They walk, and that’s the first surprise, to the front door of their new home on the outskirts of Vernon, B.C., to check out a visitor. It is Krista, with her dark, impish eyes and big smile, who shyly says hello and gives the first hug. And then she shifts sideways, and it’s Tatiana’s turn. Tatiana, who had been small and frail and who had been a worry, is now—at three years and three months old—stronger and taller. She is thin, and likely always will be, but she is no longer gaunt. She is the “engine,” as her mother Felicia Simms calls her. Her heart does much of the pumping for these two girls, and her kidneys do much of the filtering.
Tatiana’s face bears the scratches of a recent run-in with Krista’s fingernails (now closely clipped). They fight, as sisters do, but it gets complicated when you are joined at the skull with your sparring partner. It gets very complicated when parts of two brains’ arteries and nerve fibres are so intertwined it is conceivable—as inconceivable as this sounds—that you are fighting with someone who knows your thoughts.
It has been 15 months since the last visit. In that time one misses the multiple small miracles that are part of children’s early years. So, the changes hit you all at once. They walk! A bit awkwardly, perhaps, but with surprising speed, their necks twisted to the side, leaning against each other for support. Prior to that, splayed like two legs of a tripod, they scooched across the floor on their bottoms. The breakthrough came last fall—inspired, their mother believes, by their little sister Shaylee, then about 18 months, tottering around the house. “One day they just kind of pushed themselves up and stood there,” says Simms. “They figured it out on their own.” She never doubted they’d walk, she says. She just never knew how they’d do it.
And they talk. Not big sentences yet. But they make their wishes known with increasing clarity, and always with an appropriate please or thank you. “Watch this,” says Tatiana. She scrambles onto the seat of a pink plastic push car decorated with figurines of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Krista stands behind. She pushes the car down a long sloping hallway, Tatiana steering them into one wall and then the other. A few moments later there is a crash, and a voice from the far end of the hall calls out: “We need help!”
The house, a rambling, 10-bedroom former old age residence, is a work in progress. The sign for the seniors’ home still adorns the end of the drive. The family moved in just four days earlier, no small feat, for this is no ordinary family. There is Simms, her boyfriend Brendan Hogan, their five children, age 7 and under, her parents, Louise and stepdad Doug MacKay, and various brothers, sisters and cousins. Fourteen people in all. Doug found the rental property while scanning newspaper want-ads. After years of living jammed together in smaller houses in Vernon, this place, with its institutional washer, dryer and dishwasher, is heaven-sent, says Louise, proudly leading the tour.
The bedrooms are assigned and set up. Doug and Brendan, who suspended his job search for construction work to help the move, were installing curtain rods and positioning the satellite dish.
For now, the twins sleep in Grandma’s room, in a custom extra-wide bed with a hinged drop side for easy access. Eventually they’ll move into the one unoccupied bedroom, now filled with unopened boxes. Simms—who named her twins for fairies, and who loves all things supernatural—has “Twi-fied” her room, covering the walls with posters from the Twilight movies. A mother since age 16, she seems at once older, and younger, than her 24 years.
After being thrust into the spotlight even before the conjoined twins were born on Oct. 25, 2006, the family has been off the public radar, the result of a contract giving exclusive access to a documentary crew for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel UK. The show will be broadcast first in Britain, and then aired later in Canada and the U.S. Simms says allowing selective access to their lives was a family decision. They dismissed as too intrusive another offer for a reality show, along the lines of Jon & Kate Plus 8. They’ve seen a rough cut of the documentary and say they are thrilled with its respectful, science-based approach. “Our whole idea was to make sure that people understand why we did what we did,” says Louise. “Why, you know—and everybody has their own opinions—why did [we] keep them?” To which she quietly replies, “Why not?”
Questioning their existence might seem grossly inappropriate now that they’re walking and talking, each with distinct personalities, but a few still raise such issues, says Louise. The twins were largely kept indoors this fall and winter to avoid the H1N1 virus, but normally the girls are included in all family activities. They love trips to the pool, where they revel in the freedom of movement the water affords. And they piled into a motorhome for a cross-country trip last summer to see family in Swan River, Man.
“We still have people who say, ‘Why do you bring them out?’ ” says Louise. Simms chuckles, adding people regret those questions if her 22-year-old sister Rhea is around. “Rhea doesn’t have kids, but when she’s with her nieces and she hears somebody say something, it’s like momma bear comes out,” she says. “Rhea has such a big mouth; she doesn’t hold anything back.” As for the twins, surrounded by a houseful of rambunctious children, they seem neither frustrated by their limitations, nor curious about their differences, she says. “You can ask them where is sissy, and they’ll just say, ‘Behind me.’ ”
There have been a few health scares along with the advances in the past year. They had a couple of frightening seizures, although, with medication, those ended six months ago. Last April, Tatiana, who had been struggling to breathe, had her enlarged adenoids removed. The normally routine operation at the Children’s Hospital in Vancouver was, of course, more complex. Both girls had to be anaesthetized. Tatiana, and therefore both girls, have flourished since the operation. Trips to their specialists in Vancouver are made only every six months. They visited their Vernon-based pediatrician last week for a checkup. Together they weighed about 53 lb., a nine-pound jump in four months. “Their hearts and everything are perfectly fine,” says Louise. “Nothing to worry about.”
One of the great unanswered mysteries is their degree of connectedness. Louise hints this issue will be explored in depth in the documentary. “Everybody is going to know just how vastly these two are conjoined,” says Louise. “We’re talking medical firsts.”
Already there are clues that they are distinct individuals who share a hard-wired bond that goes well beyond the psychic link some twins seem to share. Krista, the bigger girl, is more strong-willed.
“She’s the diva. She can get quite mean with her sister, as you can see,” says their mother, wincing at Tatiana’s scratches. Krista is also more verbal: she’s the first to learn new words and phrases.
Tatiana is the climber, using her sister as support as she clambers onto a chair or their push car.
She’s also the more patient, deferring to her heavier twin. There are times she wants to follow her own interests, and fights begin. “Krista will want to go to sleep, and Tatiana wants to watch TV,” says their mother. “And then [Krista] gets mad. That’s when most of the war wounds happen.”
Mostly, out of necessity, they work together in seamless fashion. One of their favourite jobs is unloading the dishwasher. From one pair of hands to the other, to whoever is putting the dishes up in the cupboards. The family has already made plans to enrol the twins, when they are of age, in the same school attended by their brother Christopher, 5, and older sister Rosa, 7. It’s run by their Seventh-day Adventist Church. The twins are known and accepted there, and the classes are small.
With an eye to the future, the family has signed a further five-year contract with the Discovery Channel. Louise says it will provide enough compensation to help build a nest egg for the twins, “so they can do what they want and live comfortably.” There’s plenty of family support if anything happens to the grandparents or parents, she says. “But Felicia and I would like to make sure they’re taken care of, to go to college and do all that fun stuff,” she says. “Can you imagine them becoming surgeons? Four hands!”
There is much beyond imagining, says Grandpa Doug. He describes them sitting silently, playing with toys or watching TV. “All of a sudden one of them will pipe up and say, ‘No, stop that.’ Or they’ll be sitting there playing with toys or something and one of them will stop, reach over, grab the bottle and just hand it to the other one,” he says. He looks at them and wonders: “How did you know she wanted a drink?”
The answer to that and so much more is locked in the tangled brains of two little girls, named for the fairies that so fascinate their mother. At three, they don’t have the language skills to explain such mysteries. That may come soon enough. If, indeed, there are words adequate to describe such marvels.