The four of us were close in college: Tina, Lisa, Jill and me. If we could have looked into a crystal ball, how shocked we would have been to see ourselves at 40: three of us with twins, and one of us diagnosed with a rare uterine cancer.
Tina and Lisa had twins in their late thirties. I had mine at 40, with IVF.
Then there was Jill, who also wanted a baby. She went for a fibroid removal and the doctors found something else. Cancer.
They biopsied the tumors and found traces of leiomyosarcoma, a soft tissue cancer that affects 1 in 10,0000 woman. A week after that first procedure, which was supposed to enhance fertility, she was scheduled to come back for a hysterectomy.
Of all my friends, Jill was the most obvious candidate for children — or at least compared to me she was. She had that magic touch with young people — all people, actually — knowing how to spark a laugh, how to connect, how to comfort. She was the kind of person who picked up fourth and fifth languages on a whim, and formed lifelong friendships on airplanes.
Jill had worked in orphanages in Nepal and in international adoption, escorting American couples to China. She acted as translator when parents met their children for the first time, cradled babies on transatlantic flights and changed diapers in Chinese hotels. She stayed in touch with the families she helped create. In contrast, I was literally clueless about infants and children until suddenly, I had two.
I spoke to Jill two weeks after her hysterectomy, when my fraternal twin sons were eight months old. She looked gaunt on Skype, had a wry smile.
“They took all of it, Kath, everything.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“The nurse was really matter of fact, wanted to get right into how I’d have to give myself injections. I’m in instant menopause.”
“You must be in shock.”
“I feel like I’m supposed to be keeping a stiff upper lip, like everyone here.” Jill lived in London at the time.
“I think it’s pretty natural to have huge emotions about this.” We talked about how it felt to cry in front of people, and how surprising life kept turning out to be.
Jill said as soon as she recovered, she and her partner wanted to sack out on a beach somewhere. We talked about abdominal incisions, needles, doctors and blood, joking in a grotesque way, and laughing at ourselves. This was classic Jill — finding the funny, savoring the absurd.
“How is it with twins?” she finally asked.
This was a question I’d accustomed myself to answering in the positive. When you have twins, people love to assume you are exhausted and overwhelmed. Some even go out of their way to mention they don’t envy you, or that they were scared they’d have twins, and that they were so relieved to have dodged that bullet with their little Johnny singleton.
Also, I wasn’t sure how to answer Jill. She’d just lost her womb. I still felt identified with women in the trenches of infertility, and my friend’s situation was extreme. Still, we’d always had a relentless truth between us, and the moment of her cancer diagnosis didn’t seem the time to be false.
“It’s hard, though I never tell people that, because I don’t like the reaction,” I said.
Jill laughed her kind laugh. “You think people don’t know twins are hard?”
“I don’t want to feed the stereotype,” I said.
“I think it’s OK,” she said gently.
We entered a thoughtful silence, free of stiff upper lips. Our love pulsed through the wires and connections and pixels. One of the things about my friends Tina and Lisa having twins was the fact that we didn’t have to explain — the tiredness, the schedule, the feeling of the job never done. But Jill got it too, and said she hoped that somehow, there would still be children in her life, even if not how she had planned.
“There’s so much letting go,” she said.
“I know,” I said back.
She said she might take a trip to California. I was thrilled.
I’ve thought about that conversation a thousand times, because it was the last time I would speak to Jill. Soon, she’d find that cancer had spread through her entire body. Her plans to hit the beach became chemo, surgery and hospice in her parents’ home.
A few days before her death, I heard Jill speak my name aloud. I bolted upright, sweating in my bed. I truly expected her to appear.
The day she died, I still expected to see her. I looked everywhere outside, jerking my head up when breeze ruffled leaves. A cyclist whizzed past me in the street. Did that mean something? Jill and I had taken many bike trips in our vigorous youth, and I wanted to shout at the passing man, “Did you see a woman biking? Perhaps taking off into winged flight?”
I don’t talk to my twin mom friends as much as I want to, but I talk to Jill all the time. Admittedly, what I hear back are the words she said as we prepared to sign off Skype that day. “That Buddhist thing about impermanence? It turns out that’s real.”
I no longer feel my twins are hard. My definitions have changed, and I’ve grown along with my sons. I know that even the bad days are good days. If there’s a burden, it’s the largeness of my luck. If there’s a challenge, it’s the letting go, over and over.
And if there’s a heaven, I hope it’s the beach Jill was dreaming about. I know she’s there helping care for all the children who arrived before their parents, orphans in the beyond, leading them with love on their journey to that shore.