I will tell them someday, when they’re old enough to understand. I’ll start with the usual (two pink lines, etc.) because that’s where these things always begin, in unsuspecting normalcy. They were alive then, two pulsing spheres already crafting their noose, and I – their mother – oblivious. It’s incredible, I’ll say, how you started as one. A single embryo split too late, forced to share a room built for one.
Monoamniotic-monochorionic twins, the doctors called it. Mono-mono for short. Two babies, one sac – a numbers game, and ours didn’t look good. One in 10,000 births. One percent of identical twin pregnancies. Ideal delivery at thirty-two weeks. Fifty percent chance of survival. With two cords in such tight quarters, entanglement was inevitable. Until viability nothing could be done. Course of action? Wait and see.
From afar, the line between life and death is a wall, thick and impenetrable. There are dramatic steps, our consciousness tells us, that must be taken to cross it. The rain must pour and the crescendo must build as we make our way up and over the weathered stones.
No symphony, no wall. Just an amniotic sac, two umbilical cords, and a single thread worn thin from centuries of credulous feet – for if you’re not careful, you’ll trip right over that sucker.
“What do we tell the kids?”
It’s a Friday, 9 PM. A muted TV casts its glow over a pile of unfolded laundry. Floral shirts, princess jammies, sparkly pink socks – their inhabitants asleep down the hall. My husband sits quietly on the couch, the lines in his forehead six hours deep into the news. I lie with my head on his lap, heavy with fear and babies. Twelve weeks along and the only thing more unbearable than the morning sickness is the possibility of it all in vain. The clothes lay untouched.
“No matter what,” I say, “they’re still their siblings.”
A few days later we’re telling our daughters about their sisters the only way we know how. “Gifts from God,” we say warily, “which means She may decide to take them back. We have to pray. We have to ask Her to please let us keep them.”
They giggle, dizzy with the prospect of big sisterhood. No one asks for elaboration. Either it will be or it won’t be. Snow White or Rapunzel. Peanut butter or bologna.
Babies or no babies.
Twelve weeks turn to thirteen, thirteen to fourteen, fourteen to fifteen, and they keep living. Every successful appointment is a bittersweet amalgam of joy and terror. We are simultaneously relieved and haunted by their growing bodies, as each new development – fingernails, hair, eyelashes – brings color to not only our wildest dreams, but also our worst nightmares.
Sometime around the fourth month, I make a silent pact with the small people inside me. I resolve that all three of us will survive. Every night while the world sleeps I will a cocktail of determination and magic into existence and pray against all logic that it finds its way to them. I imagine the fire traveling from my head to my stomach, their curled fists reaching out to grab it. I feel the fluid around them simmer and watch in awe as their little pink mouths swallow it in, making it their own. I trust they know – that they too feel the fibers of the thread and understand, somehow, to keep their distance.
They hold on. At twenty-four weeks I am admitted to the hospital for thrice daily monitoring – standard US protocol for mono-mono pregnancies. By now their cords are already knotted into a cluster of intricate braids, so close surveillance imperative. Any prolonged heart rate dip will result in an emergency c-section. The doctors are ready. The NICU is ready. We pretend we are too.
For seven weeks I read old novels and watch trash TV in a sterile room, eating cardboard pancakes for breakfast and taking showers for privacy. Some days, I make trinkets out of construction paper and small talk with nurses; others, I fill online carts with baby clothes and memorize the cadence of their heartbeats – just in case. When my children visit, I marvel at how they’ve grown and pretend away the distance between us. There are two potted plants on my windowsill that I water every other day, and on the Fourth of July I watch fireworks from my sixth story window. Between it all, I roam the halls.
Here, everyone knows the thread. It’s etched in their faces. There are grandparents on gurneys, children in wheelchairs, babies in portable plastic containers. The corridors reek of bleach and teem with young and old alike. They are united in their understanding of powerlessness and it’s communicated in knowing glances: This is holy ground. I try not to stare but their fragile bodies tug at my humanity and it occurs to me there in the narrow gallery of plastic plants and reprinted wall art that in this place so close to death I have never felt more alive.
I will tell them someday, when they’re old enough to understand, about the morning they came. On a Saturday, nine weeks too soon. Despite it all – the rhythmic tightening, the barrage of doctors – I remain uncharacteristically calm. Their dad makes the hour long drive in forty-five minutes while I breathe through the pain and try to envision their arrival. We’ve waited so long and yet not long enough.
They have hair. Little wisps of blonde on skulls yet to fuse. Our Baby B, who comes out not breathing, remembers our pact in the nick of time and springs to life after the longest three minutes of our lives. I’ve never seen toes so delicate, noses so miniscule. At just over three pounds apiece, they feel like eggshells in our clumsy hands. They are new and ancient and covered in wires and more perfect than we ever thought possible.
For the next sixty-three days we call the NICU home. There is no time here. Days and nights are interchangeable and seasons disappear. The room is a vortex of prayer and beeping, interrupted only by doctors spewing words we can’t define or pronounce. There are ultrasounds, blood draws, echocardiograms, and the agonizing waits that follow. We grow accustomed to terror the way our kindergartener grows accustomed to missing teeth. The hollowness becomes routine.
Amidst it all, they capture us. Every whimper, every yawn, is a magic trick we struggle to comprehend. Where’s the smoke? The mirrors? The enchanted hidden key? We get lost in their miniature faces and break into sleepless hysterics when they squirm and grunt like grown men. Their sisters come to visit, and it’s only when they each gather a baby into their lap that I remember it’s summertime.
In the final hours of their stay, five pounds bigger and at last ready to come home, a nurse brings in a parting gift – two hand crocheted beanies, one pink and one white, thoughtfully embroidered with each girl’s name. We gush, grin, place them on their heads for one final farewell photo, and watch as our daughters’ fingers stretch in fearless pursuit of their destination.
Straight into the threads.