Amelia has a birthmark, and Olivia has a beauty mark, and those are the only ways I can distinguish between my identical twin daughters at night. My girls burst with sound and personality, but darkness cloaks identifying speech or action. People have suggested dressing the twins in different clothing, but my wife and I want to pair them in the same strawberry-print dresses or bumblebee-butt pajamas. My niece made them different wristbands, and people have said that different color nail polish or earrings work. All good suggestions for the day, but not for night.
It was easier at the start. Our girls arrived early, and though they were big for 34 weeks, they had to spend a week in the NICU to reach a comfortable gestational age. During the first months, Amelia ate a bit more, and her cheeks carried more chunk. Her swing moved right to left, and was plugged into the wall, so she whirled for long hours. Olivia was a bit smaller, and could sleep in any contorted position possible, mimicking her location in the womb. Her swing moved forward and backward, and ran on D batteries, which had to be changed or she would be left static, swaddled, and sad.
I am writing this at 5 and half months, when the girls sleep much better and longer. It is still not easy, and my wife deserves canonization daily, but the girls have been wonderful. We did our best, with a healthy amount of help from family, to get the girls on the coveted twins schedule–they eat together every three hours, nap, cry, eat, nap, and so on–but inevitably two of those feedings happened in the deep of night. The girls’ internal clocks are frighteningly consistent, but sometimes one baby will fuss while the other sleeps. I say one rather than a name because parents of twins learn that there are two babies but three identities: one for each baby, and then the twin identity, an amorphous, shared mass of personality and action that makes Amelia fuss one night and Olivia the next.
This is a typical night from those earlier months: Jen doesn’t sleep, and has nearly accepted the fact that her body is on high alert. I like to think mine is also, but I am actually in man-sleep, nearly melted into the sheets. Jen hears a noise from the monitor. She nudges and wakes me, and I walk out of the bedroom and down the hallway. We do not have a particularly long hallway, but I have been woken out of my bear slumber, so each dimly lit room or muted night-light I pass makes me feel like I’m moving down one of the kaleidoscopic hallways in Suspiria.
I push open the door, and the white noise screeching from my iPad propped against the rocker mixes with the complimenting whooshes of the swings. The room is dark, but I don’t dare turn on the light. My eyes are crossed, but there is no time to rub them. One girl is crying, and if she wakes the other, Jen and I will have even less time to rest. My mission is essential, but I am moving on faith. My hand brushes a cold cheek as I hunt for the pacifier that has wedged between swaddle and swing. I find the pacifier, fish for the unknown baby’s moving mouth, and let my hand touch that beautiful cheek again before I turn and bound over the doorway hardwood that would creak them awake. I shut the door, go down the hallway, and get back into bed. We sleep until morning, and the girls have already eaten and washed their bottles for us. They have married caring men who have passed my Sicilian background check, and live close enough to come for breakfast.
Or, I slide into bed and Jen nudges me again. She’s heard another fuss, so I repeat the ritual.
While the little girls were still punching and pounding in Jen’s belly, people always told us to get sleep while we could. We looked at each other and smirked. The real reason why I sleep so soundly, why my nightly baby encounters feel so psychotropic? I have sleep apnea. My wife has earned her second and third canonization miracles for suffering through my hellish snores, and finally convincing me to go for a sleep study, where I learned that my sleep apnea number is high. NBA basketball score high. I’m a former college athlete who still runs and lifts, but I also have a deviated septum and relaxed throat muscles.
A year before my daughters were born, I began using a CPAP machine: continuous, positive air pressure pushed through a long tube to eliminate instances of apnea–the moments when I stop breathing during sleep. My pre-night ritual basically involves becoming Robocop, but at least I can get some good sleep, and, most importantly, my wife gets rest. Yet it if I stop tonight, or fall asleep during an obscure 70s horror film streaming on Netflix, and spend the night breathing bedroom air rather than humidified mist, I will be peeling back all of that good treatment. My doctor never lied to me: if I chose to not sleep with the mask, my sleep might kill me. It wouldn’t happen in five years, but those nights without air would accumulate into high blood pressure, a stroke, or heart failure. That which brings me rest could bring my final harm.
Though I wear my mask each night, I am forever wounded by a fear of lost sleep and bad sleep. Interrupted sleep doesn’t help: I have trouble falling back asleep once I’ve been woken. After a few nights, I got sick of walking down the hallway and came up with a plan, against Jen’s wishes. Until the girls could sleep a bit longer without crying, I would sleep on the floor of their room. The shag carpet looked comfortable, and I could borrow one of their boppies as a pillow. But I had to use my CPAP in their room, or the sleep would be wasted. I unplugged and replugged the horde of wires, set the CPAP on their dresser, turned on the machine, and fitted and clipped the mask around my face. The steady stream of air was dwarfed by the white noise. I lay on the ground, hoping that my mere presence in the room would calm them.
It didn’t. One would peep, the other would cry, and my silent litany of Our Fathers did nothing to satiate them. It was too much effort to turn off the CPAP for each pacification, so I left the mask on and moved from baby to baby in the dark. Lit by their green night-light, I must have looked like a monster from a basement-shot science fiction film, but am comforted by the fact that they couldn’t see me. I couldn’t see them, either, but I could feel for them, and we did that dance together, in the dark, for a few nights. But I missed Jen too much. I think the girls understood, because they started to sleep longer, as if to say thank you. Now I only have to make the trek down the hallway once or twice a night. Despite my confused, groggy state, I am thankful for the chance to touch them before morning.
Listen to Nick read his essay:
To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.