“Twins” by Elizabeth Crowell

Twin children in the woods. They are dressed formally. The painting is in a gold frame.
Helen and Herbert Dormitzer, painted by Henry Mosler, courtesy of Elizabeth Crowell

On the night my twin brother, Paul, and I were born, my mother waited as long as she could so she would not wake my father too early. She watched the Late Late Movie on their first television. It was 1964. As it happened, she waited too long and my father describes the rest of the night as a refugee might describe a desperate, midnight exodus to another country. There was panic and frustration as my older brother refused to put on a coat and my mother went into a fast and hard labor. In the blue, red-striped Ford wagon on a hot September night, my father sped through our suburban town as my mother feared she might have the baby in the car. 

At the hospital, my father sat outside the delivery room. The doctor came out and announced that my mother had had twins, a complete surprise from which, my father occasionally joked, he never recovered. My mother, quiet about her own feelings, had told the doctor she thought it was more than one baby. He had put the cold stethoscope on her tight belly and had never heard the second heartbeat.  

It is strange that there was only one heartbeat in doctor’s visit after doctor’s visit. Four arms, two heads, four legs — why could the doctor not feel another? Why couldn’t he ascertain that my mother, who was mostly demure, was adamant about this? It could be that our hearts beat in perfect alignment. Yet, it does not seem that Paul and I ever could have aligned ourselves so precisely. Hiding one another’s hearts, even from each other, seems more likely, since that is what we have done in the decades after. 

Forty-three years later, at my first ultrasound of my second pregnancy, in a dark room with the ultrasound wand pressed deep into the folds of my stomach, I am happy. Happy to have gotten pregnant so easily. Happy to be feeling so good, having had a healthy and gorgeous baby girl the year before. Happy to be married to my wife, Cheryl, who sits beside me. Then, the technician asks if we have had any other ultrasounds.  We shake our heads. She says, “I see two babies.”

My wife makes a joke about having to get a mini-van; her eyes are filled with tears of joy. I feel a dread. I remember what my mother said about having twins. It was better not to know I was having twins because then I didn’t worry. I am worried about how my body’s “advanced maternal age” will handle the stress. When I think again of that twin life, the years and years of bobbing around each other’s hearts, my dread compounds.  

Our twins are identical and they are doomed. They have developed the rare twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, where the shared placenta in identical twins grows extra vessels. One twin loses his umbilical fluid; the other drowns in it. Our twins are followed and imaged continuously for their almost six in-utero months. Every time we go to the doctor, we wait breathlessly as he struggles to find one heartbeat, then another.  

The earliest depiction of the syndrome is a Dutch painting from 1617 by an unknown artist. On a dark background empty of everything except, in the top corners, two coats-of-arms, two swaddled babies lie, one with a pinkish puffy face, the other with a thin gray-white face.  Matthew was the thin-faced one.   

I would often look away from the ultrasound of the two heads and when the doctor had to plunge a needle into James’ amniotic sac to reduce the fluid, I felt a mother’s fear that he could be pricked. I watched that needle; I remember its thinness, the outline of it in the fluid, the peculiar pressure in my belly. But I confused James with Matthew, as if I were resistant to learning who was who.

The emergency C-section is horrific and seems so public – all those people trying to save two baby boys born at twenty-six weeks. Within an hour, James has died. Matthew weighs a little over a pound; a nurse holds him up to me very briefly. A breathing tube the size of a small straw hangs from his mouth. He is gray and wrinkly, like an old man with a cigarette. When our healthy, almost thirteen-pound daughter was fifteen months before. I wondered who she was. I felt instantly like she was asking me the same question; this would be our bond. The briefness of my pregnancy with the twins, Matthew’s indescribably small size (a pound and a quarter), and the fact of his lost brother make me look at Matthew with more fear than heart.  The question is not “Who are you?” but “Will you stay?”

I have already failed him by losing his twin. I have long lost the connection with my own twin. As they rush Matthew to the NICU, I have no idea about the heart surgery, the kidney failure, the ripped bowel, the damaged liver, and all else that is to come. After Matthew leaves, they let us hold James for a while. Given the circumstances, there is no way for James and Matthew to be together in life, even for that short time.

Though being a twin is a far less rare phenomenon now than it was when I was born in the 1960s, when twins made up a little over one percent of live births, people are still curious when I say I am a twin. Do you look alike? Not since we were small children. If he bumps his head, can you feel his pain? When he was three or so, he smacked his head on the windowsill. He screamed and turned pink and blood came down his face. I felt his pain the way other people did — by seeing its expression. No, we transmitted no special signal. When we were in elementary school, I would look to play with him at recess and at gym. I even thought I was protecting Paul, who was more awkward and more prone to being teased than I. But I was not protecting him, and, after a while, he was not looking for me. He had found deep and lasting ways of turning inside to protect himself.   

Once, in college, which was our first time apart in school, I wrote him a heartfelt letter. He wrote back in French, though he knew I didn’t know French. Years later, I went to see him for a weekend. I tried to talk about our childhood and how strange we had grown to each other. I was in therapy and thought, somehow, if I named it — that we had been difficult to each other — we might move forward. But we did not.

Fourteen years after our twins’ birth, I can no longer imagine a second boy who looks just like Matthew, though they would share that magical physical likeness. He does not refer to himself as a twin, nor we, him, because it feels unfair to think of Matthew as anything less than whole. 

Studies of identical twins separated at birth are stunning. They wear jewelry on the same fingers; they marry partners with the same name and occupation. I wonder if anyone has studied identical twins separated by death. Do they each hold the ghost of what they are to each other?

When Matthew was very young, he said once that he was the only one who knew James. It is somewhat tempting to think of what they had as a relationship, no matter how lethal that relationship was. Still, their bodies nudged against each other’s. I am not sure I honored that relationship.    

The gold-framed 1871 portrait of twins Helen, my great-grandmother, and her brother Herbert Dormitzer hung in my maternal grandparents’ and then my own childhood home. It was introduced to visitors as if it were a member of the family. After my mother died two years ago, the painting came to the home I share with my wife and two living children.  

The Dormitzers arrived from Prague in the 1850s, settling first in Hoboken and then on the Upper East Side. They started a tobacco business and quickly made a substantial fortune. The painting, by Henry Mosler, a well-known New York painter of the time, shows the twins at about five years old in a dark, vague wood. The foreground is brown and flat, more like a house floor than a forest floor. Clearly, the artist embellished the sylvan setting, perhaps to contrast the children’s finery with the green world around them. Helen sits on a wooden, cross-backed bench. Her dress is satiny white, blue aproned, blue-bodiced, with a blue ribbon at her neck, a blue ribbon in her dark hair. Herbert stands to the left of her in a tuxedo and ruffled white shirt. They are holding right hands with a simple, deep intimacy. His left hand lies softly on her shoulder, touching the dress. This is how a married couple might pose. She cradles in the crux of her other arm a blonde-haired limp doll with a china face, pink dress, and fine tiny stockings and boots that match perfectly Helen’s and Herbert’s fine white stockings and leather, shiny boots with dozens of buttons. Helen looks left; Herbert gazes directly at the viewer. Their dark brown hair and eyes are identical. Neither of them smiles. 

When Paul and I are four years old, my mother wants to recreate the Dormitzer picture with her own twins. I wear a light-blue dress. The puffy, short sleeves are tight; the dress reveals my pale, girl legs. Paul is dressed in an awkward black blazer and too-big shorts, probably hand-me-downs from my older brother. This was when we still looked like twins — same size, same blonde hair, same light eyes. I remember walking through a tangly garden, leaning against the birch tree. Unlike the imagined world of the original portrait, it is prickly. The leaves and branches scratch our legs. We both smile gleamingly. My father snaps the picture, pulling the shutter down slowly so we can hear the click. My mother puts the picture in a gold frame on a dark table beneath the posed portrait of Helen and Herbert.  Any time someone comes over, she points out the twins that echo in the family.   

Her mother, my grandmother, a first-generation American with not even a high school education, whose father was a fireman, embraced the Dormitzer way of things. She kept my grandparents’ elegant home, the portrait of the twins its centerpiece. In front of it, my grandmother would serve Paul and me tea from an astonishing sterling silver set where our faces reflected back at us. It was as if we were a reincarnation of the original twins. Their place smelled of cologne and pipe smoke and was scattered with the detritus of the Dormitzer fortune: a Chinese trunk, a set of heavy sterling silver with ornamental flowers, jewelry boxes, a painting of a monk threading a needle, and heavy, leaf-carved mahogany furniture with velvet upholstery. There was Belgian lace, hard-knotted monogrammed linens and hand-painted china. She served us orange juice in the Dormitzers’ cut glassware until Paul cut his lip on one of the glasses.    

My grandfather, who was Helen Dormitzer’s son, cared little for all the elegance. He wore old, tweed blazers, sucked on Lifesavers to stop himself from smoking a pipe, and spent most days bent over his stamp collection.  He took care of his wife, adored my mother, and, as it ended up, took care of his sister, whose story ended with a leap from her fourteenth-floor room at the Waldorf Astoria in the Great Depression, having lost almost all of the Dormitzer money that belonged to her and my grandfather.  

Neither the lost money, nor Violet’s despair and her horrific suicide were ever talked about. In fact, my mother went to her grave claiming that she did not know how Violet died; I quickly googled her and the article “Doughboy’s Friend Plunges to Her Death” in The New York Times flashed on the screen. During World War I, Violet Helen Bennett had been the first head postmistress on the European front. She connected American family members across the seas when it seemed almost impossible to do so.

For a long time, I tried to connect my brother back to our family and to me.  

My grandmother threw out all the beautiful cut glass with their diamond-like edges after Paul’s injury, as if she were trying to find a way for him not to get hurt again. 

I used to peruse the internet in order to understand what had happened to our babies. There is no shortage there of twin-to-twin transfusion pictures — tangled placentas, a dead baby next to a live baby, two living babies with dramatically different sizes and conditions, one twin healthy and plump, one shriveled and gray.  There are many healthy, identically-dressed survivors, who have been saved by a rare and risky surgical laser ablation of vessels. These children are dressed fancily in identical outfits, formal as the Dormitzers, proud survivors. 

We have a few pictures of James that Cheryl took with a disposable camera.  When I look at me holding James, I focus on my own shocked, despairing face rather than James.  If disappear were a transitive verb, I would say that such an experience disappears a part of the self, as if I, as well as the child, is gone. Part of me always lives in this muted, fugue state.  Sometimes, still, when people ask how many children I have, I have the courage to tell the truth:  Three. Matthew has a twin brother who died.  

The hospital took a formal black and white photo, with James’ head poking out of a blanket, his arm visible. I think of how they propped him up, how strange to shuffle his corpse into a natural pose. Almost as strange as posing two rich children in an unidentifiable wilderness. 

Paul and I understand the world so differently and the way we are different compounds the division between us. He used to be terrible to play games with, the ultimate rule-abider and competitor. He was so afraid of losing, he would hide the game pieces under the heavy brass bowl that held dried flowers, or the well-polished andirons. He had no idea the games ultimately did not matter at all, at least from my perspective. Once, he let me play Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, and within three rolls of the dice in this rule-heavy, strategic game, I was pronounced dead. I wanted to keep playing. He said, “You can’t, you’re dead.” I asked again. And he repeated again, “You’re dead.” 

In recent years, during heated discussions about our very aged parents’ care, Paul and I both have realized that neither of us understands the other. I live near them and spent a fair amount of time with them as their health declined. I am strident about what I have observed and know. Paul’s calls from across the country have come to have the feel of my whole life with him — distant and with barely-expressed emotions. He does not think it is appropriate to call dementia “brain damage.” When my mother was dying, I did not think it was respectful of him to spread out his work on my mother’s deathbed, not that she could notice. On the phone he almost always talks of work; I almost always talk about my kids. He sometimes refers to our father as “my father,” as if he were from a different family. 

When I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and given only years to live, Paul did some very hard work with me around family money and planning. But he rarely asks about the cancer and I assume he separates it in his head from my continued care of my father, as if one won’t affect the other. As the years of my illness and the proximity of the end comes closer, he and I find it almost impossible to talk. It is startling to think I was born with a person and that I will die so far from him.

Now a teenager, Matthew has grown into an incredibly visual person. He can look at an old building and see original elements hiding behind new walls. He especially loves old movie palaces, and we go to those dark, velvet-curtained places in whatever city we visit. He has grown into a curious artist who seems so comfortable with the past, who notices the faded print on the sides of buildings, the odd cornice, stone carving, or column outside a building that is original to the place. He will search the internet for the only seconds of a clip of a lost movie from the 1920s, glad that he has found this much.  

Late in her life, my mother revised her will, leaving then eleven-year-old Matthew the portrait of the twins because, she told me, Matthew was a twin. She saw no reason to leave it to Paul or me. Perhaps she had seen by then the cost of our twinness. Her acknowledging Matthew’s twinness years after James’s death is one of the most loving things she ever did. 

I find myself staring at the portrait in the midst of my day, startled by how quickly my memory fires to see that portrait in my grandparents’ formal home and in my childhood home, almost as formal. To have the painting land here in my own home, with my wife, when I am estranged from my own twin and am parent to a twin with a lost twin, feels extraordinary. When I remind Matthew it is his inheritance, he barely looks up at it. He says, “How much can I get for it?”  He wants to raise money to go out to California when he is eighteen and remake movies from the 1920s. He taps around the house in his wingtip shoes, imagining his choreography fitting into a movie someday.  He sketches in pencil ideas for movie sets on long, thin pieces of graph paper. The thin pages slump to the floor as he tries again and again.  


Elizabeth Crowell grew up in northern New Jersey and has a B.A. from Smith College in English literature and an M.F.A. in creative writing/poetry from Columbia University. She taught college and high school English for many years. Her work is being published or is forthcoming in Hobart (on-line), Pangryus, Baseball Bard, and others. She has twice been the winner of The Bellevue Literary Review non-fiction prize. She lives outside of Boston with her wife and teenage children.