When I was seven years old, my mother decided to impart some previously undisclosed details about my birth. I’d already heard, many times, along with several relatives, how much I’d weighed, that I was a happy baby, that I’d slept well, that I was the first grandchild on my father’s side of the family. Birth itself was still something of a mystery to me. I knew that babies grew in their mothers’ bellies, but I wasn’t sure how they emerged from them. My friend Suzie’s big sister had recently informed us that giving birth was sort of like peeing, except it hurt more and took a lot longer. I didn’t think any further information was necessary.
I also already knew that my parents had been married for three years when I arrived. By the time I was seven, they’d been married for ten years. My mother once told me that she’d had a number of miscarriages before I was born. She didn’t say if she’d had any after. She never told me what a miscarriage was, but I figured out it was some kind of unexpected, physical cancellation of pregnancy. She’d also told me several times that she’d always wanted to have more children after me. “It’s your father’s fault I haven’t had them,” she’d said. “He hasn’t been — romantic enough.” Once, when she was in one of her states, she told me it was my fault she hadn’t had them. But that happened later, when I was a little older.
Whatever the cause, the consequence of all this was that my parents had no other children. This did not seem advantageous to me. Being an ‘only’ put me under too much pressure. It was, however, nice to have a spring birthday. Easter was always near my birthday. For my seventh birthday, I’d gotten a very large Easter basket and an orange kitten. I’d named him Sweetpea. He liked sleeping on the paper grass in my Easter basket. He was also not averse to letting me wheel him around in my doll carriage.
Since my birthday, my mother had been fond of pointing out that, at seven years old, I had attained the Age of Reason. Whatever that meant. Just an excuse, I thought, for telling me more things I really didn’t want to know. I believed that there were just some things that mothers should not tell their children, whatever their age. It was okay for Suzie’s big sister to tell us a few home truths. She was one of us, after all. But mothers, I thought, should just keep some things to themselves. Normal mothers did, I was certain. But my mother was not a normal mother.
Sweetpea was asleep in my doll carriage when my mother announced, in mythic tones, that she had A Few Things to tell me. Sometime in the hours after I was born, she said, her doctor had told her that he believed I’d had a twin who didn’t make it. Something about the afterbirth, he said. It had not been, he thought, an identical twin.
I was stunned. I wondered how the doctor might have figured that out. In those days, they didn’t have ultrasound machines to determine prenatal womb occupancy. What was the something about the afterbirth, I wondered. Was there a tiny dead body in it? My mother didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. She also didn’t say what an afterbirth was exactly. She did tell me now that, missing twin aside, after all those previous miscarriages, she was just relieved I’d made it with all my working parts intact. I wondered if all those miscarriages had involved tiny dead bodies. Still, I felt somewhat reassured. I was afraid she might have been disappointed that she’d only ended up with me, and not with both of us. It seemed a little cruel to me to end up, say, with chocolate ice cream, only to find out you were meant to have both chocolate and strawberry, but that the strawberry had been cancelled at the last minute.
She admitted that she was unconscious during the crucial part of the proceedings. “Knocked out,” was how she put it. Once again, she mentioned that I’d weighed nine pounds, seven ounces. Before, I’d thought my higher-than-average birth weight was a point of pride, like an athletic achievement. Now, I wondered if I should feel guilty about it. Then she said that, despite my birth weight, she hadn’t had to have a C-section, which, I gathered, was some kind of surgical procedure conducted to remove extra-large babies. The reason she hadn’t needed one was amusing, she explained. When the nurse first placed me in her arms, she thought perhaps they’d made a mistake and given her someone else’s baby — not her newborn girl, but some one or two-month-old who was visiting the maternity ward. I weighed a lot, she said, but I was also twenty-three-and-a-half inches long. She sat back, grinned at me, and folded her hands. I stared at her, not grinning, and hoped there was a punchline.”Don’t you see?” she said. “You were so long and skinny, you just slid right out!” Sometime after I was considerate enough to just slide right out, that ominously suggestive afterbirth followed me.
Certainly, I was relieved that I hadn’t forced my mother to have a C-section. But why she was telling me all this? What was the point? How was I supposed to react to such information? I couldn’t tell. I also knew that my reaction was not uppermost in her mind. It never was. She just had to get this off her chest. Again, I wondered why she chose to unburden herself to me, and not to some grownup. Was there a subtext? Perhaps it was because I had evidently continued to be a rather considerate child. I was a good listener. I didn’t ask a lot of difficult questions. Perhaps it was because I was just there. Whatever her reasons, for now, her story was done, and, as usual, I was left to ponder it unaided.
I wheeled Sweetpea into my room and shut the door. I began to wonder about my missing twin. I imagined it was a brother. It could have been a girl, a non-identical sister. But I was sure it was a brother. I wanted it to be a brother. How was I supposed to feel about the fact that he hadn’t survived? Did that make me a murderer? Had I committed infanticide in my mother’s womb? Had I somehow robbed him of nutrition, elbowed him out of the way, and gobbled it all up for myself? Is that why I weighed so much at birth? Why didn’t he defend himself? Was it just the size difference? Was my zygotic self always bigger than his? Did I accidentally or deliberately kick him to death with my long, skinny legs? Did we get tangled in a sibling embrace that choked the breath out of him? Or, due to my overwhelming volume, did I just smother him to death?
Or was it even my fault at all? Was it possible for a woman like my mother to have a sort of partial miscarriage? Did my mother’s body decide, by some mysterious process, that it could only handle bringing one baby at a time into the world? Was I the product of some Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest contest over which I had no control? Wow.
My options appeared to be that (a) I was a murderer, (b) I was a clumsy, unwittingly dangerous oaf, (c) I was too competitive, and (d) I won some contest I didn’t know I was participating in. Ultimately, I couldn’t decide which one applied. And it almost didn’t matter. Whatever happened to him, I felt bereft.
I wondered what life would have been like with a twin brother. Would my mother have divulged so much unsavory information to both of us, or to just one of us? Or to each of us one at a time? We could have at least compared notes afterward. It would have been helpful to have someone with whom to discuss the states my mother sometimes got herself into. Like the times she was convinced that the neighbors, or my father’s fellow ushers at church, or the women of the neighborhood coffee klatch, were all conspiring against her.
I wondered what my brother would have looked like. Would he have dark blond hair and blue eyes like me? Or brown hair like my mother? Or hazel eyes like my dad? Would our parents have liked one of us more than the other? Would my dad have recruited my brother, and not me, to help him develop photos in his darkroom? Or would he have put us both to work, hanging negatives and uncurling prints off the photo dryer? Would I have been spared the boredom of having to hand my father various tools while he tinkered with the car? Would I have gotten a kitten for my birthday? Would we both have gotten kittens?
Would we have the same friends? Would the boy next door, who’d kissed me on the cheek one day in his back yard and then run away, have been my brother’s friend instead of my first romantic interest? Would my brother have slugged him for kissing his sister? Would my brother and I be on the same side in our epic neighborhood snowball fights? Would we even like each other?
Of course we would, I decided. We were twins, after all. Maybe he would play with trucks while I played with dolls, but we could still play games and build forts and do puzzles together. We could push each other on the swings. We could still be allies when our parents had one of their screaming matches over dinner, ducking our heads together when they threw dishes at each other. I wouldn’t have to run, alone, to my room to cry afterward. I wouldn’t be an ‘only.’ All the pressure wouldn’t be on me.
It was really too bad that he didn’t make it. I missed him. A lot.