Raising a Twinless Twin

The ultrasound technician places the wand on my daughter’s lower abdomen and moves it slowly across taut skin glistening with gel. I’ve been holding my breath since being ushered into the dimly lit cubicle to witness a sonogram that will determine if my daughter is carrying one or more babies. She is a twin, a survivor who beat the odds after my harrowing pregnancy left us celebrating her life while enduring the keen-edged sorrow of her brother’s death.

A flurry of gray dots appears on the monitor. I turn away, but my daughter reaches across the distance of 30 years and squeezes my hand. She knows that the fault lines in my heart have never truly sealed; that at any given moment, the cracks can shift in a quake of grief triggered by memories of Jason, her twin who lived for only hours after their birth.

I was five months pregnant when an ultrasound revealed two babies like bright orbs of hope on the dark screen.

Before I could process the idea of twins, I learned that one baby had an unknown obstruction preventing his kidneys and lungs from developing properly. It was 1989. Although pioneers were developing strategies for fetal surgery, the idea of trying to save one twin at that stage would have put the life of the other at risk. My perinatologist warned that if baby “B” died during the remaining months of my pregnancy, I would have to carry him to term to keep his sister alive. If he survived until the delivery, his inability to breathe on his own after birth would ultimately be the cause of his death.

Driving home that day, my husband was silent as I stared at the hard blue sky. Nothing around us had changed, and yet nothing was the same. I felt dazed and helpless; my body was at war with itself, and I was holding the grenade.

I was placed on bed rest for the remainder of my pregnancy, and by some miracle, both babies were still alive and active when I reached the third trimester. During those long, empty hours in bed, my grieving process had already begun. The lines blurred between denial and anger before settling into a deep depression weighted by self-recrimination. Time passed slowly, each week measured by fetal heart rates and sonograms until the day of delivery.

My daughter was born first, a healthy pink baby who cried until she was placed in my arms. I clung to her and wept, knowing my son would be next. The rhythmic beep of the monitor was deafening in the quiet operating room when Jason was delivered. I saw his pale, ashen face for only a moment before he was whisked away to a sterile incubator that pumped enough oxygen into his lungs to keep him alive temporarily until I was ready to say goodbye. He lived six short hours before quietly passing away in my husband’s arms.

Months after the funeral, I blindly followed the advice of well-meaning friends who told me to put aside my grief and focus on my daughter. Think of all the women who come home from the hospital empty-handed, they said. Be grateful.

And I was, for every bittersweet milestone she passed while growing up without her brother. I stifled the jealousy that threatened to consume me when I encountered mothers pushing a double stroller in the park or diaper commercials depicting identical twins. I had not only lost a baby, I’d been deprived of the opportunity of raising my twins together.

There were very few resources at the time for twin loss, but the few articles I found warned against projecting grief onto the surviving twin and stressed the importance of avoiding preoccupation with the baby who had died. I knew that I couldn’t let Jason’s death overshadow my daughter’s life. Instead, I boxed up my conflicting emotions of joy and sadness and shelved them in a dark corner of my heart.

The grief was always there, festering beneath thin layers of denial sealed with the glue of false acceptance. I couldn’t let my pain show for fear that my daughter might experience survivor guilt or worse, feel incomplete, as if she were part of a broken set. I functioned on automatic pilot, struggling every day to ignore Jason’s death and the hollow sensation his absence left like a phantom limb.

It was shortly after my daughter’s first birthday that my sister-in-law gave birth to a set of boy/girl twins. I thought I was equipped to handle the delivery, but the anger I’d fought so hard to repress erupted in rage and grief, along with the fear that I might never heal. I avoided family functions until my husband pushed me to get help.

It took months of bereavement counseling to help me see that I’d been clinging to my pain as a way of holding onto Jason. I felt that letting go of the grief meant letting go of my son.

The first step was telling my daughter about her brother once she was old enough to understand, and emphasizing how grateful my husband and I were to have her. She was a twinless twin, but not one who would be stigmatized by the label if we treated her as a single child. There would be twin survivor issues while she was growing up, and I could handle them better if I accepted the loss.

Over the years, my husband and I remained open to our daughter’s questions about her brother: What would he have been like? Would we have been close? And we agreed that yes, they would have loved each other as most siblings do. But more important, we taught her to be independent and to value her self-worth, assuring her that she would always be special to us.

Back in the ultrasound cubicle, my daughter’s hand tightens around mine. “Mom, look at the monitor.” Her smile is wide and full of promise.

A single baby curled like a half moon appears on the screen. My eyes sting as I stare at the tiny light that is my grandchild; a brightness that seals the fault lines in my heart and makes me whole again.

Marcia Kester Doyle is the author of the humor book “Who Stole My Spandex? Life in the Hot Flash Lane,” and is at work on her first memoir.

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