Yesterday was the first birthday I can recall spending away from my twin. Despite the fact that he's now seventeen as I am and not twenty-one, and therefore has no legal access to alcohol, his friends do. I suspect he celebrated his half of our birthday in style. The closest we've come previously to being apart on our birthdays, other than attending separate classes on school days, was on the day we were born, when I was in the NICU and he was in one of those plexiglass bassinets in my mom's hospital room. Over the years we've had ideas for separate birthday parties, but my parents opted for very simple parties instead, where we each invited a couple of friends, but it was a single party. I think their idea was that friends would come and go in our lives, but we'd be permanent fixtures in the lives of one another and would always have one another on which to depend. The verdict is still out on whether their experiment in forced bonding worked, but we have evolved from being fairly serious enemies to being allies again.
When we were tiny, we were soulmates. We went to preschool in my mom's attempt to get us to socialize with other children, but we mostly avoided other children and just played with each other. I can remember the preschool staff trying hard to get me to go off with the girls while Matthew did boy things during free play, but in the end, it was a choice for them: they could have Matthew involved in the girls' free play, or I could play with Matthew and the other boys. It made very little difference, anyway, as we didn't interact with the other children anymore than we absolutely had to.
My mom was seriously ill a lot when we were little. She had Graves' Disease early on in our lives, but it was at first misdiagnosed, and the doctors thought she had a host of other problems. A symptom of Graves' is emotional lability. It sometimes took very little to set my mom off in those days. She didn't beat me, but her screaming was enough to frighten me to the extent that I generally wanted her to know as little as possible of what I was doing so she would have no cause to be angry with me. Once in awhile I wanted a cuddle with her in the rocking chair, but I didn't usually get it. If I sat on anyone's lap in the rocking chair during the day when my dad was at work, it would have been on my twin brother Matthew's lap. When my mom was home, which was most of the time except when she had doctor's appointments, she had neither time nor interest in most of what I was doing.. What time and energy she had she devoted to Matthew. If I needed parenting during the daytime in those years, it had to come from Matthew. It was a sad state of affairs when one two- or three-year-old had to be responsible for the well-being of another. Fortunately for Matthew, I was mostly somewhat self-sufficient, but there were times when I needed help.
On a day shortly after we had turned three (I believe it was the day immediately following our birthday, which would have made it December 3. I can remember wearing my brand-new pink corduroy overalls that had arrived in the mail from my aunt for my birthday on the previous day. Happy blood bath anniversary, Matthew!) I dropped and broke a glass in the kitchen of our home. Fearful of our mother's wrath, I tried to hurriedly pick up the pieces of the glass and to dispose of them where they would not be detected. While shoving one piece of glass deeply into the kitchen wastebasket, my wrist slid against another especially sharp piece of glass that I had already buried in the day's waste. Blood immediately began spurting from the wound in my wrist. I wasn't sure whether I was more afraid of the actual wound, of my mother's anger if she learned of the broken glass, or of what might have been her even greater anger if I were unsuccessful at keeping her kitchen from becoming a bloody scene straight out of Helter Skelter. I even remember that my mom and I had disagreed about whether I should wear my new pink overalls that day. My mom had wanted me to save them so that they would be new for an event we were to attend the following day. I didn't wish to bring on additional trouble for myself by getting blood onto a dish towel, so I grabbed the paper napkins from the holder on the breakfast table and attempted to absorb the spurting blood from my wrist as I continued to pick up pieces of glass and to bury them in the wastebasket as fast as I could, although more carefully than before.
After a few moments, Matthew wandered into the room. I don't know if he, too, possessed genuine fear of our mother's reaction, or if he simply empathized with me and feared I would be in trouble for the broken glass and the ensuing mess. All I know is that he didn't summon our mother. He handed me a roll of paper towels and told me to hold those on my arm while he finished cleaning the broken glass the best that a barely-three-year-old could. Once the glass he could see was removed and the blood that could be wiped away was (the blood on the floor rug wouldn't be eradicated by anything a three-year-old could do) he took me into the family room with a fresh roll of paper towels and a trash bag. He held me on his lap in the rocking chair while I soaked one paper towel after another with my blood, then tossed it in the general direction of the trash bag. By that time, Matthew was covered in blood as well.
At this moment my mother walked in. All she saw was two bloody three-year-olds. To her credit, she didn't freak out at either of us for the heap of bloody paper towels on her family room floor or for our bloody clothing on her now bloody rocking chair. The blood itself freaked her out more than a bit, though, especially since she initially didn't even know the source of it. She didn't know how much blood was lost, or from which of her two three-year-olds it came, so she dialed 9-1-1. In the meantime she assessed the situation and found that a gash in my wrist had produced the blood she found all over us. She hadn't even seen her kitchen yet. She waited for the paramedics while she applied pressure to my lacerated wrist.
My mother would not have gone ballistic over a broken drinking glass. A bloody dish towel would have been the least of her concerns. Because the undiagnosed Graves' Disease caused her to have a heightened state of anger and/or hysteria over things that shouldn't have been terribly upsetting to a more stable person, I feared the worst from her when any little thing went awry. As it was, following one ambulance ride, a transfusion of blood from my dad and my Uncle Steve (who lived with us and had been at medical school when the accident happened but appeared in the ER shortly after being paged), several internal and external stitches, and a night in the hospital, everthing was fine. The blood probably would have come out of the overalls, but my mother tossed them into the trash because she said that seeing me in them again would have brought back horrible memories of her tiny twins drenched in blood. She said that in a weird sort of way, it reminded her of pictures of Jackie Kennedy's pink suit covered with JFK's blood. (I believe she threw out the clothes Matthew had been wearing as well.) We made it through that particular crisis and many others, often just my twin brother and me, with parents somtimes never being any the wiser.
My mom's Graves' Disease was eventually diagnosed, and she calmed down. She went on to bigger and not necessarily better illnesses. After I donated bone marrow to her when she had leukemia, we bonded, and her favoritism of Matthew was no longer an issue. He didn't have to be my parent each day until my father returned from work anymore.
Along with the lack of need for Matthew to function as my caretaker came a slightly sad but inevitable side effect: we became the proverbial spar-like-cats-and-dogs brother and sister. It was a relatively even match, and therefore a somewhat fair ten-year-long battle. He was roughly twice my size, but my intellect, savvy, and level of meanness exceeded his roughly as much as his size exceeded mine. Our disagreements almost never became physical both because that was where our parents drew the line as well as because I was smart enough to know that I didn't stand a chance in a physical fight against my brother, but our parents went through ten years of listening to and mediating disagreements about everything from what TV program to watch to what our dog should be named, to which of us got the bigger portion of ice cream. (It was Matthew. Matthew always managed to get more than his share of ice cream.) Syndicated newspaper parenting columnist John Rosemond, whose columns my mother reads primarily for the purpose of disagreeing with him, would have sent us both to our rooms for our formative years of the ages of six through sixteen, but my parents said they didn't go to the trouble of bringing children into the world so that we could function as decorations in the house's extra bedrooms until we were old enough to leave home. Consequently, the disagreements continued and were experienced by the entire family.
My parents knew something that John Rosemond apparently doesn't, which is that if parents give as little attention as possible to sibling disputes, children eventually become bored with them, and move on to other things, with relationships intact. This is essentially what happened with my brother and me. The process was perhaps accelerated by trauma that I experienced. Matthew had to choose be on he side either of my attackers or on my side, and he concluded that blood is, indeed, thicker than water. After our experience with the broken glass, he knew this to be literally true. It's not that we'll never have another disagreement again for as long as we both live, but, generally speaking, we have a bond forged by shared experiences that began with our time together in utero. We're close enough, anyway, that it bothered me to spend my birthday for the first time away from my twin brother.
As we're growing up and our lives are taking us down different paths, it's unlikely that yesterday was the last birthday we'll ever spend apart. Still, I don't have to like it. Happy belated birthday, Matthew.