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The born from the unborn

A childhood spent under the knife

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When I met Meredith, she was complaining about how everyone says she hasn't lived long enough to write the story of her life, and while she was saying that, I was saying to myself, "Well, they're right, aren't they?" I mean, she's only 24 and looks no older than a high school junior, with a face as rosy as frozen yogurt and eyes as clear as the month of May. She should stop complaining and go about the rest of her day.

"I was supposed to be a twin," she began, and I thought I was hearing her, but I must not have been really hearing her, because I remember thinking that wasn't such an unusual thing in the big scheme. There are probably a lot of people who were supposed to be part of a set, but then the other part got left behind. But then Meredith tried to explain further by saying that her twin was in her.

What does she mean, like in her head? Does she hear voices? At the time I kept thinking – and for some reason I still do – of that old movie in which Margot Kidder plays a psychotic surviving twin and her dead sister keeps telling her to kill people and hide them at the county dump inside fold-out sofas.

"No, inside me," Meredith said, meaning not just inside her, but all up inside her, as if the twin had been parceled up and sprinkled in pieces like chocolate chips folded in the cookie dough – an additional uterus here, other extra organs there – and it wasn't until Meredith came out of her mother's oven that the doctors realized all these extra pieces were scrambled up inside her and had to be removed.

And we are not talking just simple surgeries here. The embryo of her twin had merged with hers in utero, leaving one fetus that was a mosaic of both embryos, and though Meredith could be born that way, she could not live that way, and so the surgeries began, because it was necessary to separate the born from the unborn for this baby to survive. So in short, Meredith spent her childhood living in a children's hospital having the pieces of her twin picked out of her like splinters from a big toe, in one painful surgery after another. By the time she finished telling her story, my mouth was bone dry, because halfway through my jaw had hit the table and stuck there. Jesus God, to look at Meredith you would never know, not for a second, that she didn't lead a life picking dandelions every day up to this very moment. She looks so untouched, so untrodden upon, she looks like my daughter, for chrissakes.

Oh my God, she looks just like my daughter, who is only 7, but that is around the age Meredith went under the knife all those times, needing to have her sister sliced out of her. Christ, how the hell do you remove chocolate chips from a cookie after it's been baked? I understand it's probably possible, but surely not without demolishing the cookie, right? And if the cookie had nerve endings and a heart and organs of its own, surely you couldn't do it without putting it through unfathomable agony. And if it was only 7 years old, with your lips on her eyelids every night before she put her head on your breast and slept there, trusting you to keep the pain away, how the hell do you function knowing that there's more to come and nothing you can do to shield her from it?

Meredith made friends with other children at the children's hospital, many of whom died because, let's face it, they weren't there to have their boo-boos kissed. Those mothers were friends with Meredith's mother, and that is how Meredith was raised, in this odd microcosm where the parents persevered through the suffering of their children, some of whom survived and some of whom died with their mother's lips on their eyelids and their head on her breast. Meredith said she wanted to title her book after a question she used to recite to her mother the night before she was to go under the knife again. "Can I scream as loud as I want?" she'd ask.

"So I thought I'd call my book Can I Scream as Loud as I Want?" said Meredith, looking at me with those eyes as clear as the month of May.

I was silent at first, then I picked up my jaw and said, simply, "I wouldn't name it that."

Afterward I was pretty composed, until I was in my car on the way to pick up my girl and I got stuck in traffic. When the traffic in front of me moved forward, the cars in back began to honk, and I thought I was hearing them, but I must not have really been hearing them. All I could hear was a child's voice – "Can I scream as loud as I want?" – and as the cars began to move around me, the drivers continued to honk until they saw me sitting there in the driver's seat with my head on my steering wheel, sobbing. After that, they stopped complaining and went about the rest of their day.

Hollis Gillespie authored two top-selling memoirs and founded the Shocking Real-Life Writing Academy (www.shockingreallife.com).

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