I know it’s coming, that game-over buzzer. Game, set, match. Our last walk. Maybe sooner than I imagined.

But until mom can’t or shouldn’t, I’ll walk with her from her house to mine when I fetch her in the evenings.

She’s an athlete. She’s played these odds before: face off between the small, scrappy player and the behemoth.

You don’t play to win the game, but you play to win.

Division 1 vs. the community college division 3 basketball team, US Olympic team vs. the middle-school volleyball girls, Serena Williams vs. mom.

No one wants to watch this game.

It’s painful. But mom would watch.

Mom’s an athlete. Against the impossible matchup, she scraps for every steal, throws her arms under every blazing spike, winds up her stroke for every blistering serve.

Stay in the game! It’s what a true athlete does, even when the loss is inevitable.

This game and her determination are hard for her team staff.

“No! This is my house!”

“Don’t touch me! I don’t need help!”

“No, I won’t take that pill!”

Her words surface at inconvenient moments in the heat of this game, stubborn offense, hard-hitting defense against the caregiver line.

Play to win, no matter what!

You’re no match for this giant.

But, you take the ball, grip the racket, charge across the court, determined to claim the small victories a scoreboard will never reflect.

Surely, these tiny wins count somewhere in the chaos of loss. I need to believe it.

The walk from her house to mine is more challenging now. Mom’s knees are bone to bone. Even her good knee is bad.

On the sidelines, decisions about the athlete are tough. The trainers know that her dogged determination could kill her.

Knee replacement recovery, even half-knee replacement, requires communication.

Mom stares beyond the dad and the doctor as the doctor makes this dark half-time announcement.

Player down!

But the team staff knows: she wouldn’t recover from surgery, and trainers can’t hazard the brashness of a player’s in-it-to-win injuries.

What now?

Until the final buzzer, icepacks, medication, attention.

Mom smells our resignation, fury on her chin, unflinching eyes, tales of battles and madness on the field.

“But, Martha, that’s not what happened.”

The underdog’s last walk

In her head, the trainers stand next to the beast in the battlefield, and mom’s the underdog in it to claim every tiny win.

Mom always rooted for the underdog. When I was a young girl, I heard her cheering for a losing team on the television.

Why?” It didn’t make sense because she had no school or state affinities for either team.

“I always pull for the underdog.”

“What’s underdog?”

“The small guy, the one no one expects to win.”

I know I’m taking the last walks with mom through the field between our houses. The three to five minute walk now takes fifteen to thirty, one toe in front of the other. We walk through the dark, winter field. I swat gnats drawn to my phone light… Last night was the longest night, and, today, the earth tilts towards more light, but I’m not sure the light will return quickly enough to illuminate another walk with her.

Maybe mom roots for the underdogs because she feels this in her bones, red-headed middle child, small town athlete, tiny frame, determined heart. Maybe she roots for them because she knows they give more than the beast, more than we can imagine.

Or maybe, she knows better. She knows the real game isn’t reflected on the court or in the numbers on the scoreboard.

When the final buzzer pierces the air, the world might think this team went down but they’ll be wrong.

Mom will dance off this court because she’ll know better than those on the sideline staring at the scoreboard.

We win, mom. We win.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021