the one about Bella

We were all ready to leave for our week long vacation in South Carolina. The car was packed, loaded down with all of the essentials-- swimsuits, sunscreen, clothes, shoes, diapers, wine, etc, but one question stopped our car from leaving and held us up for nearly an extra hour.

"Where's Baby Bella?"

As our 3 year old asked us this, a myriad of thoughts entered my brain.

Where'sBabyBella?Shit.Idon'tknow.Inherbed?Inthebag?IknowIdidn'tpackheralready.Inthebathroom?Inourbedroom?Lostoutsideinthebushes?Ihavenoclue.

We turned the house upside down for many minutes, looking for a small, pink, stuffed cat. Baby Bella and Noelle had been best friends since the day Noelle was born (Baby Bella was a gift from the hospital gift shop via Nona Boo i.e. Luke's mom). We have taken Baby Bella on practically every vacation, errand, and adventure, and not a night goes by that Noelle doesn't sleep with her. Noelle rubs her nose with Baby Bella's tail until she falls fast asleep. It's the sweetest thing, really. Baby Bella has been seen in nearly all of our professional family photographs (you pick your battles). We knew there was no chance we could make it a week out of state without this kitty with us. Yes, I said, we. Luke and I were just as torn up about it as Noelle.

After we had spent too long looking for Baby Bella with no success, we decided we had to get going. An 8 hour car ride to our first destination awaited us, and we were already getting a late start. We said a little prayer that Baby Bella would turn up, but Luke and I exchanged worried glances that perhaps she was gone forever.

"I saw Noelle carrying her outside while she was picking flowers. She may be in the tall grass."

"I know I didn't pack her up. I wouldn't have missed that."

We played out various scenarios but tried to forget about it. We didn't want to dwell upon not having her for Noelle's sake.

We drove several hours and ended up sleeping at a Knoxville hotel for the night. Night one without Baby Bella. Thank goodness Noelle was pretty tired and didn't give it too much thought.

The next morning, we opened our bags to get dressed for another day of traveling, and lo and behold, there. she. WAS! Baby Bella had snuck her way into Noelle's bag (I really have no idea how this happened), and she was with us all along! We all rejoiced, and Luke and I caught ourselves almost a little more excited than Noelle was.

After many more hours of travel, we finally made it to our vacation destination and began a fun-filled trip with Luke's family. Our condo consisted of six children ages six and under, and everything was rainbow smiles and fairy farts until...

...we lost Baby Bella again after the 2nd night. This time, we really lost her. It's one thing to lose a stuffed animal inside your own home or even your own hometown. There are limited places where the thing could be. However, this was not our hometown. This was a place that had an ocean...an effin' ocean...that the kitty could be swimming in. We had six kids around us at all times. It would be nothing for another kiddo to run off with her and hide her. The condo had two stories, three bedrooms, and many unfamiliar nooks and crannies to hide a small pink cat. Not to mention, we had restaurants, unfamiliar grocery stores, a new church, bike trails, and a swimming pool that would all make wonderful places to lose a beloved stuffed animal that your child has had since birth. SINCE BIRTH.

Each night, Noelle would ask before she drifted off to sleep, "Are we gonna find that ol' Bella?" I would reassure her that we would in fact find her. However, as the days went on, reality was setting in that we may have to leave without her, and we would never see her again. This thought seriously depressed me. Luke and I would whisper, "What are we going to do without her?"

We looked in every place we could think of. We even called the lost and found of the whole resort. Under couch cushions. Under beds. In suitcases. In the bushes. No luck.

On the last night of the trip, as I was taking a shower, I said a prayer to Saint Anthony, which is who you pray to when you lose something. In my whole-hearted intention, I prayed that my little girl would be reunited with her #1 beloved stuffed animal, some way, somehow.

After my shower, I wanted a glass of ice water, so I opened the freezer to get some cubes. There she was. In the freezer. Baby Bella. Looking smug.

"What the....?!"

I pull her out, hold her by the neck, and catch my sister in law snickering as she went up the stairs.

"She wasn't in here the whole time! I know it!"

Liz was disappointed I had found her so quickly, but I was right. Baby Bella was not in the freezer the entire time. Liz had planted her there as a way to humorously grant our reunion wish. The reality was that Baby Bella had been found inside Liz's family's bike trailer. We had used it at the beginning of the week before we received our own rented bikes to take the girls to the beach. Apparently, Noelle had stuffed Baby Bella down beneath the seat of the trailer and forgotten about her. Since that day, the bike trailer had been used by the other children, had been rained on, had been at the beach multiple times, and there she had been the entire time.

I placed her back in the freezer and brought Noelle in, telling her I had a present for her in the freezer. When she opened the door and saw her oldest friend, she reacted in a way I wasn't expecting. I fully expected a toddler-ific squeal, maybe a fist pump, but for sure a giggle or two. Instead, she whispered, "Bella," grabbed her quickly, and nuzzled her into her neck for an eyes-closed, nearly tear-filled, embrace. Perhaps the way a mother embraces her child after many days apart.

The remaining 24 hours of our trip, Bella wasn't far from our sights. We felt so relieved that the little pink nugget would be making the trip back with us, after a much needed bath in the washing machine, of course. A week outside in the elements left her smelling like a dead oyster. Nonetheless, everything was as it should be, and our entire family, Bella and all, would be making the trip home, together.

Bella became a topic of nightly discussion, and Luke's brother, Seth, asked us once, "Were you guys thinking she would have her forever?"

No, we weren't. We just weren't ready for her to be without her yet. Over the week, I spent some time thinking about why I was so torn up over a stuffed kitty that I could probably buy a replica of on Amazon for $20. I suppose it comes down to this. Bella represents Noelle as a baby and young toddler. She represents the innocence of a young girl, an innocence that will undoubtedly be lost far too soon once Noelle realizes that parts of this world are cruel, selfish, and downright evil. It won't always be acceptable to drag around a stuffed animal, but for now it is, and I am told that this phase is one of the best phases of parenthood. She loves Bella, and she believes Bella loves her back. She believes, period. She believes in Santa and Cinderella and Princess Grizelda of Mumlumplop (a story Luke told her as a nonsensical joke that has now turned into an epic bedtime saga). She's young. Bella keeps her young, and for that, I want to keep Bella around forever. Someday, Bella will go into a box somewhere, Toy Story 3 style, and I will have the memories.

Welcome back, Baby Bella. You were missed...by us all.

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