I failed at the dam sunflower project three times over the course of two years. The deer. I love them; they love my sunflower seedlings more. My new sunflower seeds are in my reading bag, but I haven’t worked up the courage to tackle the dam and plant them.

Mom would have tried again and would want me to try again, but I’m still stinging from 2021 failures.

  • fifty sunflower seeds for sunflower wall: the deer ate them
  • Mom’s garden: the plants died
  • water lily slips for the ponds: I don’t even know.
  • so many more…

We’ll rally. We always do. Maybe I’ll tackle the sunflower wall again before summer hits. I failed thrice and maybe I’ll fail again, but mom would want me to tuck and roll, dust myself off, tell the story, and try again. I’m sure the deer are hoping I will.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2023


Tuck and roll? I learned it in a gym, as part of exhausting drills and practices.

I’m exhausted again. But it’s different. Different from a long run or an intense workout because I don’t recover all the things. No standing in the mirror to check the shape of my tummy, the tone of my thighs. No bonus endorphin boost.

I’m just tired.

I ask dad to send mom to my house in the gator. She no longer drives cars but still has the skills, so…

Send mom down in the gator. 

A few weeks ago, mom and I started my dam sunflower project: a tunnel of mammoth sunflowers flanked by shorter ones along the top of the pond dam. Today, a sunny, cool morning, we’ll plant the second round of seedlings.

Mom loves to do things with me. I say “with me” but honestly, she loves to have something to do with anyone, to feel like she’s contributing, helping.

I hear the gator, expecting to greet a happy mom, but she climbs out sulky, weary.

What’s wrong, Mom?

I’m just tired.

Oh, you didn’t sleep well?

No, I’m just tired of this, she waves her hands in the air to fill in words that escape her. I’m tired of being alone.

Thud. Reflex hand to chest.

Mom’s not alone, of course, and now that we have sitters, she spends very little time alone.

I’m tired of being alone.

I give her a long hug.

I’m here now.

I push down the heaviness as I load the gator.

You ready to plant some flowers?

She manages a detached smile.

After we load ourselves, I tell her, Hang on!! and gun the gator up the hill.

There it is! The joy in her eyes.

I wonder if revving the gator brings back memories of her gold T-bird with rear doors that open backwards. She loved to taunt dad, gunning the engine as she left tread on her way to…

She holds her hat to her head. Where are we going?

Thelma? Louise?

To the pond. To plant some more sunflowers.


Dewberries are in season and briar patches cover the pond dam. I give mom a bucket to pick berries while I dig forty holes for seedlings.

A year ago, mom and I could tag team a project like this, digging, adding nutrients, seedlings, soil, water. Now, I talk her through the steps she.taught.me, but she loses her way, tangled in the briar patch of her hippocampus. She can pick berries without reminders, so, Here’s your bucket.

About twenty holes in, I hear “Help.” No exclamation in her voice. Just “Help.”

I don’t see her at first. She rolled down the bank through briars and berries, just short of the pond.

I reach out, but she refuses my hands.

I lost all my…

She waves one hand looking for the word. Berries.

I find her bucket a couple of feet away in the briars and collect her berries. She watches, leaning up the bank, chest and arms resting between bent knees.

When she’s satisfied, she lets me take her hands. She’s slight, but I struggle to pull her up. Visions of both of us tumbling into the pond splash through my mind. I hold tight until we’re safely on the flat top of the ridge.

There, I say turning to pick up the berry bucket.

But she keeps walking backwards, as if still pulled by an incline.

I can’t stop.

Her voice is soft, her arms flail.

I grab one of her hands and put an arm around her waist. Her legs keep stepping back. I walk (push?) her to the gator.

Sit for a spell, Mom. Drink some water.

This isn’t the first time she complained she couldn’t control her legs. Is it part of this disease? This isn’t the first time she rolled down the ridge.

When mom helped me with the first round of sunflower seedlings, she rolled down the west side of the dam, away from the pond. She managed to stand up, but she rolled back down.

Wait! I ran to her, gave her my hand, pulled her up. When I let go, down she went! Again!

I grabbed her hand. This time I didn’t let go until she was standing on the flat middle of the ridge. She laughed.

Well, that’s a story!

Mom trained to fall well most of her life. She still falls well.

Last year she helped dad unload some things from the bed of the truck. Done, she went to climb out, the gate popped open, and mom went flying through the air and onto the concrete driveway.

Tuck and roll. Tuck.and.roll!

Mom trained for this. As a coach, she trained me and hundreds of other teenagers how to fall.

When you play the game, a fall is inevitable.

Tuck and roll!

Dad turned in time to see mom sitting, chest straddled through her knees, on the driveway, a few scrapes, but not a single broken bone.

Today, I pull her through her straddle, up the ridge, out of the berries, but she doesn’t laugh. She sits in the gator, sips her water, rests.

We’re tired.

I want the exhaustion endorphins, dammit. I want mom to receive some too, to take the deep satisfying breath, feel the renewal of her effort course through her blood.

But the endorphins aren’t coming, are they?

Maybe this feeling is premature grief? Or its evil sibling, dread, stealing the one gift this disease offers: live.in.the.present.

Perhaps this is grief’s companion? Helplessness? Like rolling through briars down a ridge?

Tuck and roll, tuck and roll, we’ll save our bones, but none of our tuck and roll training will save us from the fall. We’re falling.

Maybe the feeling is all these and a lot more things.

I’m not sure how much longer we can tuck and roll, how many more bones we can save, what we can hold onto.

We’re tired, lonely exhausted, helpless falling, grieving the berries we dropped, even as we plant flowers together, hold each other on the ridge, and zoom up the hill in a noisy gator with a smile. We’re terrified.

Tuck and roll.

What’s tuck and roll? It’s the grace you add to your fall.

I refuse to let walking backwards be mom’s final effort today. I take her out of the gator. We make one last round to admire the seedlings, place dried grasses around their bases, load our tools, then head home.

We’re not okay. This fall is inevitable, and we won’t recover completely.

But we’ll be fine. On the other side of this, after we tuck and roll, we’ll have berry stains and briars in our bottoms.

But we’ll be fine.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021