McKinley pulls down the slim book from the bookshelf with an impish grin, then slides up on the opposite end of the sofa from me. I do not need to see the book to know what he has in his lap: “It’s Perfectly Normal,” a book I had gotten—how many years ago now?—for his older brother and sisters. It’s a book about human sexuality for kids, well-written with cartoon-like illustrations. The illustrations are by far the best part of the book. They are so…human, both dressed and naked, fat and knobby-kneed, hairy and svelte. The pictures are what he wants to look at, and his impish grin signals to me that he’s testing, to see if it is OK.
I certainly don’t want to make it wrong! So we look at the pictures together, keeping an eye out for things that might blow a fuse in that humming brain of his. But there is nothing, picture-wise, that is too much. Just kids and mommas and daddies dressed and undressed. Soon we come to the page that documents, frame by cartoon frame, the birth of a baby. Now Renee is pulling herself up onto the sofa. These pictures tell a story they want to know.
After explaining each frame on the page for a third time, I find myself pulling down another book that I know has lovely birth pictures in it. They are fascinated with every aspect of birth. Why was the mommy in the water? Is that baby drowning? Oh, there’s the cord! Out comes the baby! And when we come to a page with two newborn twins snuggled next to each other, they get very excited.
They want to be twins. This touches my heart! They inquire nearly daily if they can be twins, and I don’t want to break this sibling spell. In my heart I feel some truth to this twin-desire, so sweet they are to each other—mostly—and how remarkable McKinley behaved when Renee was born. He was sixteen months old, and his first words, period, were to Renee: “I uv ooooo.” And there is too the matter of Renee’s conception, a sleight of hand trick she must have played in my belly. I was four months along before I even knew she was there. So twins they can be, for now at least, in spirit.
McKinley wanders off, drawn by more active play, but Renee stays on the sofa and studies the pictures of a woman in labor.
“Here she’s pushing.” Her finger points to the black-and-white photograph of a woman in a birthing tub. She is leaning against the rim of a birthing tub, and her husband has his arms under hers for support. Her face is squinted up in the determination of that great inward push that comes just before birth. “And here she’s resting!” Renee slides her finger across the page to another picture, only in this one the woman is obviously not pushing, though it’s hard to say exactly how much rest she’s actually getting. Then Renee takes her finger from one photo to the other saying: “Pushing. Resting. Pushing. Resting. Pushing. Resting. Pushing. Resting.” She seems to have a very early understanding of the patterns of labor.
We turn a few more pages, and there is the picture of a tiny and wrinkled premature baby. “What’s wrong with her?” she asks. I explain that sometimes babies are born before they are ready so the hospital nurses and doctors use machines to help them breathe and eat until they can do it on their own. She seems to be considering this matter, and then I add, “Bert was born very small like that, and look! Now he’s a healthy boy and your big brother!” Without missing a beat she asks, “Why was he born early?” Renee knows that Bert has another mommy, and I explain that she was not very strong or healthy. Then I add that sometimes we don’t know why babies come early, they just do, and scientists and doctors are working to understand why.
Renee looks at me with wide and complicated eyes, then lifts her little hand to my cheek and says, “You are a strong mommy. You did a good job of borning me..” Later I find her laying on the bed, pushing and resting, pushing and resting. “I’m going to have twins, Mommy!” And then, in disappointment, “But my nipples aren’t big enough.”
I squeeze her and kiss her nose and tell her that someday faraway and very soon she’ll get “big nipples,” and that someday even farther away, she could have a baby. Maybe even twins. She smiles.