Twins, the month before birth, behave inside the womb as they
will eventually behave outside the womb.
Years ago she’d seen spectacular footage of twins exhibiting in
utero behavior and had learned the twin who pushed, even
punched, for more space in the womb continued to be the the
more aggressive twin after birth.
And now here it is: her own memory of two tiny beings
interacting in their watery world. She, stronger than he, pushing
this way and that, shoving forcefully and making more space for
herself. What chance did he have? He had Down syndrome and
she did not. Of course she was stronger.
They didn't call it Down syndrome in her day. The syndrome was
Mongolism and the individual a Mongolian idiot. Doctors and
social workers examined the two of them repeatedly as it was
rare to encounter twins wherein one was a Mongoloid and the
other was not. When they were toddlers the physical and
cognitive tests, involving piles of colorful blocks and wooden
puzzles, continued. She, the twin known as Rachel, would stack
the blocks and assemble the puzzles, and he, Richard, would
chew on the pieces. She didn't care what he did. She loved him
no matter what.
She did love him, didn't she? In truth she doesn't know if she
loved him at all. She doesn't really remember him. He was sent
away on a summer day the month before they turned four. He
died two thousand miles away from her when they were forty-
eight. She continued living and at ninety-six has lived exactly
twice as long. She wonders if the fact is somehow meaningful.
* * *
She is still Rachel. But at this moment she's trapped in the bed
and can no longer move on her own. Sometimes she cannot
speak. But her mind is clear.
I'm here! she thinks to the nurse who is patient, who is gentle
when she rolls her to one side, tugs the sheets, and rolls her
back. This nurse has soft hands and massages pink cream on
Rachel's back and arms and legs. She presses on the soles of
Rachel's feet and rotates her ankles.
Rachel thinks the nurse somehow must know she wants to be
touched. She has wanted to be touched ever since her husband
died, although she's never revealed it, not such a thing, to
She means now to tell everyone. Touch me, touch me. Touch us
old people for we miss the feel of that much-loved foot against
our leg when we wake in the morning, the squeeze of a strong
hand on our shoulder while we sip our coffee. We miss being
rubbed gently on our back, miss the stroke of fingers across our
forehead. Long to have that casual contact back once more. But
understand; you don't need to have sex with us.
No! Please. Don't.
Rachel knows it happens to old women in nursing homes. She
recalls a particularly grim story of a man slipping into the
facility to have sex with his completely demented wife in front
of her also demented roommate. Upon leaving he tossed the
lingerie he'd dressed her in, into the wastebasket. It was how
he got caught.
No, no, not that. Only touching, simple, touching. Fold your
fingers between mine, trace words on my back, rub my
forearms, paint my toenails and dab perfume on my wrists.
She thinks she might have meant to tell someone but she never
bothered to, and now cannot. But this nurse understands.
Rachel wants to say, "Yes, bless you too," to the nurse when
she, as she always does before she leaves, gently presses the
top of Rachel's head and whispers, "Bless you."
But she is gone again. What was she thinking? Oh, yes, her
sweet twin, Richard. He was sent to live in the special school
run where her parents had been assured he'd be taken care of,
be taught, be loved. Where even the doctors said he'd be better
off. Her mother fought it with all her might, the child being
wrenched from her, but her mother's might wasn't so strong as
her father's. He had the final say and in the end, he and even
the doctors, convinced her mother it was best not only for him
but for their older son Theo, and for Rachel, so her mother gave
in. Weeping long hours into the night (Rachel imagines) and
finally coming to some kind of peace with it (again, she
imagines) so she was able to go, productively and kindly, on
with her life.
Rachel and her other brother also went right on, as children do.
Although she wonders now, did she cry for her twin when she
found herself alone in their room in the dark? Was his highchair
gone the next day or was it still there, empty, at the table. She
was four. Wasn't she worried for him? Did she believe what they
must have said that it was for the best? Or did she think
something else? Was her older brother afraid he might also be
sent to a school for special children? Perhaps he too, thought
he was special.
Rachel read a novel a few years ago, when she could still read
and had not reluctantly switched to audio books. It was a
mighty, bestseller featured on bestseller lists for months and
months. Perhaps they'll make it a movie, she thought at the
time, but knew she'd never see it. At first it intrigued her, being
a story like hers, of a little girl whose sibling had been taken
away. But then it annoyed her, because in this story the little
girl remembered it all, every tiny bit, every minute detail of the
events, even though she was only five. Rachel found it hard to
believe any five-year-old would remember everything.
Additionally, Rachel became inappropriately angry when the
narrator revealed way, way, too far into the story, the sibling
was a not a real sibling like Rachel believed, not a child,
intellectually challenged, but a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee! The
young girl in the book didn't understand she wasn't exactly like
her monkey sister so she tried to swing in the trees and climb
on the furniture and eventually broke her leg or arm or
whatever, and because of the incident the sister/chimpanzee
was taken away.
I don't remember. I don't remember. How could that fool child
remember everything so vividly? But then Rachel thinks,
jealously, a monkey leaping from chandeliers, shattering crystal
vases on the floor, half destroying the house was probably more
memorable than a silent, slow brother who could only stand.
He stood! Does she actually remember? No, it's the small black
and white photo with deckled edges she's remembering; the
one where he is holding himself up on the bars of the crib
watching as their brother Theo, wearing a cowboy hat, chaps,
and boots, points his cap gun at her. Theo probably shot the
cap with a bang and she probably fell down dead with a thud,
but she doesn't remember. Did Richard remember?
Did Richard have memories? Did he remember the bedtime
ritual they had, her reaching across from her small bed to his
crib, wiggling her fingers to make him understand, saying,
"Reach to me." She would say it again and again until he put
out his hand and they touched each other's fingertips. Did he
remember? Did he think, when he was away from her, Reach to
* * *
Light is hitting her face now. She can feel a breeze through the
open window, a perfect day to sail. She's a sailor. She
remembers nautical names: sheets and halyards, deadeyes and
cleats. She remembers her quickness and strength hoisting
sails: the main, the jib, the spinnaker. She remembers feeling
accomplished taking the tiller, jibing the boat, like when she
learned to drive a stick shift or pitched a ball so hard the boys
did a double take. And she remembers Richard sprawled on his
back in his crib. And she, where is she when he's sleeping in the
crib? Why, she's in the big bed. He's in diapers and she goes on
the potty. She thinks she remembers saying, "He's not stupid,
he's just slow," to Charlie Hartman, or was it the Monroe boy?
Was it later? Would she have said such a thing? Was she a
loving twin? Of course she was. Once she knew him, once she
knew the boy who didn't even try to fight for the space in the
womb, because he couldn't, because he didn't know he should,
of course she was a loving twin.
Her mother never knew, in her lifetime, the horrors inflicted on
her son in that home, that New York State School, whose
downfall came with an investigation that revealed the children
had been used as guinea pigs, inoculated with diseases,
hepatitis, infections, had been rolled around in bins like
garbage, had been left naked and dirty, though all dolled up for
appointed visits from social workers and families. It was why,
she realizes now, just this moment, the one time she visited
him by herself, when she was in her twenties, the staff took
such a long time to get him ready. At first they told her she had
to have an appointment so she could not see him at that time.
She sat down on the wooden bench in the lobby. "I've come a
long way. He's my twin. I'll wait for as long as it takes." It was
more than an hour before an aide brought him downstairs.
When she saw him she recognized him right away even though
so many years had gone by. And she believed somehow, he
knew her. He was laughing and all dressed up in clothes too big
for him. (A blue suit, if she remembers correctly, and brown
shoes.) She held him by his rough small hand and walked him
out of the building and onto the lawn. He was so short. He was
so happy. She tried to talk to him and he made sounds that
seemed like they might be words one day. She cried when she
hugged him goodbye but he went back inside without protest.
She cried on the way home. Eventually, tired of weeping, she
stuck the whole experience into a far closed corner of her mind.
There was a time in the country when people believed what
they were told, believed the authorities; a time before people
stopped trusting one another. How could her parents have
known the way he was treated? When she found out the truth,
when the media revealed the truth, in her forties, she wanted
to go back again, this time to bring him home to her own
family. She even went so far as to telephone the authorities but
she was assured he'd been relocated to another smaller, safer
place where he would live out the rest of his days with
trustworthy caregivers and the other living children (adults now)
he'd known all his life. So she left it alone. In truth, she was
relieved. He was never out of diapers, never potty-trained like
* * *
She hates these thoughts she's having now. Hates herself for
never doing anything for him. Hates thinking he might have
lived a happier life. Hates her parents for causing it to happen.
She squeezes her eyes to distract herself, tries to press her
nails into her palms. But she cannot feel if she has.
Why didn't anyone tell her dying would be like this? The things
you think of. The things you remember! Who would have told
her? Who could have told her?
* * *
And now she's remembering the turtle she found. It had been
on one of the coastal islands where she'd anchored her boat.
She was in her thirties. She'd taken the boat out single-
handedly; the weather was clear and she, a capable solo sailor.
Usually she sailed with a friend or two, but she'd wanted to be
alone. She was feeling sorry for herself for whatever reason,
(why can't she remember that?) and was happy to sit alone in
the sand, making a trough by pushing her feet back and forth.
She was watching the sea fill the holes her feet made, when
she saw the poor thing. It couldn't have been very old because
it wasn't very large, but it wasn't one of the tiny turtles you see
in nature films running frantically to the sea after hatching and
it wasn't a big lumbering, burdened mother either. It was just a
turtle. And it was nearly dead. So she'd sailed home with it and
set it in a deep basin of sea water with sea grasses, algae, and
a sunny, rock ledge. She named it Kjell (so clever!) and fell in
love. She nursed it, talked to it, stroked it, and promised it
would get better. The poor thing tried to stay alive, tried hard,
she was sure, but died anyway. She couldn't believe it hadn't
lived. She wept over it. And then she couldn't believe she was
crying. Over a turtle! Why had she even found it? Why had it
been there, still alive, for her to find?
God is only toying with us. Toying? Rachel repeats the word in
her head and finds it's the wrong one. Fucking. There she found
it. God is always fucking with us.
* * *
But here! Here now, is not a thought, but something solid,
something good. Here is her son. He squeezes her fingers. He's
using a different voice so she knows something's up. She wants
to reach out and pat his hand. She wants to lift him high, high
in the air and hear his laugh.
He is her first-born. When the little nurse with the strong scent
of citrus came into her room two weeks ago (or three days ago
or not but a moment ago) and he was sitting at her bedside and
she remembers she introduced them, telling the nurse how he
was funny and kind and how she knew he must have blushed.
Sixty-eight-years old and he blushes like a schoolboy she thinks
and wonders where it comes from, that cliché, then the words,
barefoot boy with cheek of tan pop into her head and she can't
remember who wrote the line, can't stop the free-floating
thoughts. Where is she now? Oh yes, with her son, her
handsome, but such a shy boy, son. So shy, she wonders how
he wooed that sweet wife of his. And now she remembers how
surprised she'd been at her son's wedding when the flower girl,
skipping down the aisle tossing rose petals on the path, was a
Down child, like her twin Richard. And later, at the reception,
the same girl clamored to dance with everyone. She could talk!
She could learn! Oh, Richard. Did they lie about you and others
like you? Could you have learned? Did they not know?
Do not, do not, do not, have these thoughts.
"Are you okay, Mom?" He son is speaking.
"I'm better," she says. Then she relates a funny thing that
happened in the school cafeteria and laughs but she can't hear
herself but she can sees him lean down and turn his ear to her
mouth. "It was funny, maybe a dream," she says as loudly as
He stands back upright, looks confused but gives her the
thumbs-up sign anyway. She wishes she could grab his thumb
and make him press his palm to her face. And at once, her wish
is granted! He presses his palm to her face. Did she say it? Or
did he just know? He always was a little psychic with her, just
like his sister. She had to be careful around her children. They
were so tuned in.
Last night. Last night? She dreamed her daughter was a baby
again. And in the dream her daughter told her all babies are
blind at birth, then only shapes appear, black, white, and close,
close up. So, still in the dream, Rachel bent over, close, close
up to her daughter's little face until she was certain she'd been
seen. And when Rachel knew her daughter saw her, she felt her
heart split with love.
Is this what death will be? Heart-splitting love?
* * *
Maybe her mother will appear. She'd like to run into her
mother's arms. But this time, happily.
Rachel vividly remembers when she was ten running home from
school crying into her mother's arms. Rachel's fifth-grade
teacher had marched her to the front of the classroom for
misbehaving, then told her classmates that she, Rachel, had a
habit of misbehaving and that she, Rachel, had a twin brother
who lived in an institution because of mental retardation, and
the reason he was retarded was because Rachel, misbehaving,
had cut off his oxygen when they were in their mother's
Rachel, in her mother's arms, refused to be comforted. No
matter how emphatically her mother assured her it was false.
Rachel refused to believe her mother's word against her
teacher's. It wasn't until Rachel was nearly sixteen she
understood the truth.
Ah, but wait, Rachel thinks now. The true truth is the television
footage. Remember the twin behavior in the womb? Remember
the scientific proof? Proof of Rachel's guilt! She was the
aggressive twin in the womb. She did cut off his oxygen and
what's more, Rachel knows she is just the type of person who is
not only capable but indeed, willing, to do such a thing. Can
you not see it? Nasty, nasty, twin.
But no! No! Stop here!
What about the chromosome that causes Down syndrome?
What is she thinking? Of course it's the chromosome! Of course
she was not nasty. She's losing it. Oh, how she's losing it.
Rachel doesn't believe in life after death but now she thinks
yes, she'd like to run into her mother's arms and just stop
remembering, stop thinking, stop dying. She'd like to run into
her mother's arms and rest.
She can hear herself coughing but she cannot feel the cough
itself. And now she can hear her son saying, "Mom, Mom?” And
now her daughter, “Mommy?”
What, what? She says to them. She thinks she tells them not to
worry, she loves them, she is fine. But she cannot hear herself.
* * *
How exhausting dying is.
* * *
She wants the nurse with the cream who says, "Bless you," to
come soon. She hopes the cross one, won't be back. The one
who whispered to her children, "Your mother really doesn't need
this. She's not in pain. Not any longer."
Bullshit! she tried to cry. I am I am!
That same spiteful nurse, another time, had blathered on about
bucket lists as if Rachel should have done more while she could
have, before she got stuck in her bed. Sneering the nurse was.
Of course Rachel should have done more. She knows it.
Everyone knows they should do more. Everyone has read all the
things dying people say they should have done. But everyone,
even when dying, lies. Everyone still wants to be liked to the
end. No one says I should have punched my boss or I threw out
my neighbor’s mail when it came to my house. No one says I
hated doing the damn grocery shopping and I left carts in the
lot and not the corral. No one says I put empty envelopes in the
collection plate. No one tells the truth. The only person who
ever said what she meant when dying was Jackie Kennedy
Onassis. She said she shouldn't have bothered with all those sit-
Rachel doesn't have a bucket list. She hates the expression.
And she hates the expression kicked the bucket. Who kicks
buckets? What Rachel needs is to have written out instructions
and not be lying here wishing she had. What Rachel needs is to
have told someone what she wanted or didn't want, for when
this time came and she was dying.
She should have demanded she get more drugs. She should
have insisted, had it notarized. She isn't reviewing her life in
some important fashion. She isn't coming to great awareness or
enlightenment. She isn't full of understanding. She is hurting.
She is hurting. Her bones hurt, her eyes hurt, her hair hurts.
But, oh, oh, here it is: the wetness of the drug on her lips and
in her mouth. (Oh yes! Oh glad!) And now, so quickly instead of
the pain there is no pain. She has sailed far from the shore; she
has waved to her beautiful children who waved back until she is
out of sight. Then she anchors the boat and finally there is only
the feeling of sun and the feeling of lying on the deck of the
boat, and the boat rocking with the swell of the waves and the
halyard's tinny jingle against the mast. Here is all that matters:
the movement of the boat, the warmth of the deck beneath her,
and the sounds of the sea around her.
With her eyes closed the sun is red beneath her lids and she is
nearly asleep when the redness blackens. She rises up on her
elbows, opening and shading her eyes with one hand, to see
what's blocking the brilliance of the sun.
She's heard, like everyone has heard, of a white light, but
everyone is mistaken. There is no tunnel of light, no crossing
over. There is only the sun outlining his body as he stands
above her. She knows him so well. How delighted she is. She
never expected him, and yet, who else would it be?
Bending down and stretching out his hand, he says, "Reach to
Bonnie West's stories and essays have appeared in numerous
publications, including Redbook Magazine, The Minetta Review,
and The Austin Chronicle. Her short story collection Boyfriends
is available on Amazon or through her publisher InkTears (UK).
Her bilingual Japanese/ English children’s book with Diane
Carter, Hideki and Kenji Save the Day is available on Amazon.
She is working on a novel of connected short stories.