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One year, 1987 to be exact, I loaded up the babies in the back of the Toyota van and drove a thousand miles. It was Christmastime and I wanted to be home with my mother in the worst way. I wanted to be in motion after a year housebound with three kids in diapers. I wanted the road.
My husband couldn’t get any time off work and flying with so many wiggly toddlers was out of the question, so my 11-year old daughter and I fed the boys, squeezed them into their fuzzy footy pajamas, locked them in their car seats and took off from Nashville for the far south coast of Texas, just as the red winter sun dropped behind the trees. I figured we could make it in 16 hours if we stopped only for gas, and the boys, rocked by the motion of the car, would sleep for twelve. Their sister would pop bottles in their mouths if they woke up.
We aimed for Memphis down Interstate 40. By the time we passed Little Rock, near the halfway point, there were so few cars on the road that approaching headlights seemed like old friends. From the rearview mirror, the back seats looked like a baby bordello of fleecy blankets and stuffed animals, the boys’ faces smooth moons with tiny circle mouths. They snoozed, their sister in the passenger seat next to me snoozed, and I soaked up the quiet. We turned south toward Texarkana and the black beyond the reach of my headlights was pure, liquid darkness.
Near Marshall, or maybe Nacogdoches, in east Texas, the sky turned pink with sunrise and the air smelled like swamp. The boys started rousing, stiff from sleeping straight up, and we pulled off at a rest stop to strip off their damp pjs, change them, wash their crusty faces, and let them run around a little. Another few hours through the big thicket, a McDonald’s breakfast and a ferry ride later, we were at grandmother’s house.
I fell into bed at 10 in the morning and slept till dinnertime, waking cottonmouthed and redeyed as I had as a teenager.
Looking back from the far middle distance to that trip and that time, I remember that young mother’s relief at having someone to help with the babies, to cook for her, to bounce a chubby boy on each knee, fill the bathtub and flood bubbles over slick bellies. I envy that young mother the energy and stamina to pull an all-nighter, to drive a thousand miles in the dark, and I wish I could feel that way just one more time.
We drove back the same way we came, loading the boys in the van beneath a flat January sky at dusk and driving through the night. My sister had given me an audiotape for Christmas, Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, a florid novel of family pathology with enough violent plot turns to keep me awake all the way home.
As I drove through the black Arkansas countryside, beneath the midwinter night of a million stars, past barns and shacks, over bridges, past towns perfectly still except for blinking Christmas lights, then back into the inky darkness, Conroy’s tale entered my tired brain. The children slept soundly as scenes of fire and religious fanaticism, salt and sea, rape and madness filled the empty night air inside our moving bedroom. I gripped the wheel as the story crashed forward toward its climactic moment, and just as the boy in the book released a snarling tiger from its cage, unleashing fury on the evil that had entered his home, my eyes snapped to the side of the road and locked on a moving deer, startling right into the lighted path of our van. I swerved sharply to the right and slammed on the brakes as we skidded across the soft, sandy shoulder of the road, then rolled to a dead stop. The deer, glancing back over its left flank, crossed three empty lanes of highway and disappeared into the woods on the other side.
Could a 33-year old woman in perfect health have a heart attack from sheer terror? It seemed possible. I shook from top to bottom, head to foot, in that silent night. The audiotape droned on but I couldn’t hear it for the blood pulsing in my ears. I turned on the overhead light, reached for the rearview mirror, and saw the boys’ sleeping moon faces in the back.
I eased the van back onto the road, as awake as I had ever been, headlights aimed for the Mississippi River and the promise of the rising sun.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.