When my twins Joe and Annie were younger, people would ask if they were identical. I responded, incredulously, “No, one of them has a penis.”
Annie was wrestled into the world. Stuck midway through a cesarean section, she breathed enough fluid into her lungs to be whisked away to intensive care. Joe stayed behind until the drama had passed and entered without incident. His cries were immediate and perfunctory. Down the hall, Annie, jerked away from the syringe in her throat, and screamed like a heavy metal singer, furious that she didn’t know obscenities yet.
Their personalities somehow took root in that sterile maternity ward. Annie and Joe are 18. In the past few weeks they graduated from separate high schools in Missouri and California. I don’t get asked if they’re identical much anymore.
Imperturbable and private, Joe is quietly devoted to what is important to him — whether it be his dreams or the people he cares about. His wit is so dry one can miss it if not paying attention. He once woke me with an early morning phone call to tell me, “Bon Jovi has a new album out,” knowing I despise Bon Jovi.
Few have ever plumbed the emotions beneath Joe’s protective shell. He has mastered the sideways, one-armed hug and the barely perceptible response to “I love you.” He holds his tongue, but Joe does not suffer fools easily and he finds them in the majority. He is tireless in his efforts to improve as an athlete. Always the first to practice and the last to leave, he rises at dawn to lift weights, and races the sunset to get in a few more lonely minutes on the soccer field. Joe is famished for books and eager to explore whatever he can touch, taste, smell, hear, see or breathe. Secretly subversive, he once answered “Jesus” to every question on a religion test because he had been told that Jesus is the answer. His senior class voted him “Most Friendly.” Joe’s loyalty is a river that flows with friends made in elementary school. He is polite to everyone and authority figures call him an impressive young man.
Annie, my ivory-skinned, blonde-haired daughter, bursts into a room and bellows, “I am a strong, independent black woman!” Where her brother finds conflict impractical, Annie seeks it out as a matter of principal. She throws punches at all injustice — real or perceived — from “You messed with my friend!” down to “You ate the last avocado!” Politeness is reserved only for those who deserve it. If Annie likes you, she is in love and will battle for you as fiercely as a honey badger. If she doesn’t, her shoulder is as cold as sleet on a lonely highway. Unlike her brother, Annie thinks books are boring and snarls, “I don’t have an imagination.” But she is wrong. Her humor is that of an improv comedian, and her photography of friends, beach and sun is touching. Annie is angry, sad and joyous, and she doesn’t wrap it inside. Like good rock and roll, it is tantalizingly near to spinning out of control. As for those authority figures that gush over her brother, some admire her fire and humor but many don’t like her bad attitude. Annie’s response: It’s not a bad attitude, it’s my personality.
Raising twins is an adventure, but not in the cliché way: chasing toddlers, changing two sets of diapers, quieting two voices of colic, disciplining two kids.
It has been an adventure of discovery and respect and understanding. Parents, especially fathers who don’t have the bond of motherhood, must pay attention, learn explicitly who their children are. A counselor friend once told me that we must give as much attention to detail when we are praising our children as we do when we are disciplining them. I shouldn’t stop at telling my daughter she drew a pretty picture of a horse. I should tell her exactly why. I like the the purple mane, and her choice of a polka dot tail is dead on. I’m sure her senior art teacher was very impressed.
I have two middle kids, the stereotypical lost children. Joe was always too easy. He seldom drew attention to himself. I call it “flying under the radar.” In a family of four kids born in a period of three and a half years, he was often lost in the chaos. Annie, well, she was the chaos. She demanded to be the center of attention, and her anger could be exhausting.
When their mom and I let our children down, first me, hitting bottom with alcoholism, then two years later when we filed for divorce, the twins updated their personalities, same software, improved virus protection. Annie’s anger scattered like a hair-trigger shotgun, indiscriminate and unpredictable. She found the obscenities she sought in the maternity ward. Joe grew quieter and smiled cautiously. As far as he was concerned, nothing had happened worth talking about.
My twins have taught me that raising children requires the attention to detail of a dermatologist. Each personality is blessed and cursed by nuances and blemishes that it is my occupation to notice. I stumbled and misread Annie and Joe, but eventually learned patience and faith.
I repeated to myself time and again in the jet wash of Annie’s anger and disquieting still of Joe’s withdrawal that my children loved me no matter what. Annie refused to come to my house and there were times when she would rage for entire days. As difficult as it was when custody was being squabbled about, I never pushed her to come see me. I knew she had a right to be angry. To this day Annie has a temper, and the secret to our relationship is knowing not to draw my line in the sand too soon, but not to wait too long. It is precarious business.
Joe’s protective shell was perhaps more confusing. Early on I tried coax him to talk only to be met by a stiff arm that Marshawn Lynch would envy. Joe stared at me, smiled tightly, stared at me some more, then said, “No.”
Three years ago, I was suddenly let go from my job at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kan., without explanation. Without references or much severance, I scrambled and failed to find a job. I moved to to California to be with my wife after two years of long-distance marriage. Annie came with me, plopping down in a large new high school. She has thrived as a California girl. Our relationship, though still volatile at times, has blossomed in this adventure. Joe calls me almost every day to talk, or sometimes we simply sit in silence on the phone, finding comfort in one another’s presence. Once in a while he calls to update me on Bon Jovi. He will move here next month to attend Santa Rosa Junior College with his sister, where he will play soccer.
There is paradox in Annie and Joe. They often come to the same place in life, but they take very different roads. Neither takes the experiences of life lightly. Joe was in the car with me on the day I was arrested for the DUI that led me to embrace sobriety. He was 11. In his stoic way he learned from the terrifying moment. He asked questions, he learned about drug and alcohol abuse. I tell my children that fear of following my path is not a good enough reason to stay away from drugs and alcohol. Their decisions should be for more proactive and positive reasons. Joe listened. He decided to take care of his body. He chose to abstain in order to pursue a soccer career, to be a good student. As a result, this year his high school named him a “Drug Free Superstar.” Annie? Well, she will never eat pot brownies again.
In the end, Annie and Joe are not exactly opposites. They share some of the most important traits. Their affection for one another is high on that list.
Annie loves her brother for his unspoken loyalty to her. She admires his calm demeanor and quiet charisma. The way he finds the path of least resistance puzzles her, but would be a restful choice if she could sustain it. She bristles at the suggestion that she envies his single minded commitment to his goals. His ability to stand back and wait for life to come to him is admirable. But Joe’s cool waters are too still for her. Annie needs flotsam and jetsam, something to crash into. When there is stillness the scent of spray must hang in the air, letting her know that another wave is looming.
Joe loves that his sister still calls him Jofes, the name she used when they were toddlers. He finds joy in Annie’s showmanship, the way she walks through the world humming at its beauty and yelling at it’s ugly. There is a thrill in the way she speaks her mind. But Joe wouldn’t know where to begin emulating her. He doesn’t find her very practical, and there is discomfort with the emotions that leap from Annie like a California wildfire. Joe is dry but not combustible. Annie is exciting, but Joe doesn’t want to be that exciting.
Despite living 2,000 miles apart, Joe and Annie have never lost their connection.
I have never stopped paying attention.