“This is Asher," I tell her, forcing a smile as I turn her towards the incubator that is holding her tiny brother.
“And this is Nolan,” I say, directing her to his twin in the incubator beside him.
I wait anxiously for her response.
“These are our babies?” she asks timidly. “They're so cute, mama.” Her eyes sparkle with delight.
A relieved breath escapes me as I nod in response. I feel the first glimmer of happiness I have felt in days.
She grins from ear to ear, her pride evident as she moves back and forth between them on tiptoes to get a better look. She asks if she can touch them, but we remind her that they are too sick. Her face drops momentarily but lights up when we assure her she will see them again soon.
"Good-bye brothers!" She happily waves and blows kisses as we lead her out. She's pleased with the meeting and blissfully unaware that there is anything wrong or different about what she's just seen.
This moment that we have been agonizing over for days has passed without incident. Introducing our daughter to her twin brothers should have been a proud and exciting time for all of us, but the extremely premature birth of the boys complicates things. Asher and Nolan are two pounds, mechanically ventilated, and fighting for their lives. They are covered in tubes and wires, barely bigger than my hand - hardly a perfect image of a baby. They are only a few days old and their survival still lies in the balance.
But Rio has not seen any of this. Rio has just seen her brothers - in her eyes, two perfect babies. She is a big sister and those are her babies and that is all that matters.
When we found out that we were expecting twins we were excited and fascinated by the bond they would share. Having a best friend, a partner in crime, and an exact physical replica of yourself was so special and unique: a relationship we were sure could not be replicated or imitated.
We were right. Asher and Nolan constantly show us glimmers of their unique relationship. It started during their lengthy hospitalization, and now at eighteen months old it is becoming more apparent every day. They seem to connect in ways that we can't explain.
But what has amazed us more than any twin bond could have is the love their older sister has for them. Rio has relished her role. She sees her brothers through only the most pure and non-judgemental eyes. She is never jealous, even of the special attention garnered by identical twins. The joy that she brings to them is evident in their heartfelt smiles and laughter. They are her biggest fans, and she is theirs. The connection between our twin boys is truly special, but the bond they share with their sister has exceeded our expectations.
“Why don't Ashy's arms work mama?” Rio asks as she looks at her brothers playing on their bedroom floor next to us.
Asher is struggling to bring a toy to his mouth and without thinking she reacts to help, gently bending his arm for him. He smiles a toothy grin to thank her. His twelve month molars have been wreaking havoc on him and he tries to chew on anything he can find. Rio turns back to me, awaiting my response.
This is not the first time she has asked this question, and surely it will not be the last. Each time I struggle with how to answer her. How much does she need to know? Clearly more than I have been telling her, or the questions wouldn't keep arising.
I put down the laundry I am folding, take a deep breath, and choose my words carefully. I remind her that Asher and Nolan were born much earlier than they should have been and that Asher was very sick. I tell her that his brain was hurt: not hurt like when she gets an owie, but in a way that he can't feel. Then I explain that our brains give our bodies instructions, so now he has trouble making his arms move when he wants them to. I keep things as simple as I can while remembering how bright and intuitive she is. I don't mention the words disability or Cerebral Palsy; she will learn those soon enough.
“He'll be ok when he's a grown up, right?” she cuts in anxiously.
"I'm not sure," I reply, knowing he probably won't be, but that is not the answer she wants to hear.
We stare at each other for a moment.
Rio breaks the silence by laughing nervously, unsure of how to process what I have said. When she turns back to Asher and starts singing to him, I know the questions are over for today. She smothers him with kisses and then turns to tickle Nolan. At least for now, I have told her enough. She has moved on to something more important - making her brothers happy. Asher's disability does not make him different from Nolan; it makes him lucky to be the recipient of her extra affection.
The hours between dinner clean up and bedtime are the most difficult of the day. All three kids are tired and my energy is long depleted. I have been asking Rio repeatedly to finish clearing her dishes, but instead of obliging she is busy eliciting fits of hysterical laughter from her brothers who are sitting in their highchairs. She needs to do little more than raise an eyebrow or stick out her tongue to get them going. She appreciates the response as much as they appreciate her humour and it is difficult to pull any of them away from it.
“Rio, please. The dishes,” I remind her.
She ignores me as she starts running laps around the boys, their heads whipping back and forth as they follow her, shrieking with delight each time she reappears.
“RIO!” my voice raises.
“Ok mommy, I HEARD you!” she replies, obviously annoyed as she sulks towards me with her plate and cutlery. How dare I cut their party short.
I continue to load the dishwasher but hear her rustling through the drawers next to me.
“What are you DOING, Rio?” I snap at her, my patience officially shot.
“Asher just needs his face washed," she replies as she grabs a wash cloth.
I stand stunned, my hands full of dirty dishes as I watch her walk past me to the bathroom. I hear her turn the faucet on, then off, before she returns to the kitchen with the dripping cloth. She walks to Asher and wipes his mouth as he blows raspberries in protest. She inspects Nolan closely but decides that he's clean enough. After removing their bibs she turns back to me and smiles proudly. She knows what a helper she is.
A few minutes later, Nolan begins to melt down on the change table as I'm getting him ready for bed. He is so strong that I am having trouble holding him still while he arches his back and kicks his legs. While I try to button his diaper with one hand and hold him still with the other, Rio grabs the bottle of cream on his side table and hands it to him. He instantly quiets and begins playing with it, forgetting what he was just so angry about.
Before I can muster a thank-you, she tells me matter-of-factly, "I know my brothers."
Indeed, she does, and aren't we all blessed because of it.