is alive, I’ve already managed to lose her.
My sister finds me that afternoon, while I’m still silent and sullen, reeling from another night of sleep gone wrong. I’ve barely been home a week.
Hey, she pokes her head into my room without knocking. Again. We have an HBO GO free trial for five more days. She wiggles her eyebrows like she’s made me an offer I’d be silly to refuse. I sulk into her room and plop down into her worn blue saucer chair, reluctant but beholden to participate in this frivolous ritual.
Months ago, we vowed to watch every nineties underdog sports movie our streaming services had to offer, but never got around to it. Now, we cycle through the sexual tension of Motocrossed , a lifelong favorite. We watch Remember the Titans up until That Part, when the movie becomes too painful to handle. And then we arrive at The Mighty Ducks.
It’s been at the top of our list for months. My deep-seated love of Emilio Estevez and Pacey Witter making it an almost unavoidable checklist item. Neither of us is particularly sporty, but there’s something to the predictability of sports movies that soothes us. The ticking clock. The winner-takes-all theatrics. The small versus big, the mighty versus the weak. We love drama. Sports movies deliver it in spades.
She queues up the movie, and we laugh at the nineties-esque extended opening credits interwoven with sepia-toned flashback scenes. There’s an eight-year-old boy, bright-eyed and hopeful, about to take the final shot that will win his team the pee-wee hockey championships. It’s the exact right amount of plucky.
And suddenly, the kid misses the shot, and falls to his knees in the middle of the ice. It’s drama, sure; laughable, probably. But I’m not laughing. The kid’s heartbreak is palpable.
Cut ahead, we meet Gordon Bombay, an obnoxious win-at-all-costs Minneapolis lawyer. We learn this is the same kid from the ice, that he hasn’t touched a pair of skates since, and has no interest in going anywhere near a rink. He lost once, was shattered by that loss, and refuses to do it again.
This is the perfect setup for a Disney movie. The stakes are clear, the main character is well-defined. But it keeps getting better. After an unfortunate (but predictable) twist of fate, Bombay is forced to coach a down-on-their-luck pee-wee hockey team. A team full of kids so poor or working-class that they tape old magazines to their shins in place of pads. They’re hopeless. But that’s when the magic happens.
In true Disney fashion, the team that everyone counted out suddenly gets their wings, so to speak. The curmudgeonly coach’s ice heart is thawed. They train harder, they band together, they rely on their joy in playing and love for one another. And that’s somehow enough to get them to the playoffs. And then through to the championship. And eventually, to the trophy.
On this night, there’s laughter in our house for the first time in days. There’s a lightness in the room that hasn’t been there since I returned home. It’s dizzying, how fast and hard I fall in love with this ridiculous movie. Emilio Estevez in his bold-shouldered nineties suits, a young Joshua Jackson looking puppy-faced and hopeful in his too-big hockey uniform, the jokes that land just as easily now as they did twenty-five years ago.
I’m struck by the quick-witted writing, the simple yet powerful underdog storyline. And for two hours, I’m happy.
Time is suspended. Things are normal. In this alternate universe, the universe that I’ve thrown myself into headfirst, money doesn’t mean an inability to compete. A team of scrappy, working-class Midwestern kids defy every odd. They don’t apologize for who they are. They are David to the rival team’s Goliath. They best the giant every time.
It’s an unbelievably soothing escape. It’s the only narrative I can stomach right now.
My friend sends an article in the group chat that says while black people only account for thirteen percent of the population in the United States, we make up more than thirty percent of all coronavirus-related deaths. There’s a story on my Twitter timeline about doctors choosing who is fit to live and die, as they can’t possibly treat all of the patients they’re receiving right now. Everywhere I turn there’s another reminder that should it come down to it, the likelihood that any of the women in my life—from my mother to my sisters to my granny—would survive if they contract the virus is very slim.
So I rewatch The Mighty Ducks . I watch them crush the pompous, entitled Hawks again and again. I watch them own the ice, find a home in a place they are told repeatedly they don’t deserve to be. One night, my anxiety is so bad, I cycle through the entire franchise in one sitting—three movies in total—and soak up three different iterations of the same story: No one believes in the Ducks, counts them out, and they still come out on top in the end.
It’s not lost on me the first-glance absurdity of overlaying my own narrative about mortality and racial inequality onto a story about mostly-white ice hockey playing preteens from Minnesota. But the thing is, I’ve found something of an unavoidable kinship in the Ducks. It could be, at least in my estimation, a quintessentially black American story.
There’s a lightness in the room that hasn’t been there since I returned home. It’s dizzying, how fast and hard I fall in love with this ridiculous movie.
Replace Charlie Conway with a black girl, and that’s me, playing tennis in middle and high school against girls who were born with rackets in their hands. Swap out Casey Conway with my mom and you still have a hard-working single mother who puts her needs on the back burner to make sure her kid gets the life they most dream about. I’m comforted by those similarities—by what I need those similarities to mean for me in this moment.
Because the truth is, the people I love will die. This, the body’s failure, is absolute. Whether that be at the hands of a flawed healthcare system or something more natural remains to be seen. But goodbye is inevitable. There are no winners in this particular fight.
That’s not to say that some of us aren’t mighty good cheats. People skydive just to feel the rush, to look death in the face, and sneer at its inability to catch them just yet. They zipline over rivers, nosedive off of cliffs, swim with sharks all as if to say: I’ve tempted fate and emerged victorious . And for some of us, it’s much more subtle. For some of us, it’s as simple as the small miracle of giving birth and being able to walk out of the hospital to raise our babies once it’s over.
The facts are clear. Black women are 3.3 times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. We’re more likely to be killed by heart disease and stroke than any other racial group. We are more likely to live in food deserts and without access to regular or even sufficient medical care. We are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer , yet more likely to die from it.
What I’m saying is: Every day that the women I love wake up and survive is a day that we’ve done the impossible. It’s a day that we’ve wrenched our lives from the odds that would just as easily mark us dead.
This isn’t coincidence. This is by design. This is what it looks like to live in a country that was built on our backs yet refuses to remove its boot from our neck. This is structural, systemic. And it is terrifying.
The phenomenon of our continued survival is only the most modest of balms as we stare down the barrel of Covid-19. There is no amount of advocacy I could perform on behalf of myself, of my mother, of my mother’s mother, that will render any of those facts irrelevant. But it does reinforce what I know to be true about these women I love. That before we learn much else, we learn how to fight. That hard-wired into our DNA are the tools to hold each other together in times of crisis.
That if there’s an underdog story to be found here—a not-so-alternate reality in which the odds are stacked against some scrappy, resilient fighters from the Midwest—then we’ve won before, and we will do it again. And maybe, in the next matchup, the giants won’t seem so big anymore.