We'd been on the road for almost eight hours. Me and my two boys. We were driving home from my cousin's wedding in Atlanta. Well, I was driving.
Ry, who's 6, and Tucker, who's 4, were strapped into their car seats in the back seat.
It was past 10 p.m. It was raining.
I was riding the right lane of I-75, about 11 miles north of Brooksville, figuring we had about another hour to go.
Then Tucker starts screaming. "EEEIIIAAAK! EEEIIIAAAK!" Out of nowhere, he starts screeching like he's been shot or something. "EEEIIIAAAK! EEEIIIAAAK!"
"What's the matter? What's the matter?" I shout, gripping the wheel with both hands. I turn down the radio. Look up into the rearview mirror. Tucker is thrashing around in his car seat, straining against his seat belt, beating his fists against the car door. "EEEIIIAAAK! EEEIIIAAAK! EEEIIIAAAK!" So Ry starts screaming, too. Both of them, in stereo, wailing and railing in the back seat.
There's nowhere to pull over. No exits in sight. In the darkness, a metal guardrail is rushing past on my right. Semis are speeding by on my left.
"What's the matter?" I cry, almost in tears myself. "Please, boys, what's wrong?"
"Mommy!" Ry whines. Then he chokes on his sobs. "Mommy," he tries again. "It's horrible! You won't believe it!
"Bobo just flew out the window."
Bobo is a stuffed elephant. He's about 10 inches tall, almost as wide. He wears plaid pajamas, which have faded from all the washings, and a white bow around his neck. His stubby front feet are lined with white satin. So are his big, floppy ears. His pale blue face is made of terry cloth, like a soft towel.
His trunk is almost bald from too much loving.
Uncle Mark sent Bobo to Tucker as a baby present. When I brought Tucker home from the hospital, Bobo was waiting in his crib.
Whenever Tucker is upset, or tired, or scared, or even sometimes when he's really, really happy, he squeezes Bobo tight and rubs that terry cloth trunk against his nose. Bobo has been thrown up on, colored on and had almost every imaginable kind of juice spilled on him. Tucker wipes his nose on Bobo, wipes his hands on him. Uses Bobo to dry his tears. He talks to Bobo, sings him songs, tells him secrets. He slides Bobo down the slide at the playground, feeds him Teddy Grahams during snack time, takes him to Grandmom's house, to the grocery and McDonald's. Every morning when Tucker goes to preschool, Bobo goes with him. Tucker kisses Bobo "bye" at the door and tucks him into his cubby, until nap time. Tucker can't fall asleep without Bobo.
And now that little blue elephant is lying somewhere on I-75, with the rain splattering down, the headlights streaming past and the semis whizzing by at 80 miles an hour.
And there's no place to pull over. Only darkness, now, on my right.
And I don't know what to do.
By now, Bobo is miles behind us. He has probably bounced down the embankment. Or been crushed under an 18-wheeler.
"He's probably scared," Ry says.
"Is he in heaven?" Tucker asks through his tears. "Do they have Teddy Grahams in heaven?"
Now I see the blue sign. There's a rest stop ahead. A mile later, I pull over and park between a silver Airstream and an old Winnebago. I try to think things through.
"Are we going back for Bobo now?" Ry asks.
"I don't want him to go to heaven!" Tuck screams. "Is he already in heaven?"
The way I see it, here in the dark, on the side of the highway, I have two choices: I can go back and look for Bobo, maybe become a hero to my kids. Or I can tell my boys I'm sorry. Bobo's gone.
Maybe that way Tucker would learn a lesson. After all, hadn't I told him umpteen times to roll up that window? Not to dangle Bobo out in the wind?
And even if I find him, I probably won't be able to get to him. I couldn't find a place to pull over before. What if we see him again, then have to let him go?
And what if I do stop the car? And climb out, into the rain, into highway traffic, and try to fetch the would-be flying elephant? And what if, just then, a semi whizzes by and, God forbid, I get crushed?
"Maybe Mommy can buy you another Bobo," Ry offers, trying to console Tucker.
But Bobo is extinct.
Two years ago, Tucker's great-grandmother got worried about what would happen if Bobo ever got lost. So she called Playskool, the company that manufactured Bobo (not his given name), and asked to order three more. The Playskool official told her that particular stuffed elephant had been discontinued. There might be one more in stock, somewhere, the official said. But that was it. So Tucker's great-grandmother bought the last blue elephant wearing plaid pajamas in America and sent it to Tucker, as an extra, just in case. That Bobo lived in the top of my closet for months. Then, just before we moved to Florida, while we were riding bikes around our old neighborhood, while Tucker was riding on the back of my bicycle, he dropped Bobo into a storm drain. We had to abandon the elephant. I raced home, got the other Bobo and stopped Tucker's sobs.
So now there's no backup Bobo.
Over the ages, across the cultures, how many Bobos (or teddy bears or dolls or blankets) have been dropped out of windows? Left in Wal-Marts? Lost along the way?
Teach a lesson . . . risk your life . . . be a rescue hero: What would you do if you had to make that call for your kid?
I can't sit here all night.
I drive back onto I-75, still heading south. A sign says the next exit is 10 miles ahead.
At Brooksville, I take the exit and turn around. Pull back onto the highway, heading north this time. Eleven miles and I pass another rest stop, on the opposite side of the road. Then another mile to the place I think Bobo might have fallen. Another mile past that and I finally find another exit where I can turn around again.
"Are you going to get Bobo now, Mommy?"
"I don't know," I tell Tucker. "I'm going to try."
I pull back onto I-75, heading south for the second time. I flick the headlights onto bright. I squint through the downpour, scanning the skinny shoulder.
"Help me look," I call over the back seat. "See if you can see Bobo."
I'm going about 55 miles per hour, about as slow as seems safe on the interstate. I drive over a bridge, down a slight incline. SUVs, pickups and semis keep speeding by. We pass Burger King bags, shreds of blown-out tires, lots of skid marks.
But no Bobo.
"I bet he's having apple juice in heaven right now," Ry says.
Another 2 miles. Another two dozen trucks. Then we reach an overpass and a long metal guardrail starts rolling by on my right.
"There's Bobo!" Ry screams. "I see him!"
I see him, too. A small blue blob, wedged against the guardrail. But I can't pull over. The shoulder is too narrow.
Tucker starts shrieking again. "At least we know!" he's crying. "At least we know now, Mommy. He's not dead! He's still there! You can get him!"
I don't know how.
I drive on, heading toward Brooksville _ again. I'm thinking about the last time we lost Bobo, when Tucker left him in Subway, and he got locked inside the sandwich shop, and I had to call the emergency, after-hours number on the door and get the manager to open it so we could get Bobo out.
And I'm thinking, as I'm driving, that I love that silly little blue elephant, too. That if we lose Bobo, my son will lose part of his childhood.
Without Bobo, he won't seem like such a little boy.
And I won't seem like I can help him with the one thing that matters most in his young life. And he might realize Mommy can't fix everything.
I exit at Brooksville again. Head north again, 12 more miles, past the rest stop and onto the next exit. Then I turn around. Again.
This time, I drive even slower. Maybe 45 mph, tops. When I think I'm nearing the overpass, I pull over onto the narrow shoulder. Those wakeup strips, or whatever you call them, are crisscrossing the asphalt every few inches, vibrating the tires, rattling my teeth.
At the north end of the overpass, I spy Bobo again. He's dead ahead. I stop the car.
The rain has slowed to a drizzle by now. I turn on the flashers. I try to open the driver's side door.
But each time a big truck rumbles past, our car shivers in its wake. Three times, I try to get out. Three times, I feel the wind of the semis and pull the door back shut.
"Don't get run over, Mommy," Ry says. "Don't die."
I slam the driver's door closed. I reach across to the passenger seat, throw my backpack and the cooler in the back seat, between the boys. I lean over and unlock the passenger door.
Slowly, carefully, I ease my way over the gear shift, climbing onto the passenger seat. I try to shove open the passenger door. But the guardrail is in the way. The door will only open partially. I squeeze out, turning my hips to clear the guardrail.
Bobo is waiting.
He's still stuck in the guardrail. A little soggy. But no visible skid marks.
I pick up that little blue elephant and squeeze him hard.
Driving back down I-75, speeding back toward Brooksville for the third time, almost an hour after we first went this way, I pull over at the now-familiar rest stop. I let the car idle. I'm still shaking.
"I just need a minute," I tell my boys. I just need to calm down.
I lean my arms on the steering wheel. Rest my head on my arms. Close my eyes.
"Mommy!" Tucker cries from the back seat. "Mommy! Mommy!"
He's thrashing around again, holding Bobo this time, trying to unbuckle his seat belt. "Mommy!" he's shouting. "Help me get out!"
"Give me a minute!" I scream. "Just give me a minute, here. Would you?" I've been on the road almost nine hours by now. I've been trying, so hard, to hold it all together. I feel myself starting to lose it.
"But Mommy!" Tucker wails. The tears start streaming again. "I have to get out!"
"Why?" I shriek, spinning around to glare at him.
Tucker clutches Bobo more tightly. He smears a satin-lined elephant ear across his wet cheeks. Then he looks up at me, his blue eyes shining.
"Me and Bobo need to give you a hug."