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Everyday Mary wakes up wondering what it would be like to live her own life. But in a few minutes her thoughts disappear. Beth always wakes up four minutes after her. Today, isn’t any different. Today is Mary and Beth’s birthday. Thirteen years ago, Sherry remembers coming home from the hospital with not one, but two little “bundles of joy,” as she calls them. The doctors insisted they were healthy, but there was visibly something different about them.
“Mary!” “Beth!” Sherry calls.
“Happy Birthday!” their father, Mark yells.
Mary looks over at the clock. 6:07, it reads.
“Beth?” She calls.
“Its 6:07 exactly, Happy Birthday Beth.”
“Cake?” “Cake?” “Cake?” “Cake?”
“Yes, later. Let’s go get ready.”
“My girls!” yells Mark as they wobble down the stairs in unison. They hug him tightly. Sherry is trying to hide her tears in the corner of the room. Beth catches a glance at her mother. “Cry?” “Cry?” “Baby?” she says. “Yes, Beth mommy is crying. It’s okay.” Beth is confused and starts crying herself. “Its okay,” soothes Mary while she drags her sister to the bathroom to get ready.
In the security of the concrete walls in the bathroom, Mary wonders what made her mother cry. She always gets emotional on our birthdays, but this seems different. I wonder… But her thoughts end drastically. Beth begins flailing about. Mary recognizes the signs and knows Beth is having an episode. She administers her medicine and waits. One Mississippi….Two Mississippi…..Three Mississippi…Four Mississippi… She counts. When Beth is finally stable, she whispers, “I love you, Beth.” “I love you, Beth,” repeats her sister. But Mary knows she means, I love you too. Mary stands up thinking, I hope this is the only episode we have all day.
Sherry peels the pink envelope open and licks it shut. There are still tears falling one by one down her face. She looks pale. Eleven years ago, when her daughters were two years old, something happened. At the hospital, she clearly remembers the doctors saying, “Two healthy twins,” the very day they were born. But at two, they didn’t seem so healthy. Mary was trying to walk. Mary was starting to talk in sentences. Mary smiled. Mary laughed. But Beth, poor Beth… she just sat. She cried, she watched… but most of all, she just sat. And Mary, she never did get to learn how to walk. The doctors took X-rays of the girls. A tumor, they insisted. It must be a tumor. When the X-rays came back, their theory was clarified. But surgery, at this young age could damage both girls. The doctor took one look at Sherry and said, “At Thirteen… the girls will be developed enough. The tumor lies beneath a layer of subdural space. This space normally contains just fluid or blood. But, the girls are attached around the tumor. So their subdural space is slightly larger than a normal person’s.” Sherry remembers the doctor‘s monotone voice. A tear falls from her eyes, just as so many did that very day. Thirteen, she thinks.
The bus ride to school is not an easy one. Mary and Beth sit on the seat above the back wheel because Beth likes to feel the vibrations of the bus traveling over gravel.
“Hi, Mary!” says Rachael as she steps onto the bus.
“Hi Rach!” Mary replies. Rachael starts to gossip about a new boy on her street, when suddenly.. He gets on. “Oh my god, there he is,” yells Rachael. “I heard his name is Austin. Isn’t he gorgeous?” “He was so starting at you!” says Mary. But she knows, in reality he was probably staring at her and Beth, and for all the wrong reasons. Mary senses the boy’s wariness. He sits down near the girls, but its obvious he feels uneasy about something. Its us. Mary knows.
The bus stops and they all get off. In the classroom, Mary works on calculus while Beth plays with play-doh. “I still can’t believe how smart that girl is!” yells a foreign boy from across the room. “Yeah I know, I guess the other one got the bad genes,” replies another student. Mary listens, but this is nothing new. She tries to convince herself not to be offended. But suddenly her pencil slams down. Her head follows and so does Beth’s. I just want to be normal, she thinks. If only I were normal.
Austin wears a heavy Northface jacket, along with a trendy scarf from New York City. He is scared to meet all the new people in Westchester High, but he carries on.. 201...202...there it is, he thinks, 203. He walks in slowly, and at first… no one sees him. But sure enough, on his third step into the classroom…his books fall to the ground. When he picks them up, everyone is staring. The teacher helps him gather his things, and introduces him to the class. “You can sit right by Mary-Beth,” she says.
Great, Mary is thinking while he sits down. Just great. She feels the heat of his eyes staring. Initially, Mary thinks he is cute. But she knows she’d never have a chance. He continues to stare. I feel like an alien, do I have three eyes or something? She wants to tell him to stop staring but before she can say anything, the teacher says, “Mary and Beth, to the nurses office please your mother is here to pick you up.”
The walk down to the nurse’s offices is more calm. Mary stops thinking about the new boy. Beth is entertained by the pictures on the walls of the hallway. “Mom?” says Mary while she walks through the door to the nurse. “Hi sweetie, you girls have a doctor’s appointment at 12:30.” “A doctor’s appointment?” “Mary…this is your thirteenth birthday.” Suddenly Mary remembers. Thirteen…our separation surgery. Thirteen….we’re strong enough…we’re old enough. The excitement is almost overwhelming.
Sherry looks into the eyes of her thirteen year old girls. This is too soon, she is thinking. She knows that the doctor may tell them they’re not ready. But her worst fear is that the doctor will say they are. She holds Beth’s hand while they walk toward the car. Poor Beth has no idea. Mary is glowing. “Mom,” she says. “Yes Mary?” “Is this really happening?” Her smile is bright, her eyes are huge. “Hunny, whatever happens today happens, the doctor may say yes and he may think you’re not ready.”
Upon arriving at Dr. Sherman‘s office, Mary picks up a magazine and begins to flip through the pages. It isn’t long before their names are called. “Mary-Beth, or oh… Mary and Beth,” calls the nurse. Mary drags Beth to the room. A couple hours ago, Sherry had to give Beth extra doses of medicine in order to keep her calm. She fusses and refused to go into the room. “SHOTS!” she is screaming. Doctor Sherman enters the room promptly.
“Its okay Beth no shots today, just a cherry lollipop for your birthday!”
“Lolly! Lolly!” cries Beth.
Mary and Beth are then layed down on a large table. “This is called a CT scan,” says doctor Sherman. “It’s going to take pictures of your brain for us.”
Mary’s mind is racing. Beth is crying. Just fitting on the table is hard enough. The machine is made for one person, not two. “Try to stay still,” repeats the doctor. “Just 5 more minutes.” When the CT scan is over, Beth and Mary are escorted back to the room with their mother. Sherry has a box of tissues in her hands and is still crying. Her eyes are red and puffy. The doctor puts a hand on her shoulder. “Sherry, it’s going to be okay.” But inside she knows he has no right saying that. He knows just as much as she does that anything could happen. The wait in the room seems to take hours. Sherry cannot stop thinking that something is wrong, very wrong. She looks at her daughters through different eyes. I could lose one of them. She is thinking.
Finally, Dr.Sherman walks in with the x-ray in hand. “I’d like to move all of you to the conference room please.” Sherry is trying hard to decipher if this is good or bad news. But that monotone doctors always use haunts her. It could be anything. They have years of practice at telling bad news. This is could anything, she keeps thinking. “Okay,” he says, “This is the x-ray of Mary and Beth. As you can see, we’ve marked Mary’s head, A and Beth’s head B.” Mary waits anxiously for the doctor to just say the words. Just say we can do this. Just say its going to happen. But it’s not that easy. This room is the quietest room Mary thinks she’s ever been in. And this news is the biggest news she’ll ever hear.
“So I have good news,” he says. “You’re both mature enough to handle the surgery.” Mary’s smile is beaming. “But you need to understand there are great risks involved in this. The tumor is affecting figure B’s brain more than figure A’s brain. So the chance of survival for figure B is 20% less than figure A’s chance. Sherry has been dreading this news all day. It could be worse, she tells herself. “So right now,” continues the doctor, “We need to make this decision.” Sherry interrupts. “Um… doctor, is there anything else we can do? Can we remove the tumor without the separation surgery?” “Well,” explains the doctor, “The chance of survival will be the same. The surgery will actually be safer to undergo with the separation. Just removing the tumor alone will create more risk for infection. We may miss something that we’d see if they were separated.” By this time, Sherry feels her face turning red, bright red. And suddenly she can’t hold it back anymore. “Mom, it’s okay,” soothes Mary. Beth, upon seeing her mother cry once again bursts into tears. “Ahhhh, Ahhhhh,” she starts screaming. Sherry holds Beth close wondering if this is the right decision. “Sherry, without this surgery Beth’s condition will deteriorate further. She may get much worse,” says doctor Sherman.
“Okay,” says the receptionist. “So when did you decide would be the best time for the procedure?” “Tuesday morning, this coming Tuesday morning.” Says Sherry through her tears. “Alright, is 9:00am okay?” “Yes.”
Before going to bed, Mary begins to think about the surgery. I don’t want to lose my sister. I don’t know life without her. “Beth, I love you,” she whispers. “Beth, I love you.” repeats her sister. “Goodnight, Beth.” says Mary. “Goodnight, Beth,” repeats her sister.
At 1:03am Mary wakes up, panting. The first thing she notices is her sister’s eyes. They’re open. “Beth!” “Beth! She’s not breathing!” Sherry comes running into the girls’ room. “Mark! Get the car!” The next thing Mary remembers is the way they ran into the hospital. Nurses were already waiting at the door. “Sherry, Mark, this is an emergency,” says Dr. Sherman once the girls have been put into a room in the ER. “We’ll need to perform the surgery early. There seems to be swelling behind Beth’s right eye, and it seems to be spreading toward Mary’s body. We’re not sure if it’s an infection.” Sherry cries in Marks arms, and to her surprise he is crying too. The doctor leaves and Mark remembers thinking, This is it. Our girls are our life and it’s over. Our life is over. They sob in the waiting room for what seems like a lifetime.
Finally, at 4:45 Dr. Sherman comes out to talk. Sherry can’t help it, she finds herself trying to read his expressions once again. But just like every other time, there are none. “Listen,” he starts, and that’s when Mark notices he’s smiling. “The surgery will take another two hours to fully complete, however…Beth’s condition, the big mystery.. Is solved. The tumor is larger than we expected. In fact, only half the tumor was showing on the X-rays. For the last ten years of Beth’s life this tumor has been pushing on the left side of her brain. Disabling the way she thinks, the way she talks and the area where she stores memories.” “So, this means…” “Yes, we hope that when the tumor is removed she’ll make a full recovery. We’ve never seen anything quite like this. But she may be normal at the end of this.”
“Mommy…” Mary says weakly. “Yes, hunny I’m here.” “Beth…Beth…” Mary calls. “Hunny she’s in surgery still.” Mary looks to her right. Her eyes light up. “It worked. It worked…we’re…we’re…” “I know darling. Get some sleep. Okay? I love you.”
In the next room, Mark looks at Beth. I feel like I felt the day I brought her home from the hospital, he’s thinking. She’s so beautiful. When Sherry enters the room, Beth wakes up. Sherry and Mark hurry to her bedside. Dr. Sherman stands by. “Mom…Dad,” cries Beth. “She’s talking better, but we’re not sure if she’s still affected… if she’s still mentally disabled…” says Dr. Sherman. Suddenly Mark hears Mary in the next room, crying. “I’ll be right back,” he says. Sherry stays and talks calmly to her daughter. When she looks toward the door, she sees Mark wheeling Mary into Beth’s hospital room. “She missed her sister,” he said. “Beth, I love you.” said Mary. “Mary, I love you too,” replied Beth. The next thing Beth remembers is hearing her mother and father cry. “Don’t cry,” she said. But that only made them cry harder. Dr. Sherman came running back into the room, holding cards. “Beth… tell me what this is a picture of.” “Its an apple.” “Beth… do you know what number this is?” “That’s a seven.” “Beth, what’s 1 + 1?” “I…don’t know.” “We never taught her math,” laughed Mary. “I’ve never seen anything like this…” said Dr. Sherman.
A week later… for the first time, Mary and Beth walked out of the hospital… separately. Beth, with her own thoughts. Mary, with her own self-esteem. The first thing Mary did when she got back to school was tell Austin her true feelings…and to her surprise, Austin wasn’t looking at her like she had three eyes, he was looking at her because he thought she was beautiful.
“You weren’t, really. You don’t need to say that,” said Mary.
“No, Mary… I have turrets.. I dropped those books in front of everyone. It was a tick. And you…you were the only one that didn’t mind.”
“I know how you feel,” said Mary.
“I know you do,” said Austin.
Park City, Utah
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