Last fall, I gave my writing students a very powerful exercise taken from the work of Deena Metzger. The basic premise was to choose a traumatic incident from our past—one that changed the course of our lives for the worse—a moment when we felt betrayed or abandoned or alone, a moment when an essential part of ourselves went underground.
We began by writing the story of that event. The next week, we rewrote it—this time creating a fictional version of the same event in which we inserted a new character—a character who not really there at the time. An ally. Someone whose presence would have changed the course of our lives. Then we continued writing the story of our lives as if this ally had really existed.
This is the opening of the piece I wrote. I chose to write about my premature birth—and the death of my identical twin sister. The nurse character in this story did not really exist, but she lives vividly now, as does my sister, in my imagination.
It wasn’t time. I knew it wasn’t time. Something was terribly wrong. I was being wrenched out of my warm and watery home, out from the arms of my sister, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. We’d floated together for what seemed to us, eternity: six months, three weeks. We’d grown from the same egg and shared the same DNA; her fingers were my fingers, her heart my heart, her tongue, my tongue. The blood in my veins was her blood. Identical. That’s what the doctor said later. But it wasn’t true. We weren’t identical. I was bigger and stronger. I stretched more vigorously, rolled more actively, pushed at the boundaries of our round soft home with more force. My elbows rocked the surface of the other world, my heels, my buttocks, my feet. My sister lay quiet and docile beside me. No one but me knew she existed.
I looked out for her, my weaker half; my ear buds attuned to her every move. My eyes, though closed, watched her through thin-veined lids. My arms surrounded her. My heartbeat, firm and sure, urged hers to keep pace. There were murmurs and songs from Outside, that faraway place we could not imagine, but all we really knew was our own wet, wonderful world. We had everything we needed: warmth, nutrition, a place to let go of what we did not need, but most of all, we had each other.
And then it happened. Walls pressed in on me. My sister forced out of my arms. I was pushed and squeezed and wrenched away, knowing with every cell that I was not ready. Not prepared. And so I went screaming from the only home I had ever known. A huge wall of muscle crushed me away from the only person who would ever truly hold my heart. In that moment, when fate pushed me out into the world, I knew I would never see her again.
A bright world assaulted me. Harsh, loud, scratchy sounds. Too loud. Too bright. Too much. In our watery world, I had been strong and vigorous and free. In this new cold world, I was a shadow, a tiny person struggling to live. The white coats put me in a sealed plastic box, shoved a tube up my nose and ran a tiny needle in my arm. I was taped and prodded, laid on white cotton and left all alone. My new home was called an isolete and no one was allowed to touch me. That was the rule. Premies were sealed in boxes, kept away from bad germs. No one touched me. No one held me.
In my shocked despair, I lost weight. Two pound, twelve ounce babies didn’t live in 1956. No one expected me to survive. And if I did live, I would be blind or retarded or blind and retarded. I lay there in my clear plastic box, alone, too small and exhausted and frightened to cry.
And then a woman came in the room, a woman wearing a white hat and a white uniform, tan support hose with seams up the back, and white, sensible shoes. She came in at night when no was watching and unlocked the door to my cage. She lifted me into her arms and sat with me in a rocking chair. She unbuttoned her crisp uniform, unhooked her Playtex Living Bra, and laid my tiny, pale, wired body onto her pillowy chest and wrapped a soft, cotton blanket over the two of us. And then she started to hum and I could feel her hum extend through her chest, through her golden skin and enter me, and then the hum extended into a song, “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. If that mockingbird don’t sing, Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring…” I didn’t understand the words, of course. I didn’t know a mockingbird from a Petri dish. But I could feel the vibration of her song surround me in a protective golden light. And then she whispered in my ear, “You are cherished. You are beautiful. You will never be alone. I love you.” As she sang and whispered and breathed her full-bodied breath into my tiny, struggling face, my heartbeat stabilized and my body relaxed, and I realized in every warring, shell-shocked, grieving cell that my life did not have to be about loneliness and struggle. That was not to be my journey. She wove into my cells the inviolate knowledge that I would be okay, that I would be more than okay, that I would grow up happy and full, sure I was put on earth for a reason—to love, to give, to know joy. In that moment, I turned the corner and knew I would live. I knew it with ever fiber of my premie’s heart. I would live and I wanted to live. I had a rightful, blessed place in this world and I did not have to fight to claim it. I had a birthright and that birthright was love.
We sat like that together, my body absorbing her wonderful golden light, until dawn, when she knew the day shift workers would start to arrive. “I’m sorry, my precious,” she cooed, “I have to put you back in that wretched box. But I have a present for you. A present for always.” Then she lifted me up and placed me back in the isolette.
She turned away and after a moment, came back holding another tiny baby in her arms. “They say she died,” she told me, “and for them, she will always be dead, but not for you, my precious. For you, she will always be alive. Her name is Vicki and she is your sister; she is your soul and she always will be.” She laid Vicki down beside me and I heard that familiar beat that matched my own, I sensed the smell that was our smell, and I wrapped my scrawny little arms and legs around her as she burrowed her tiny head into my neck. “No one else will be able to see her,” the angel in white told me, “but she will always be with you.”
And so we curled together in that plastic box, our hearts beating as one. My arm draped protectively over her fragile chest. Her tiny face rested on my tiny shoulder; her hand tucked snug against my belly. The angel in white smiled and backed out of the room. I never saw her again, but she gave me a gift beyond measure.
I may have only been the size of a two-pound sack of rice with my whole crazy, wild challenge of a life before me, but she made sure I knew in every cell, in every fiber, in every part of my being, down to the mitochondrial DNA, that I belonged, that I was whole, and that my sister Vicki would always be with me.