First, there was Penelope.
Made from the ingredients provided by her papa, Jeremy, one of my twin sons, and her mama, Anne, who also grew up in Pointe-Claire, Penelope entered the world four and a half years ago.
I’m not ashamed to say that when her parents first announced that she was in the making, I felt both elated and apprehensive. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel ready to love her; it was that I felt too ready to love her, and knew in my gut that I would constantly be torn between my working life and my desire to be with her and watch her grow.
I’d been lucky enough to avoid making such a heart-rending choice raising my own sons in their first years. A generation later, it caught up with me.
This part of the story worked out just fine, because I’ve simply acknowledged that the professional life it took me so long to fashion is essential to me. I’ve accepted (with no small measure of regret) that there are tender and wonderful experiences in Penelope’s life that I won’t be there to see. It worked out because in spite of all that, I love her to death and she returns my love with a sweetness that would melt a heart of stone. And, most importantly, it worked out because there’s a small army of people who also adore her and spend as much of their time as possible with her.
Then, there was Graeme.
Made with as much love and equally miraculous ingredients from Jeremy and Anne, he was born two years after his sister. She weighed six pounds thirteen ounces; he weighed nine and a half pounds.
From the moment she was able to focus them, Penelope’s eyes have had a disconcerting, penetrating and knowing way of looking at everyone. When she was still an infant, her uncle Christian called it getting “the ocular pat-down”. All I know is that when her large, round, intense brown eyes locked onto me, it was like being scanned down to the molecular level, and it was all I could do not to confess: “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!”.
Graeme’s eyes seemed to see the world differently. They smiled, even when his mouth didn’t. To her intensity, sensitivity and emotional life that is still always barely skin deep, Graeme brought a good-natured temperament and a fondness for the company of females and cuddles. He’s naturally funny, and she has a terrific sense of humour.
It’s hard to imagine two children getting more love than Penelope and Graeme, and an ocean of it comes from their uncles Simon and Christian, who were felled the instant they held Penelope in their arms, just hours after her birth.
Simon’s experience is unlike anyone else’s, because, as the identical twin of Penelope and Graeme’s papa Jeremy, Simon can claim a genetic kinship with them that none of us can match. They are of him to a degree beyond us. Simon was away in France doing post-doctoral research for the first six months of Penelope’s life (though he was here on the day of her birth!), which was a torment, and which he’s been making up for ever since. Thank God for Skype, which allowed him to see her daily on her mama’s lap.
Christian was away in London from September 2014 to September 2015 living an extraordinary year and was always anxious that somehow, Penelope especially (because Graeme was just a baby) would forget him or that he would lose that trust and closeness he had nurtured with her. He says that the day she was placed in his arms, just a couple of hours after her birth, something inside him opened up and he knew that he would do anything for her. Always.
All of this was useless fretting. Children recognize love and devotion instantly and move closer to it as to a source of warmth and life.
These days, everyone is in Montreal at the same time. We often refer to the children as P and G in conversation, though Penelope is also Beans, a name chosen by her papa in honour of a favourite lunch dish. It’s what Graeme calls her. Mostly, he’s kept his name. While his papa and Simon often call him Buddy, the rest of us are happy with his given name which is solid and sweet and upbeat when it rolls off the tongue.
The world got so much bigger with P&G in it. With a two-generation gap between us, they’re my intimate connection to a future that I will not see, but that now has several new and beloved inhabitants. They’re our progeny too. That’s how we feel about them, and it’s why we have reshaped our vision of life around them.
One of the strange tricks love plays on us is that it exists out of time.
I love you and will always love you. My love is limitless.
Every now and then, my mind will wander into the grey shrouded future, wondering what difficulties lie in wait there for my children, what hardships they’ll meet. In one such moment, as I visualized Simon, Jeremy and Christian aging and becoming more fragile and dependent, it struck me full force that of course I wouldn’t be there to help them and to love them. I didn’t give a damn that I’d be dead; what mattered was that I wouldn’t be there to care for them.
I mentioned this to Simon one day and he said: “But we’ll have each other. Siblings, mum, they’re so important.”
And then we talked about Penelope and Graeme, and how good it was that they have each other.
This piece ends with a smile. To a degree that seems impossible really, Penelope and Graeme get along fantastically well. P is such a compassionate child that retaliation of any kind is never her first response to any of her brother’s transgressions, which are few. She’s grateful to have a companion in life, a sidekick. She’s happy being one of two. Graeme, in return, worships her, follows her, and mimics her before experimenting on his own. His go-to phrase is “Me too.”
They’re two peas in a pod. Last week, on her “Special Guest Day” at preschool, Penelope chose to invite Graeme. This was a breach of protocol because in the past, young siblings have proven to be uncooperative guests. But not Graeme. He moved through his sister’s routines alongside her like a small diplomat. When, after reading a story about an adventurous squirrel, Miss Honour or Miss Maria asked what the squirrel’s name should be, Graeme responded BEAR! which made his sister roar with laughter.
I see their mother’s vigilance, constancy and loving presence in the bond between them. They’re so well suited for the role of a lifetime.
With my two sisters thousands of miles away on the West Coast, I have found sisters in my closest friends. Siblings—ours from birth or chosen over time— embody our desire to love and to be loved and supported in intimate, lifelong networks.
“But being a brother or a sister (if you are lucky enough) is the role of a lifetime.”