Anna Stolley Persky
They were called Baby A and Baby B, these children of ours, these twin boys, as they entered this world through a horizontal slice in my lower abdomen. They were products of love, yes, and an overwhelming desire to reproduce before we got too old, and a fierce battle against reduced fertility. They were the product of a challenging round of invitro fertilization, two “factory-made” children as my ex-friend described them not long before I dumped her. Baby A came out first, which is why they called him Baby A. He was pulled out of my body, and I felt tugging and yanking as he left me. He was quiet, his face shriveled like an old man with an outsized nose. He looked like a distorted version of my husband, but with shockingly blonde hair. Neither of us have blond hair.
Baby A had lived pressed against my cervix. Sometimes his fingers danced against his holding cell, my uterus, so I called him “Mr. Hands” before they called him Baby A. He later played piano exquisitely. He wants to go into music producing. He’s 16 now.
Baby B came out screaming. He had a full head of brown hair. He was a slightly darker hue than his twin brother.
He wouldn’t stop screaming.
Baby B had lived further up in my body from his brother and crashed and thrashed at my ribs during the latter part of my pregnancy, throwing his body against mine. Sometimes, in the middle of a visit from a friend while I was on bed rest, a Baby B body part would suddenly protrude from me, maybe his fist, his elbow, his leg, maybe all three parts. Did he want to come out? Was he just swimming about in there or was he jostling for some space from his brother? I tried to imagine what he would be like. I never gave him a nickname like I did Baby A, but I wondered about him just as much.
Baby A’s records say that he was born at 9:45 a.m. Baby B’s records say that he was born one minute later. He was five pounds, thirteen ounces. He was twenty inches long. The doctor, nurses, anesthesiologist all commented on Baby B’s vocal prowess. They said he was the loudest baby they’d ever heard. They wished us good luck with him and laughed. We have a picture of them poised together in their blue Baby A and Baby B hats, just moments after they left my womb, still partially covered in white slime. Baby A’s eyes are scrunched shut. Baby B’s mouth is wide open, mid-scream. His arms are raised. I imagine him thinking, outraged, “What the hell just happened here? Why are all these strange people touching me, laughing at me?”
It’s impossible to know what a baby is thinking if a baby is thinking at all.
They took Baby A and Baby B from us briefly. There’s another photo, this one of my husband in medical scrubs and a hair net, holding both babies, cleaned and wrapped in blankets. My husband’s mouth is covered by a mask, but his eyes show he’s beaming with excitement. Baby A’s eyes are still closed.
Baby B’s mouth is open in a scream.
I don’t remember the journey from the operating suite to the maternity ward, where I was lucky enough to have my own room. There are chunks of time for which I can’t account. I do remember the babies being brought to me as I lay on the hospital bed. We named the babies. We held them close. The lactation consultant visited us. My parents came into my room to stare at the babies before fleeing back to their home, glad, I think, that those days of tiny limbs and diapers were in the past for them.
There was a moment when I was holding two babies. Baby B was so loud. In between screams, he gulped for breath. Then Baby B went quiet. Then he started gasping. His face color changed from pink to purplish. I looked up at my husband in the gauzy focus of someone who was doped up on hormones, exhaustion, and medication. I asked him if there was something wrong with Baby B.
And then Baby B was gone, whisked away from me in a confusing disappearing act. I didn’t understand what had occurred. I kept asking what happened to Baby B. My husband told me several times that Baby B had been taken to the NICU because there was something wrong with his breathing. After being told NICU a few times, I panicked. I wondered if this was how the story ended, if our struggle to create children ended with the death of one of them.
We’d gone through numerous infertility treatments to become parents. Baby A and Baby B were no accident. They were the products of poking, prodding, invasive procedures, needles, chemicals, medicine, and hope.
When my husband and I got married, we knew we would have to fight my body to have children. My 35-year-old ovaries appeared much older than my age. Our fertility specialist, a calm fatherly man with sympathetic eyes, told us in detail about the decrepit condition of my eggs. I looked around his carpeted office while he spoke. Then the specialist told us about the power and vitality of my husband’s sperm, a detail my husband still enjoys discussing. At the time, it sounded like gloating. It still does. I was focused on my eggs, what I saw as the failure of my body.
But modern medicine offered us possibilities. The fertility specialist didn’t give up on our dream of having children, and neither did we. After a number of procedures, we landed on IVF. Our first and only cycle started as a mess, with me producing only two viable eggs when a typical woman would have produced dozens. They extricated the eggs from my body. At that point, the specialist asked if we wanted to continue with this cycle or try again. I asked him what he would tell his daughter, and he said he would tell her to keep going because the next cycle could be even worse. He combined each egg with my husband’s sperm in little petri dishes. The fertilized eggs grew. They inserted both of them back into my body, and, to the specialist’s surprise and our delight, they both thrived. We had two heartbeats, three if you count mine.
Somewhere around five months into my pregnancy, I started bleeding, and the specialist warned me that I could lose the babies if I didn’t go on bed rest. I spent the rest of my pregnancy mostly in bed, creating a nest in my body for two embryos, watching Midsomer Murders and eating toast for days on end, praying they would stay where they were, growing. They did.
The C-section was a scheduled event, at 37 weeks and 4 days, considered, at the time, full term for twins. Now they try to keep them inside the mother for longer. One reason for that is that there is a well-known increased risk for the second baby in a twin pregnancy, Baby B, to come into this world with undeveloped lungs and go into respiratory distress.
Baby B’s condition, the doctors said, was relatively commonplace, but still not a great development. I said I wanted to see my baby. I started crying, “Where is my baby?” The doctors and nurses kept telling me where he was – on another floor, in the NICU, under the care of competent doctors and nurses. I repeated, “Where is my baby?” What I meant to say is, “Why isn’t my baby here with me?” I understood that he was in the NICU, but I was furious that I wasn’t holding him along with his twin brother. I was terrified that he would die in that other place, no matter how much they assured me that he would be fine. I couldn’t see him, touch him, protect him. For 37 weeks and 4 days, my body had been his house, and then he was gone. I became increasingly agitated even as Baby A snuggled against my chest.
I insisted we go see Baby B in the NICU.
We left Baby A with the nurses, and my husband wheeled me through hallways to an elevator, to another floor and then through more hallways. We came to the area in which our baby was encased in an incubator, about the size of a crib, covered in a clear plastic dome. There were tubes around his fragile body. He had been placed on his stomach; his thin arms folded so that his tiny fingers were close to his face. There were wires everywhere and a sign in blue cardboard over his monitoring unit: Persky “B.”
One lung was deflated. As my husband wheeled me towards Baby B, I began wailing. I hadn’t expected it. It wasn’t anything I’d done previously, had any reason or inclination to do in my life. Certainly, I’d cried, even sobbed, but I’d never wailed, so close was I to beating my chest and throwing myself on the ground in an explosion of emotion.
A pneumothorax is a collapsed lung, the doctors explained. It occurs when air leaks into the space between the lung and the chest wall. In Baby B’s case, it occurred because his screaming punctured small holes in one of his undeveloped lungs. Air leaked. Lung deflated.
The NICU doctors assured us that they saw these types of issues all the time. They were stabilizing him so that he could essentially heal himself. In most cases, they said, the “baby magic” would cause the holes to heal on their own. If that didn’t happen, there would be a “simple surgery” involving inserting a needle or chest tube between the ribs to remove the excess air. Either way, they said, Baby B would be back with us in “no time at all.”
I couldn’t look at the helpless baby who appeared to me to be seconds from death, held together by machinery, a cloud over him, a dark figure somewhere in the corner, crooking his finger at Baby B – come with me, come with me, come with me. I worried that Baby B would follow that dark figure, be lured by him. I also worried that Baby B would feel my desperation, that he could sense that I was doubting his ability to live. Would my negative energy push him to the other side? Between moans, I told my husband to take me away from the NICU. I wonder now if I disturbed or frightened the other parents there, standing or sitting more calmly by their babies, keeping careful vigil over them. At the time, I didn’t care. My baby was precariously perched between life and death, and I couldn’t change anything.
I had failed to protect him.
I moaned all the way back to the maternity ward. My husband tried reassuring me that Baby B was getting excellent care. I asked to have Baby A, and I clung to him and refused to let anyone else hold him. I remember thinking that at least there was one baby that nobody could take away from me. I called my parents and told them I thought Baby B was going to die. My father told me to calm down, and I remember saying that I brought Baby B into this world, and now he was my responsibility until he went out of this world. My mother said that’s what it was like being a mother, and that from now on, when one of my children was in pain, I would be suffering too. I became increasingly hysterical. I told my mother I couldn’t see my way out of the despair that was smothering me, and she listened, then asked to speak to my husband.
There must have been some further discussions and phone calls, but I don’t remember much except that my friend Judith – who at the time lived about two hours away and was a cantor, a Jewish religious leader – called to counsel me. She asked if I needed her to come down to the hospital. I said yes, please come. I don’t know if she came that day or the next, but it seemed like one minute I asked for her help, and the next minute she was there. I am still grateful.
We prayed together. She went to visit Baby B, then came back and sat with me. She held Baby A and asked me what I was feeling. I felt stronger with her by my side, like a little bit of God was with her. I considered that maybe Baby B would be okay.
While Judith was with me, the rabbi from our synagogue visited. He asked how the babies were doing, and then he said we needed to plan for Baby A’s bris, a circumcision ceremony. By Jewish law, a bris has to be held on the eighth day of a baby’s life. I said that Baby B was still in the NICU and wouldn’t be strong enough for a circumcision on the eighth day of his life. The rabbi said, well, there’s an exception for a baby who isn’t healthy enough, but not for the baby who is healthy. He said I should have one bris for Baby A and another for Baby B when he was stronger.
I became agitated as I said that Baby A and Baby B had spent the entire pregnancy together, that they belonged together. The rabbi talked again about Jewish law. I said that I didn’t think that God would care if we waited until his brother was ready too. The rabbi acknowledged my perspective but continued to make the case for having Baby A’s circumcision in the eight-day time period.
Finally, I said, in the strongest voice I could muster, that they would be circumcised together, or they wouldn’t be circumcised at all. Judith backed me up, and because she was also a religious leader, it mattered. He agreed. I knew two things at that moment. The boys belonged together. There would be time enough for them to do life events as individuals, but at this point in their journey, they should have the initial symbolic ceremony as a pair, just as they’d lived up until they left my body. And I also knew that to me, scheduling Baby A’s circumcision without Baby B felt like giving up on Baby B. It felt like a terrible betrayal, whether the rabbi or anyone else saw it that way or not. Judith left not long after that, and while I felt reinforced from her visit, I still couldn’t visit my helpless baby in the NICU. I left that to my husband.
My husband visited Baby B several times a day. He remained calm and reported back what he had seen and heard. My recollection has always been that at some point the baby magic worked, and Baby B started to thrive. I pumped breast milk for him, and my husband was able to feed him. Baby A and I went home, while Baby B stayed in the NICU. My husband continued to visit Baby B while Baby A and I developed something of a rhythm of togetherness. Baby A was able to breastfeed, although he was slow and lingered. He was sleepy and had a tiny bird-like cry.
While I was ready intellectually to say that Baby B was going to live, I wasn’t ready to believe it. I didn’t want to visit him, to look at him, to open up myself to hope, real hope, then risk crashing pain if he didn’t live, after all. And part of me wondered if I visited him, if I believed that Baby B was going to survive, that somehow I was tempting fate, daring God to take him away from me. I kept my mind on Baby A. He was there, and he needed me. I held Baby A tighter and thought of nothing else.
And then, it seemed to me, we were informed out of nowhere that Baby B was healthy and strong enough to be released from the NICU. We hired a doula to watch Baby A while we went to get Baby B. After my C-section, I could barely walk. We went through the maze of halls to get to the NICU, to get Baby B, to bring him home. I remember shaking. I wasn’t supposed to lift the babies by myself yet, so my husband, who already knew Baby B better than I did, held him and carried him to the car.
The days after that were hard, and I remember them in a blur. We tried to get the babies on the same feeding and sleep schedule so we could have some rest. We held each baby’s bris at one big party at our house. I cried before each baby was circumcised. My body seized up, and my uterus contracted uncontrollably.
Baby B wasn’t screaming anymore, but he was louder than his brother. He is still louder than his brother. He was out of rhythm with Baby A and me. It took me several days before I could really look at him, hold him in my arms, accept him fearlessly. When I thought Baby B was going to die, something in me closed, at least partially, towards him. Without knowing it, without understanding what I was doing at the time, I had pushed him away because to do otherwise would have broken me. Somewhere inside me, there was an instinctual reaction, some survival instinct that kept me from feeling more distress than I could handle at that time. I have seen the same reaction in my friends when facing the death of their partner or an older child. I have seen it in myself when facing the death of my parents. To be that vulnerable, to feel that much is unbearable all at once.
At first, it felt like we were strangers, Baby B and me. We were estranged.
After a few days, Baby B’s rhythm matched ours, although he remained a unique individual, talking long before other children his age, drinking his milk in large, greedy gulps like he wasn’t sure the supply was guaranteed. And I held onto him with the fierceness of a mother who has finally gotten her child back into her arms, back where he always belonged.
Several years later, sometime after the birth of our daughter, I was telling some new friends the story of the twins’ birth. I told them how Baby B screamed so loudly that he punctured holes in one of his lungs. I told them how he landed in the NICU on a machine and how the doctors said he would have to heal himself or they would do surgery. And then I went on to tell them how he healed himself, plugged those holes back up with his own magical baby power. But something was wrong. My husband was looking at me with puzzlement. He shook his head. He asked me if I was kidding. When I started taking offense – why would I make jokes about the birth of my children? – he shook his head again.
Apparently, I blocked out a huge portion of what happened. According to my husband, who has no reason to lie about it, Baby B did not heal himself at all. While we still had Baby A in the hospital room, and I was nursing and holding him, we got a phone call from the NICU telling us that all indeed was not right, and Baby B’s baby magic was not working. The doctors called to get permission to do emergency surgery on him, and my husband and I said yes, of course. I have no independent memory of this phone call or the fifteen minute wait, according to my husband, while they operated on Baby B. I don’t remember the call to tell us it was done and successful, that we would be able to take Baby B home in a few more days.
I wonder how many other holes there are in my memory, how many painful events I’ve dropped because to remember would be like being sucked into a black sea of hopelessness. I wonder if I would forever have forgotten that Baby B had surgery without my husband there to remind me, to correct our memory, the story we tell our son. He’s 16 now, like his brother, and he’s tried to pick up girls by telling them about his “multiple surgeries.” When I asked him what he meant by multiple surgeries, he cited the time he had an eye operation and his lung surgery, and I said, “Okay, that’s two.” Then he went on to mention the time they fixed his tongue when he sliced into it with a baby tooth, and we argued about whether that constituted a surgery. I said it did not, and he said it did. Then he said his fourth surgery was his circumcision, which I argued very much did not count, and we ended up laughing, like we often do, this son and I, my baby who somewhere deep within me I am convinced I almost lost just as he is convinced he’s had to tough it out through four surgeries. Then I asked him if this line about the surgeries actually worked to help him pick up girls, and he said, “Not yet,” and we laughed again.
Regardless of how many surgeries actually count, his first one, his baby lung experience, is part of his personal narrative as well as mine. It helps define him. Would he experience himself differently if my husband hadn’t been able to remember better than I did? Would he be a different person if he had never punctured holes in his lung, never had his mother wailing in the NICU and his father gently feeding him with the bottle? Would he be different if we hadn’t been estranged when he first came home?
Baby B is gripped by focus and ambition. He maintains straight A’s, takes the toughest classes he can, and pushes himself in everything he does, but especially swimming. He’s proud of his drive and thirst for success. He lets people know who he is quickly and doesn’t apologize for it. He’s kind too, and he’s goofy. Sometimes I wonder how much of his personality is shaped by genetics and how much was sculpted into him by his earliest days, his struggle for breath. Did he scream so loudly because he already somewhere in that baby drive wanted to be the loudest in the room? Or does he grasp for success in the most traditional sense because he knows that his life was and is far from guaranteed? Or did we help create who he is today by telling him the story of his birth over and over, so that the myth overtook him?
He’s also a germaphobe who had been busy wiping down door handles even before our world was gripped by a pandemic. He’s prone to chronic sinus infections and fights through them in swim meets. I buy him nasal cleaners and make sure he takes antibiotics. I check to see if he’s eating and drinking enough. I can’t imagine not having him around to need me. I dote on him. And if, during a swim meet, I am at one end of the pool cheering, screaming louder than any other parent for this boy as he becomes a man, can you blame me for wanting to be heard, to have my voice guiding him as he pulls his body through the water first towards and then away from me?
Anna Stolley Persky, a lawyer and award-winning journalist, lives in Northern Virginia. She’s pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University. Her fiction has been published in Mystery Tribune, The Satirist, Five on the Fifth, The Write Launch, VOIS, and The Plentitudes. Her poetry has been published in the Sad Girls Club Literary Blog, You Might Need to Hear This, Washington Writers’ Publishing House, and The Closed Eye Open. Her creative nonfiction has been published in The Washington Post.