By Paul Crenshaw
In a hotel in East Tennessee we lost Baby Kate.
This was 2001, and we were moving to North Carolina. My daughters were four and one. My older daughter rode in the moving truck with me. My wife was behind us with our teething one year old, and every hour we had to pull over to the side of the road and walk her up and down the interstate. The four year old was excited—she hadn’t yet learned the fear of leaving things behind. We stopped near Knoxville where the mountains reared skyward and the next morning we left Baby Kate, my daughter’s doll, in a Comfort Inn.
The motel was miles behind us when she remembered the next morning. I saw her look around the cab of the big truck. In my wife’s car, our one year old was already screaming as we moved through the mountains. My daughter’s eyes grew wild, a hitch starting in her chest as she searched beneath the seat. She asked if she had left Baby Kate in her mother’s car. I knew then the answer, but I didn’t know loss, how our daughters would leave their smaller selves behind.
Over the years we’d stay in the same hotel a hundred times as we drove through Tennessee to visit family, each time forgetting a pillow or pair of pants, some small part of us. Eventually, I think, we leave behind who we once were, and can only hope the person we become is better than the one we were.
I told her we’d check the next time we stopped, but Baby Kate wasn’t in the car. Our younger daughter was crying again, not yet old enough to understand pain, and our older daughter began to sob when I said I couldn’t turn the truck around on the interstate, that it was too far now to go back. I was only thinking of miles, forgetting then, as I would many times, that part of parenting is sacrifice.
Stopped on the side of the road so the little one could scream, the older wiped her eyes as she told me Baby Kate would be all alone. “No one will love her,” she said, and here I’ll say something profound about love and loss, as soon as I figure out how to remember one without the other.
She was still sobbing as we eased down out of the mountains, so I made up a story about Baby Kate being found by a girl who had never owned a doll. This girl was the same age and height as my daughter, I said, and by the time we neared our new home she had almost dried her eyes. Her chest only hitched a little. Later we got her a new Baby Kate, but for several years she would ask about the old one—how she was doing, where she was, did the little girl who found her love her as much as she still did. I never had the heart to tell her it was a story I made up to still her sadness, that all our stories are only the words we wish we could hear. How we never forgive ourselves our own faults, the days we’re too tired to spend time with our children, the nights we nurture our own needs. I couldn’t tell her then that we are always trying to turn back.
Now she’s nearing the age she’ll have children of her own. And I’m at the age where every time I stay in a hotel I look for dolls left behind. The last time we made that drive my older daughter wasn’t with us—she’s moved back now to where we came from. My wife wasn’t there either, only the tiny child who had screamed for hours along the side of the road in the wind of passing semis. She’s grown skyward as well. And was too young to remember. Still, she knows the story, for we tell it every time we travel through Tennessee.
In the same hotel in which we lost her, we remembered Baby Kate, who had no hair. A dress I believe was white. We were moving then so I could learn to tell stories, so if I’m going to tell a story, it’s the tears, and the turning. How I wish I could write them away. I wish I could move mountains, or time, that it’s never too late to turn around.
Paul Crenshaw is the author of This One Will Hurt You, forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press. He still has nightmares about the long stretch of Interstate 40, and wakes to wonder if he’s left something there.
Endless Highway, Bob Dylan