Saturday, November 9, 2013

twins 101

Bullshit most foul! I would call on you, dental technician, had you not just inserted an unwieldy piece of cardboard into my mouth and retreated to your safe space to x-ray my mouth.

Upon learning that I have identical twin boys, she reported that, "identical twins run in my family.  On both sides."

Here we go again.  At some point I will un-appoint myself from the position of one-woman twin educator.  I'm starting to think that day has arrived.

"Actually," I said, between cardboard insertions, "identical twins don't run in families.  They're always a fluke."

"Really?" she said.  "Weird.  They're definitely on both sides.  Although I think the one set might not be identical because they're boy/girl."

Riiiight.  The one myth I'm always surprised still needs to be debunked.  Boys and girls cannot be identical.  They might have the same color hair and the same color eyes.  They might be the same height and weight.  They might like the same things.  But at that first diaper change....whoa!  Something's definitely different!

So, if boy/girl twins cannot be identical, all the celebrity twins you've heard about are not identical.  Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and Neil Patrick Harris all have girl/boy twins.

The rate of identical twins has remained the same since anyone thought to record the incidence of such things.  If anything, it has gone down as testing has become more precise than just "they look a lot alike."  Did you know that the Olsen twins are not identical?  They look very much alike and are the same age, but they do not have the same DNA.

The more official term for identical twins is monozygotic, meaning that they developed from a single fertilized egg.  For reasons no one understands yet, the egg splits at some point.  The twins can be 'less identical' if the egg split earlier in the development, or, at the extreme, conjoined, which occurs when the egg splits so late in development that the split is not complete.

My own twins developed due to a split that happened somewhere between those two extremes.  In utero, they had their own amniotic sacs, but they shared one placenta.  When the egg splits earlier, the fetuses might have separate amniotic sacs and separate placentas.  They might not look as much alike as other monozygotic twins and might require a DNA test to know for sure.  Since my twins had one placenta, we did not need to do the testing.  There is no way for two eggs developing side by side to create one placenta.

There is no way to influence the likelihood of having or not having identical twins.

Fraternal twins occur when two eggs are fertilized.  These fetuses will always have separate amniotic sacs and separate placentas.  They will be as alike as any other two siblings from the same parents except that they are the same age.  However, they might have greater similarities due to sharing the embryonic environment and having more closely corresponding childhood developmental situations than siblings who are a few years apart.  The rate of fraternal twins has increased dramatically in recent years for a couple of reasons.

A lot of women are having babies at an older age and older women are more likely to 'drop' an extra egg.  Maybe this is an evolutionarily adaptive way to increase gene output before the system shuts down altogether.

The use of fertility drugs increases the chances of having twins or other multiples.  The use of fertility drugs has gone up due to their increased availability and safety and possibly also to women waiting to have babies and then having a harder time getting pregnant.

IVF (in vitro fertilization) is a major cause of the increase in fraternal twins and, I suspect, the agent behind the celebrity twin boom.  Multiple fertilized eggs are inserted into the mother's uterus and then there is a wait to see how many will implant.  Responsible doctors don't generally insert a large number, but then you have some, like the one responsible for the 'octo-mom,' who seem willing to go to extremes to guarantee baby.  Anyone doing IVF, if they attempt to implant more than one fertilized egg, has to be prepared for twins or more.  By the time the prospective parents have gone through all the rigmarole required for IVF, they generally want to take the best odds of getting a baby and not have to go through the cost and pain of the process again.  This is played against the odds of winding up with more than one baby.  And people who are going to all this work to have at least one are generally not put off by the prospect of twins and in fact might be thrilled by getting 'two for one.'

Naturally occurring fraternal twins CAN run in families although this method of twinning is not responsible for any increase in the rate of twins.  And now to the misinformation about twins running on "both sides of the family."  While you might indeed have twins on both sides of the family, this does not affect your own chances of having twins.  Sorry guys, but this all happens on the woman's side of things.  A woman can inherit the tendency to release more than one egg during ovulation.  She can inherit this from her mother, from the female line.  If you think about it:  the male DNA doesn't need a spot for directions on egg-releasing during ovulation, does it?  Thus, this explanation for why Angelina Jolie had twins makes no sense:  "Well, you know, Brad's sister had twins."  If Brad's sister had naturally-occurring fraternal twins, she could have inherited that tendency from her mother or grandmother.  And she could pass it down to her daughters.  But she wouldn't share that with Brad, and even if she did, his sperm (miraculous thought they may be) could not coax an extra egg down Angelina's Fallopian tubes.  We presume that Angelina does not share DNA with her husband's siblings so that history is not relevant.  We would need to look at the female line of Angelina's family to see if twins run in the family.

My brother and his wife recently had a set of fraternal twins which caused several people to say to me:  "Wow, twins really do run in your family!"  Well, it is lucky and unusual to have two sets of boys in one family, but they are not connected.  First, my twins are identical, an unexplained fluke.  Second, I am not genetically related to my brother's wife so even if I carried some tendency toward fraternal twins, I would have no way to pass that to my sister-in-law as if it were the gravy at Thanksgiving.

I don't expect everyone to know all these facts.  I learned most of this after becoming pregnant with twins when it all became extremely relevant.  Because I was 40 when my boys were born, people often assume I used some sort of fertility assistance and will fish about for information.  "So, do twins run in your family?"  I will say no, which is true, but that confirms their suspicions.  "But identical twins don't run in families," I add.  "No one knows what causes an egg to split."  Nine times out of ten, this leads to a conversation full of myths I feel the need to debunk and me imparting way more information than the person bargained for.  Then, unless they truly paid attention, they probably still wonder if I used fertility treatments.  Which is none of their business.

Now that I think about it, I should have waited until the dental technician emptied my mouth and simply said, "they run in my family too.  In fact, my brother's wife just had twins....."


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Not pretty. Not pretty at all.

That's me walking out of the room with my fur up, tail twitching, and teeth bared.

No, you haven't done anything wrong.  It's just that pretty much anything you say will result in my mental kung fu and you cut to metaphorical ribbons.

I'm doing an exercise which is aimed at removing past resentments and grudges.  Basically it involves me turning over every stone of anger to see if there's still an evil spirit living underneath.  Turns out there are a lot of them and they have escaped to swirl about in my psychic space.  You come too close and you risk Tasmanian Kristy Devil, no matter how much I try to rein her in.

The other day I pointed because I didn't trust myself to speak.  Apparently even my actions bespoke seething because Keith called after me, "I'm just existing!"  "Me too," I growled, claws clacking.

The goal is not to get these livid genies stuffed back into a bottle.  My job is to pet down their fur and let them curl up somewhere, preferably together so they can stay warm and not feel the need to bother me again.  I will get there.  I don't really need them anymore.  Of course, that just pisses them off even more and they ramp it up because feeling unwanted and unneeded makes them....ANGRY!

Okay, y'all:  Once you were needed and useful.  You have done your job.  It's okay to retire, get a little soft.  Hey, maybe you could do a second act as a somewhat kooky aunt or a lovable but eccentric neighbor.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Two sides of one boy

In general, Owen presents as more of a tough guy than his brother Lionel.  He is more likely to wipe off kisses and only grudgingly or accidentally takes my hand whereas Lionel wants to hold my hand all the time, all the way to school and all the way home.  If I'm carrying something Lionel pulls on my arm and says "hand please."  For him, this is not about safely crossing streets or worry of getting lost, it's about connection.  But Owen has his softer side, his more connected side also.

I was a chaperone at their recent first grade field trip, put in charge of monitoring a group of 4 boys from the class.  Walking from the classroom to the bus, I noticed that Owen had taken my hand.  Lionel was on the other hand.  At first I thought this was accidental, but he lost his grip and regained it a couple of times.  He was definitely holding on to me.  Did he want to make sure we didn't get separated?  Show 'ownership' to his classmates?

Walking into the theater to sit down for Jack and the Beanstalk, I again had one boy on each hand.  The other two boys in our group were just ahead and then way ahead as I had to go very slowly navigating the abrupt shift to darkness and the unpredictable placement of stairs, ramps, or other people who happened to be wearing dark clothing.  I said that this was an example of when it was hard for me to see and Owen was right on the job.  'No stairs for a while."  Then:  "Stair, one two, stop.  Stair, one two, stop."  At this point I could actually see the stairs but I let him and Lionel lead me in their very sweet and protective way.  "All flat now."

But my favorite sweet Owen moment came on the bus on the way home.  We were at the very back of the bus and the other boys were watching a train next to us, racing it, and devising  imaginary traps and treachery that would allow our bus to pull ahead.  "I'm shooting oil onto its track!"  "I'm releasing a bunch of animals!"  Owen was sitting next to the window, looking out and singing softly to himself, gesturing slightly with his hands and head, completely lost and comfortable in his musical reverie.  My little tough guy.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

rambling...and remembering Scotty a year later

Whidbey Island, across the water from Seattle, is not known for sunshine but this day was beautiful beyond beautiful.  The open area of the cemetery allowed us to see a larger vista of the faultlessly blue sky where hawks circled high up on currents we couldn't feel down below.  It was not too warm, in the 70's, but my dad and my remaining brother worked up a sweat digging a hole in the area outlined by spray paint on the grass.  There were no other people around except for a maintenance guy several plots down from whom my brother borrowed a sharp tool when they ran into rock.

I've been to a handful of funerals and memorial services.  This was my first burial.  Based solely on images from media, I expected that the hole would be pre-dug, that there would be a casket covered in flowers, that there would folding chairs for loved ones to sit on. I expected black limousines.  I expected rain.

While Davy was digging, my father commented on the plot behind Scotty's, dedicated to a little girl, and decorated with bushes, flowers, and a small stone walkway leading to a bench.   "That might be one way my mom could be of help," I said.  "She does a lot of gardening."

My father's face went slack and pale.  "Oh no.  She doesn't even get to know that this place exists."

Right.  I forgot.  Somehow, in the surreal nature of the day and the experience, I had forgotten about the complete division.  The coroner had split the ashes between two containers, joking (a little bitterly) that he had measured to the smallest increment so as to avoid any accusations of favoritism.

"Of course," I said.  "Sorry.  I don't know what I was thinking."

While my father and brother dug the hole and chipped away at stone, I sat in the car working on a written memorial for newspapers and a website.  Next to me sat the urn containing half of Scotty's ashes.  Because Scotty wasn't married when he died and had left no will or instructions, it fell to my parents to decide on the arrangements.  They hadn't seen each other in probably 30 years (and didn't see each other on this occasion either) and hadn't agreed on anything since the 1970's.  If this were a Disney movie, the situation would resolve with everyone remembering that they loved each other and Scotty would jump out from behind a giant fern having united the family with his death ruse. Yeah, it was surreal, but not that surreal.

The plans were made using the funeral director as a go-between and Scotty's children for input.  Jack, Scotty's almost 14-year-old son, wanted nothing to do with the process, beyond supporting his sister, Sophia, 12 years old.  Sophia wanted an open casket and a burial.  My mom wanted cremation and somehow convinced Sophia of this.  Apparently my mom really wanted something called a Buddhist cremation where the bones of the loved one are retained for some purpose but my father effectively nixed this.  Each parent got half the ashes, no bones.

There have been schisms in my family for years but never one so dramatically manifest.  Half the ashes.  Half the family.  I don't know what my mom and sister did with their half.  My dad chose to bury his half so that Jack and Sophia would have a place to visit.

I wrote about Scotty's achievements and travels, his children, his love of music.  I vividly saw Scotty standing at his conga drum, playing along to loud music, blissed out.  I heard him doing the voices of Smithers and the anteater from Pink Panther.  I remembered falling on the floor laughing over total silliness and I also remembered his rages, his 'Hulk' moments.  And I thought about his nearly lifelong struggle with addiction and the downward spiral of the past couple of years.  The last time I saw him he was sitting in the back of a police car outside my house.  Then I remembered how excited we were when Scotty was born.  Somewhere there is a picture of my dad in hospital scrubs holding newborn Scotty up to his face.  The look is pure joy and also something else I've seen on the faces of new fathers:  sort of surprise at the happy reality of this new person.  There's a new daddy picture of Scotty like this.  Baby Jack is swaddled.  Scotty has just set him down on a bed and is in the act of turning to another task but can't stop the smile, can't hide the joy.  And why would he?

The look on my father's face at the casket:  pure horror and shock and love.  I can't imagine his face when he got the phone call telling him that Scotty had hanged himself. I know my own reaction was muted because my husband was out of town and I tried to keep life normal for my two six-year-old sons.  Because of this and because the whole thing was so hard to believe anyway, it didn't seem completely real to me until I was standing in front of the open casket.  There he was.  My brother.  In a casket.  Doesn't get more real.  He was wearing the clothes his girlfriend had given my dad and which my dad had painstakingly ironed in his hotel room:  a dark suit coat and a plaid shirt.  The shirt was buttoned up high to hide his neck.  His face was dark but his hands were white.  The funeral director explained that this was because of the blood pooling during asphyxiation.  I remember my father sort of shrugging and holding up his palms.  "These are the only clothes we have for him.  So I guess that's what he's wearing."  It didn't look like something Scotty would wear.  I tousled his hair because they'd made it much too neat.  I patted his chest and I tucked a note into his pocket but I couldn't touch his skin.

The morning of the funeral, my brother and dad and I arranged some photos on a display board to bring to the service.  At one point, my dad, whom I hadn't seen for twenty years until the day before, left the  room and sobbed.  My brother and I looked at each other quietly.  Neither of us went to hug him.  I didn't think I could after all the time.  At the funeral, he told me how much Scotty loved me and I collapsed into his arms crying.  Turns out I could do it.

My father was wearing slacks and a dress shirt.  "Who forgets a suit for a funeral?" he asked.  Well, someone in shock, of course.  Davy, in the military, has been to too many funerals to forget.  He was the only one there in a suit, besides the funeral director.  Scotty's friends were casual even in their respectful dress-up.  At the service, Sophia and I clung to each other, holding each other up.  "I just wish he was still here," she whispered.  I know.  His relationship with his kids had become more than strained in the past couple of years as he lost all custody and then all visitation beyond phone calls due to his drinking and drug use and the behavior that went with that.  Jack sat in the back with some friends during the service.  His relationship with his father was more than frayed.

Scotty was wildly impractical and inventive.  He was sensitive and yet could be mean in his truth-telling.  He wanted transcendence and escape.  The only time I remember him really sticking to the daily life thing was when his kids were little.  And even then....  not so much.

The youngest of their four children, Scotty was still a baby when my parents separated and divorced.  As the oldest I had gotten the most stability--nearly nine years of mostly normal average life in the suburbs.  Scotty got a few months.  Davy a few years.  I remembered the hand-off, when my mother gave up custody of us.  While friends unloaded our beds and toys, Scotty's crib and changing table, from a small trailer in the driveway, my mother sat in a rocking chair holding Scotty.  Jenny, Davy, and I stood in a semi-circle around her.  Eventually, she handed Scotty to Bev.  From the soon-to-be-absent mother to the soon-to-be-abusive step-mother.  Psychically, emotionally, metaphorically--and maybe literally, I don't remember--I took Scotty back and put him on my hip.  He will always be my first baby.

I had already been taking care of him.  In our small unit in the public housing complex, I shared a room with Scotty so I could change his diapers in the night if needed, or soothe him back to sleep.  In the mornings I got up early with him and fed him.  Usually I made him scrambled eggs, stirring the eggs with one hand while holding him on my hip with the other.  Then on to fourth grade.  At home again, I often took Scotty for long bike rides using my mother's bike which had a baby seat on the back.  I came home from school once to discover that Scotty had climbed out of his crib after his nap and spread the contents of his diaper all over our shared room.  When my mother offered to clean it up, I cried in relief and cooked dinner in exchange.

Eventually, the maintenance man left and my dad and brother returned the chisel or ax or whatever they had borrowed to get at the stones in the ground. Just the three of us now.

Not long ago I heard a suicide-attempt survivor speak.  He said he felt regret the instant he let go of the bridge railing and jumped.  Did Scotty have regret?  Did his feet reach for the chair or stool or whatever he used?  Did his hands pull at the rope as he gasped for breath?  How tight did he tie the knot?  How long did it take?  What were his thoughts?  Did he wish for the oblivion of death more than to hold his baby girl and boy again?  In the casket he looked as if he were sleeping but I know his fear and panic face.  I've seen it.  Can see it now.

When the hole was complete, I carried the urn of ashes on my hip, more scared of dropping them than I had ever felt of dropping a real baby.  I worried that my vision problem would lead me to trip over a root or stone and send the ashes flying.  Why the fear?  As if anything could be worse than the events of the past week.  Everything was going so well until Kristy dropped the ashes.  Probably I just wanted to feel control over something, anything.  And I know it was just ashes, and half the ashes at that, but I felt love and respect for this token of my brother.  I had to carry him lovingly, gently to this resting place.

We lowered the urn into the hole and my brother prepared to cover it with dirt.  I suggested that we each throw in a handful of dirt first.  This was something I had only seen in movies and on TV, but it seemed like the right thing to do.  We did that and then they shoveled in the dirt and shrugged the sod back into place.

"Should we say a prayer?" I asked.

"I just did," Davy said.

"Can you say it again?"

We held hands and Davy said a beautiful prayer wishing peace for our brother and son.

In silence, under that blue blue sky, we walked back to the car and then drove slowly from the cemetery, turning onto the road and joining families going grocery shopping or couples on dates.  People lonely or joyous, busy and distracted, or contemplative and serene.  I just wish he was still here.  I knew that I would go grocery shopping, that I would get busy, and that I would even feel peace again.  But now it was just a beautiful day full of grief, heavy like the absent rain clouds.