Soon there were three
Deep down inside I knew that having one child would be challenging for me, but the responsibility of giving birth to two at one time––it was almost unimaginable. My mom gave me a hug and told me how exciting it would all be. “Don’t worry about it! This is exciting! Oh my God, we are going to have twins!” my mom said. I saw the excitement on her face and for a split second, I believed that everything would be all right. It was at that moment that I realized that I needed to tell Ed the news. I hugged my mom goodbye and got back in my car. I dialed Ed’s work number and asked him to meet me at McDonald’s during his lunch break so that he could eat while I told him my news.
I waited in the parking lot and soon I recognized Ed’s vehicle pulling up in an empty parking space near my car. Ed got out of his car and was standing next to mine before I even fully got my seatbelt off. He must have sensed my anxiety because he immediately asked me if I was all right. I told him we would talk inside. I could tell that my response only frightened him, but I still hadn’t processed the information myself and I wanted to be sure I was sitting down when I said it again.
Ed got inside McDonald’s and ordered himself some lunch, and ordered food for me too. I couldn’t eat, and if I was quite honest, the smell of the grease from the burgers and the smell of fry oil mixed inside of my nostrils and made the contents of my stomach churn in a way that left me feeling queasy. We found a spot in the back corner that was going to provide the most privacy that we could have, considering where we were. I watched Ed unwrap his double cheeseburger before I reached for the six small black-and-white photos in my purse. I took them out and laid them on the table. Ed looked at me before wiping his hands across his shirt and picking the pictures up. Before he could get a good look at them, I said, “Twins. I am pregnant with twins.”
I realized then that I was a little worried that he would be upset. I don’t know why that thought occurred to me just then, but I held my breath while I waited for his response.
“Wow, twins. We are having two babies.”
I still waited for him to say something negative, but he seemed genuinely happy. “Yep, twins. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I admitted.
I had played the role of an aunt for eleven years at this point, but I was no mother. Even raising siblings while my mom worked was much different than having my own.
“What do you mean, what will you do?” Ed’s voice broke into my thoughts. “I am here with you, and we will raise these babies together and you’re going to be an amazing mom.” I felt better. I wasn’t in agreement with Ed when he said I would be an amazing mom; all I knew is I would do everything in my power to try.
The weeks seemed to go by in the blink of an eye. I was getting bigger by the day, it seemed, and doing normal tasks took more effort than it should. I was already obese before getting pregnant and now I was pregnant with twins and steadily gaining. I ate as healthily as I could, but I still struggled with an eating disorder when pregnant. I just made sure that I didn’t vomit. I was already high risk.
I set out to go to one of my many doctor’s appointments one day. But today would be special. Today was the day I would find out the sexes of my babies. At this point, I hadn’t picked out any names because I didn’t know if I was having two boys, two girls, or a girl and a boy. I felt like I already knew their personalities though, even if for now they were just Baby A and Baby B. During my ultrasounds leading up to the sex reveal, Baby B would be so active and moving around, throwing its little hand up, attacking Baby A. Baby A would take the “attacks” and every once in a while threw its little hand up as if letting Baby B know that it had had enough. I was concerned that maybe something was wrong with Baby A, but I let that thought escape my mind.
I sat in the OB/GYN office waiting to be called back. It was so difficult getting up from a seated position. I walked to the back and I already knew the routine. I slowly climbed the exam table and lifted my shirt and tucked it up under my bra, exposing my belly. The ultrasound probe was placed on my belly and the technician focused on Baby A first. Measurements were taken and though Baby A was being shy, the technician was able to get a clear picture of Baby A’s penis.
“Well, baby A is a boy!” she announced.
I smiled with delight while the technician turned her focus to Baby B. My active little baby. I wondered if Baby B was also a boy? I knew that based on the position in my uterus, Baby B would be born second, so Baby B was all ready to take his or her place as the annoying little sibling.
The technician hadn’t spoken in a long time. I asked her if everything was all right, and she just smiled at me. I immediately knew something was wrong. I could feel the panic welling up inside of me.
The technician took more measurements and told me she would be right back. Before she left, she cleaned the jelly used during ultrasounds off of my stomach and helped me lower my shirt back down to its correct position. I sat in there alone with my thoughts. That is never a good idea for me.
Dr. Collins returned to the room and told me that there were some abnormalities with Baby B, and that they would be sending me to UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill for more testing. He asked me if there was anything that he could do for me, and I shook my head no. He helped me sit up and left the room.
I knew I should have asked him what was wrong, but I was afraid to. I thought if I didn’t ask, I couldn’t know. If I didn’t know, it couldn’t be bad. Before I made my way out of the exam room, the ultrasound technician returned and I asked her if Baby B was male or female. She told me that she didn’t know because she couldn’t get a clear picture.
I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t stand not knowing anymore. I asked her what was wrong with my baby. The technician said that Baby B appeared to have anencephaly. She told me that they were referring me to Chapel Hill to confirm their results. With that, she walked out of the room.
I walked out behind her. I checked out at the front desk and got my appointment card for my next appointment as well as my appointment with the specialist in Chapel Hill. I wanted to hurry and leave from there. Once I got back into my car, I saw that my appointment in Chapel Hill was two weeks away and my next appointment with Dr. Collins was three weeks away. I knew I couldn’t wait two weeks for answers to questions that started playing in my mind the minute I had a name to what ailed Baby B. I don’t even remember the ride home. I was on auto-pilot.
I got home and headed straight for my computer. I pulled up Google and typed in the word anencephaly. No medical professional could have prepared me for the devastating pictures I would see. Tears fell from my eyes as I looked at images upon images of children born with anencephaly. I decided to click the link for WebMD to read about it some more. It was then that I read the sentence that made me get sick right there in my computer chair, “usually infants with anencephaly do not survive more than a few days or weeks.” My poor baby, my Baby B would not survive.
I made myself sick with worry while I waited for my appointment with the specialist. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I just wanted to be left alone until I knew more. I hadn’t talked to Ed in nearly two weeks. I knew he had a right to know what was going on, but I just couldn’t bring myself to talk about it. The morning of my appointment came and my stomach was in knots. UNC Hospital was huge and I had to register and fill out so much paperwork.
By the time I was called to be seen, I was completely beside myself with worry and fear. I sat on the exam table and lifted my shirt. The woman who would be performing the ultrasound was soft-spoken and kind. She squeezed a huge dollop of warm jelly on my stomach and placed the ultrasound probe on me. I turned my head to look at the screen. The first thing that we all saw was female genitalia. “Well Mom, we now know Baby B is a she! There is no mistaking that!” I wanted to smile, but I was still worried.
A short while later, the kind woman used a warm wet wash cloth to wipe my belly clean and then told me she would be back once she confirmed her results.
Once she returned, she sat down in front of me and said, “Mom, your baby is perfectly healthy. She will be OK.” As soon as her words passed her lips, I broke down and cried.
The hour-and-a-half ride home from Chapel Hill had me thinking of Ed. I hadn’t been fair to him. I decided that I would see him that evening and tell him everything that had happened. I had a terrible habit of withdrawing when I was afraid or worried. I hoped Ed would understand and not be too angry with me. I called Ed to see if he was available so that I could come over. He told me that he was thinking of calling me too, to ask me to come by. We set a time and I hung up. I was looking forward to seeing Ed. I was almost twenty-nine weeks pregnant and I was huge and miserable and exhausted and also relieved that my daughter would be OK. I couldn’t wait to let Ed know that we were having a boy and a girl.
Ed and I had dinner, and he was unusually quiet during our meal. I told him everything that had happened with the health scare and the drive to Chapel Hill and everything. He appeared to be preoccupied and his lack of a reaction worried me. I knew that Ed was much older than I was. He was now fifty-one and I was twenty-four, so I knew this might be a lot for him to take in. He had children from a previous relationship, two sons that were older than me and a daughter who was only two years younger than me, almost to the day. Even though I had never been a mom, I was sure that Ed felt like he was starting over too. I was angry at myself for only now considering that as a possibility. I wanted to reassure Ed that things would be OK. We would help each other face whatever might come up.
I started to tell Ed that it would be OK now. We would make great parents.
Instead, Ed said, “I’m moving to Pennsylvania.”
I thought I might have heard him wrong. “What did you say?” I asked him.
“I’m moving. I can’t stay in Rocky Mount. I am too old to be a new dad. I have to go.”
We sat in silence for thirty minutes. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t moving with him, I wasn’t even invited to. How was I going to raise two babies all on my own? I couldn’t believe he was going to leave me––leave us––alone.
I left Ed’s house that day, and I didn’t turn around. He might be able to move on and pretend that he didn’t have a son and daughter coming soon, but I couldn’t. Nor would I want to. I wanted them more than I wanted anything in the world. Getting pregnant with them saved my life. I had two reasons to live. Even when depression pulled me into the depths of hell to suffer, I had two bright lights standing above me to help guide me up. With or without him, I would do everything I could to be a great provider for my children.
On Monday, November 15, 2004, at 8:28 a.m., I gave birth to Ryan Austin and Amber Renee. It was love at first sight. There were complications expected with my delivery so I was all alone in the operating room, but my mother was standing just outside, waiting for me to be moved to recovery. Four days later, we were on our way home. It was no longer just me. I had these two tiny lives that had only me to depend on, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t let them down.
Ryan and Amber adjusted well to being in the world. The only problem I had came in the evening. When it was time to lay them in their crib for the night, Amber would scream and cry and effectively wake Ryan up, who would also scream and cry. I tried to rock them, soothe them, and lay them back down. I tried everything. After the fourth night of no sleep, I couldn’t take it any longer. I was delirious and exhausted. I knew that many of the baby books and many experts say that you shouldn’t co-sleep with your baby, especially when the parent(s) are overweight because the risk of accidental suffocation increases. But I didn’t know what else to do. Amber would wake up and scream as soon as she was placed in the crib. I had to get some sleep. I bathed both children and fed them both. I burped them and after thirty minutes, put them on my bed. Ryan first, and then Amber. It was Thanksgiving evening but I didn’t have the energy to take part in any family gathering or to even eat. As soon as Amber was sound asleep, I laid her in the bed and lay down beside her. Her little head was cradled in the crease of my arm. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of Amber breathing before drifting off to sleep myself.
In my dream, I thought I heard Amber make a small little gasping sound before growing quiet. In my dream, I heard a voice telling me that I had to wake up now. I was so tired so I ignored it. WAKE UP NOW! The voice was so strong and so loud, I opened my eyes.
The first thing I saw was Amber lying in the same spot on my arm, but she was completely still. Her face looked purple. I yelled for my mom and I grabbed Amber off the bed and began shaking her. I didn’t know what to do. My mom grabbed Amber’s limp body from me and told me to call 911. I grabbed the phone in my hands and they were shaking. I asked my mom if Amber was all right and she yelled at me to call 911. I fumbled to call and I told the operator that something was wrong with my baby and that she was not breathing. The operator was repeating what I was saying back to me and I was begging her to stop asking me questions and to just send an ambulance right away. She explained that the ambulance was on its way and in the distance, I heard the sirens.
The paramedics came in and assessed Amber before taking her and loading her in the ambulance. I rode along and we reached the hospital in record time. They continued to bring Amber in and I was stopped at the door by people who I guessed worked for the hospital. They were asking me questions about what had happened leading up to Amber being brought into the hospital. They asked if I shook her. I told them yes. Little did I know that they were trying to see if I had abused my daughter.
The questioning was interrupted by a male who was working on my daughter. I found out his name was Randy and he was a nurse. They were having a hard time finding a vein in her tiny arm. Randy told me how beautiful Amber was and he told me she would be all right.
They admitted Amber that night. I spent the next six days at the hospital with Amber. I had an infant in the hospital and one at home. I didn’t want to leave Amber but I was missing my son. I learned that Amber had sleep apnea, which usually appeared as SIDs in infants. Had Amber been sleeping in her crib in another room that evening, I wouldn’t have found her until it was too late. This was the second time in her young life that she’d beat the odds.
After a few health scares in the beginning, Ryan and Amber started to grow into healthy little kids. They met all of their age-appropriate milestones. I worried about putting them in daycare so young but as a single mom, I had to work. In fact, I was back to work only two weeks after their birth. But they did well at daycare. At just eighteen months old, Amber was putting puzzle pieces together. They were great kids and I loved them. My depression and anxiety liked to get in the way of my parenting often so I saw a therapist to help me keep a level head so that I could be the parent that they needed me to be.
Once Ryan and Amber were school-aged, I wanted them to go to a school where learning took priority. I thought I’d found that when I enrolled them at Rocky Mount Prep. From the time they were in kindergarten until the mid-point of their second grade year there, things were great. Unfortunately, there were staffing changes there and the headmaster, as well as many of the teachers, was let go and someone else took over.
From there, things kept going downhill. Amber became a victim of bullying. At first, it took place on the bus. The bus ride to and from school contained kids from grades kindergarten all the way through twelfth grade. Kids would poke her with pencils, pull her hair, and throw things at her, not to mention call her these awful names. When the bus situation seemed to escalate, I brought it to the attention of the school, who told me that what happened on the bus to and from school was not a school issue. I disagreed. I asked the officials how it could not be a school issue when it happened on the way to and from school and on a school bus. I never received a response about that.
Then her bullying began happening in the school. I had no idea just how bad it all was until one day I sat down with my children to watch the bully documentary on Nickelodeon and once it was over, I questioned them both and asked them if they had every bullied anyone. They both said no. Then I asked if anyone was bullying them. Ryan said no, and Amber remained quiet. Then she said, “Most times I wish I could kill myself so people would be happy and not bully me anymore.” Amber was seven years old at the time. I couldn’t even respond because the words caught in my throat.
After putting the kids to bed that evening, I had decided enough was enough. The next morning I was at the school to talk to the assistant principal of the elementary school. As nice as she was, I couldn’t help but feel like she was just pacifying me and didn’t seem too genuine in her concern. After no follow up with me, I contacted the principal and met with her. Again, I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously, so I asked for a meeting with the headmaster of the school. Instead I was directed to the C.O.O. of the school. I met with Karen and I even requested a meeting with the parents of the children making Amber’s life hell and I was told that due to H.I.P.A.A. laws, they couldn’t tell me the names of the parents of the children involved. I told her that I didn’t want the names personally, I just requested that they contact them so that we could all meet and have a conference at the school. Again, I asked for the new headmaster to meet with me and give me a call. Again, I was denied. I refused to give up. I wasn’t sure what else to do. But I knew I would do something.
It was already September and since I was a single mom, I liked to prepare in advance for holidays and special occasions. I had Ryan and Amber write out their Christmas wish list and Ryan got back to me right away with his. He came into my room and handed it to me folded up. He told me not to read it and to send it straight to Santa. I opened the letter after he left the room and tears welled in my eyes. In his letter, he said he would give up all of his Christmas gifts if Santa would just help the kids leave his sister alone. I shared the letter on Facebook with my friends. I shared almost everything on Facebook because it was my means of socialization. I wanted his letter to go viral. I don’t think I understood what viral would entail.
I followed a guy on Facebook named Tony Polanski because he had lost over two hundred pounds with diet and exercise and he gave tips and information without being condescending. Since one of the things my daughter was being bullied about was her weight, I thought Tony could share the letter and maybe I would receive some support from his followers. Instead, Tony asked if he could do a CNN iReport about it and I told him sure. I didn’t know what a CNN iReport was but I didn’t mind. This was on Saturday.
By Monday, their story had gone viral. Every local news station was camped outside the school. The local paper ran a story, and I had people calling, wanting us to be guests on their shows. I turned down the invitations because I was a shy person. I didn’t want to be on TV. Then my mom said something to me that made me rethink it. She told me that none of this was about me. It was about Ryan and Amber and it wouldn’t be fair for me to turn down anything that could help.
We made appearances on Good Morning America, where Amber had the opportunity to meet Big Time Rush. She also loved meeting Josh Elliot, and I did too. I always liked Josh and he was the most kid-friendly out of all of the wonderful GMA anchors.
The attention overwhelmed Amber but she did a wonderful job. We also appeared on the Steve Harvey Show, where he generously paid for them to have their birthday party at Star City. They had a skating party with their family and friends thanks to Mr. Harvey. Then on The View, they were given very generous Christmas gifts and we received a ten-day cruise.
I was overwhelmed by all of the generosity. I was used to giving so being on the receiving end was humbling. The twins loved the positive attention and people from all over the world sent their well wishes. They were in Reader’s Digest and M Magazine, and they got to hang out with the Globetrotters. Then, there were people who tried to take advantage and wanted to use my children to get their name in the spotlight while my children were still a hot subject in the news. I thought that all of the media attention would bring about change. And it did––just not for the best.
While the cameras were still rolling, the school was extra accommodating and I finally got the call from the headmaster…after they received the call from the TV stations. Parents reached out to me saying their kids were also being bullied and they kept hitting a brick wall.
The bullies left Amber alone for a few weeks, but then Ryan also became a target because they were upset that his actions led to fame for them. My children never saw themselves as famous, even when famous people sent things to them. They just wanted to be left alone. Instead, they were now threatening to kill Ryan and to snap his arm in pieces. He would come home crying and begging to stay home from school. I went back up to the school to talk to the principal and the C.O.O. again to tell them the new development. I told them I felt like nothing was being done and I felt that I might have to homeschool if things didn’t get better. The C.O.O. told me that homeschooling was a wonderful idea and that she had homeschooled her own children and that they had done well. I knew then that my only way to help my children was to withdraw them from that school. My son couldn’t sleep. My daughter was depressed. And now I was too. I withdrew my children and they never went back.
I was on my own with how to homeschool them. I was fortunate that they were really smart. I couldn’t work and leave them to homeschool alone. I couldn’t afford private school. I was fortunate that my family received some monetary gifts from people so I was OK for a little bit not working while I homeschooled my children, but I noticed that I was becoming more and more depressed. My mood swings were all over the place and my self-harming had returned with a vengeance. There were so many people who called me a bad mother and told me it was my fault that my daughter was being bullied. I believed them. I used to think that the only thing I had going for myself was the fact that I was a good mother. But I couldn’t even say that anymore.
My children were being weighed down by negativity and I was being pulled down by my own so that I couldn’t even effectively pull them out of theirs. My daughter’s issue with bullying brought up my own struggles with being bullied. My eating disorder picked up again and death became a welcomed idea in my daily thoughts. I couldn’t care for my children the way a mom should, I didn’t deserve to be their mother. I also knew that I was essentially all that they had. If anything happened to me, they would have to move to Pennsylvania to live with a father that they didn’t know. Part of me struggled because I wanted to try harder. I needed to be here for them. Part of me tried to convince me that no matter what, they would be a lot better, a lot happier, a lot healthier without me around. I figured that their young age was an advantage. Surely they would get over it if I were to die. I knew they would. That thought made it easy for me to plan my death. It was then that I decided I needed to reach out for help.