Monday, December 1, 2008

Encore des jumelles

When we watched the Bastille Day fireworks with our friends S and G from the beach in Nice this summer, we joked about the possibility that they would end up as the fathers of twin girls. S and G met our girls 12 years ago; they were talking about children of their own then, and I remember the fascination and delight with which they watched E and G toddle around, and all the questions they had for us. While we picnicked on the beach in Nice, their surrogate mother was at home in California with her family. S and G would go with her for the first sonogram when they returned home. This Thanksgiving weekend, S and G welcomed their identical twin girls. They've had a long journey to get to this birth. Our journey, by comparison, was ridiculously easy.

We were finishing graduate school. C found a fellowship that would give him work to do in France, so that I could be in France to carry on with my research. When we arrived, I was a few months' pregnant. The plan--we have always been big into plans--was to have the baby and tote it around Europe in a back pack for a couple of years before we went back to the States and dug in to our grown-up lives. I needed an obstetrician, of course, and one was referred to us. I made an appointment and one afternoon we drove into Nice to meet Docteur Xavier.

His office was in a grand belle époque building, brass name plates on the doors outside, a winding marble staircase leading up from an elegantly proportioned foyer. The office was up a flight, and, inside, the waiting room was sleek and modern, deep rose leather banquettes lining the walls, soft lighting, lots of mirrors. C was the only father to be in the room; everyone else was female.

Until Dr Xavier came to get us. He was in his late forties, greying, in a tailored tweed jacket and those wide-wale corduroys that look frumpy on American men but make French men look like they just got up from a long morning settling the château's royal accounts. He ushered us into his high-ceilinged office. There was a soft carpet on the floor, lamps throwing flattering light, and a huge window looking down into the street. Da Vinci prints and tasteful photographs of the doctor's children lined the walls.

C and I sat down in Louis XV armchairs in front of the doctor's antique desk. He took my medical history and then got up and led me into the small, state of the art examining room that opened off of the office. I undressed, put on the robe (I remember that there was a robe, or, at least, I don't remember that there wasn't one), and laid down on the examining table. He began the routine as C stood beside me.

Then the doctor stopped. He shook his head. Your dates are not right, he said. You are much further along than you think you are.

I frowned. How typically French, I thought, to assume that I do not even know how long I have been pregnant. I said, No, I think I'm right about the dates. (What else do you say at that point?)

He shook his head again. We shall make an échographie to know.

Dr Xavier rolled a small sonogram machine over to the examining table and turned it on. I had never had a sonogram before.

He ran the wand over my belly. A blinking image appeared on the small screen. It showed a mirror image, what I took to be the right side and the left side of a 16 week old fetus. How clever, I thought, that the sonogram can show both sides. I wonder how it does that.

That was the last thought of that part of my life.

Then Dr Xavier said, with a touch of satisfaction in his voice, There are two babies.

C reached out and grabbed a stirrup. I had the advantage, as I was already lying down. C said to no one and everyone: Are you sure?

The doctor looked at me. Sure? he said. What is sure? Our conversation had been in English and in French, and we had just reached the limit of his English.

Certain, I explained. Vous êtes certain?

Certain? Mais bien sûr je suis certain, he said. This is not the first échographie I have made.

While I was getting dressed, Dr Xavier took C back out into his office. They sat down across from each other, C in his fauteuil and the doctor behind his desk. Then he leaned forward and said to C: Sometimes, there are three.

Suddenly our plans were changed. We spent the next week wondering if this was going to be one of those times--I mean, if there can suddenly be two babies, the universe can surely bend enough for there to be three--but the radiologist Dr Xavier sent us to see was certain there were only two. Jumelles, twin girls, deux filles, he announced, it not having crossed his mind that we might want to keep the gender a surprise. We didn't. At that point we wanted to know everything we could. We had always been good students, and thought that more information would somehow give us more control over the situation. We were wrong, of course. We were now in a process and regardless of what we knew or found out, the only way out was through.

Which is what I remembered when I looked at the pictures of S and G's girls Saturday night. Two little girl babies, wrapped in the same American hospital receiving blankets that our own little girls babies were swaddled in. American blankets, in the American hospital where they were born. We couldn't figure out a way to carry two babies around Europe in backpacks, and so, after a few more months, we went home.

And then we came back. It took over a decade, but we found our way back, and nothing has changed and everything has changed. Everything--the images on Dr Xavier's screen can now empty the dishwasher and speak two languages--and nothing--we are here, lighting candles for the supper table, making plans and trying to figure out how to gather enough information to exert some control.

The French say bonne chance et bon courage. The first is easy to translate: it means good luck. The second is harder to translate: it's good courage, literally, but it's also be brave; in my head, it echoes the Psalmic be of good courage. Good luck has had a lot to do with getting our girls this far--all the trees that didn't fall over, all the planes that stayed in the sky, the researcher who invented Augmentin--but so has good courage, what Garrison Keillor calls the strength to get up and do what needs to be done. It's what I wish for S and G and their little ones: bonne chance et bon courage.

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