Mikayla and Family
Denver, Colorado, December 25, 2019
The Thomas home was a modest ranch style built in the forties, along a tree-lined street in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. John and Janine Thomas bought the house in 1975 for their growing family, renovating it bit by bit over the years until it had finally become the perfect home. All these years later, only Janine and her mother, whom everyone called Sookie, lived there. However, Janine’s children and grandchildren were frequent visitors, and the Thomas home was the preferred gathering place for all major holidays. Thus, on Christmas Day 2019, the house on Jones Road was once again filled with family. By 10 A.M. that morning, the living room was littered with wrapping paper and discarded boxes. An empty plate and glass were on the mantel, remnants of the milk and cookies that had been left for Santa the night before. Janine’s three grandkids were laughing and noisily playing with their new toys while the adults contentedly talked and drank their coffee. Everyone was happy and relaxed.
Mikayla sipped her coffee, comfortably seated on the same oversized chair that she had always preferred for reading when she was a child. She looked younger than her 45 years and sitting with her feet tucked under her added to her youthful appearance. She looked around at her family. She marveled, not for the first time, at the random nature of life. How did all of these people from so many different parts of the world come to be her family? She looked at Sookie, her grandmother. She was a tiny woman born in Korea and given the name Sook-ja, but it had long ago been Americanized to Sookie. At only 18, she met and married Mikayla’s grandfather, an American serviceman. When she left for America, did she know she would never go home again? Never see her family again? Her grandmother seemed happy enough, although her grandfather’s passing the previous year had clearly taken a toll on her.
Mikayla then turned her attention to her mother, who was surprisingly tall considering her own mother’s stature. Clearly, she had gotten her height from her father, whose family had immigrated to the States from Germany just before World War I. Mikayla’s dad, John, had also been tall. He had grown up in Denver and looked every bit the Midwesterner—broad-shouldered with blue eyes and thick blonde hair.
In stark contrast, Mikayla’s husband was born in Nigeria and had skin the color of rich, dark chocolate. He had piercing brown eyes that missed nothing. He had originally planned to stay in the U.S. only long enough to finish his education; however, he met Mikayla their first year of medical school and decided to make the U.S. his permanent home. That was 20 years ago. She thought how much her world had changed—how much she had changed. Growing up she never wanted children. She wanted to be a surgeon, like her father. But meeting Azi changed all that—not at first, but ever so slowly so that she almost didn’t notice until she was hopelessly in love with him. All of a sudden she found herself wanting to get married, wanting to have a family. Instead of surgery, she chose Obstetrics & Gynecology, ultimately specializing in Maternal-Fetal Medicine. Although taking care of women with high-risk pregnancies was still very demanding, she loved helping to create families. When her first child was born six weeks premature, she felt, irrationally, she had failed not only as a mother but also as a physician. The postpartum depression hit her hard, but the baby, Madison, was a fighter and, somehow, they both survived.
When she found she was pregnant again two years later, she and Azi moved back home to Denver to be close to family. She worked fewer hours and accepted her mother’s help with, well, everything—taking care of Madison, cooking, and cleaning. Nevertheless, Benjamin was also early and, even worse, was born with a cleft palate. He spent weeks in the NICU before he was strong enough to undergo surgery to repair the birth defect. He was nearly five months old when they were finally able to bring him home.
Now 13 and 11, Madison and Ben seem to have left those early struggles behind them. She smiled as they argued over a new PlayStation game. Madison finally gave the controller to her brother and went looking for her grandmother’s orange tabby cat—who had likely taken refuge from the chaos under a bed.
Also present for Christmas was Mikayla’s twin sister, Sydney. Unlike Mikayla, whose Asian heritage was quite prominent in her features, Sydney took after the European side of the family—taller and more fair-haired than her fraternal twin. Also, unlike Mikayla, Sydney always wanted to be a mother. So, when she was still single at 35, she decided to adopt—and Liana, born in Russia and given up for adoption by her birth mother, was brought to the U.S. 12 years ago, just before her second birthday. She and Madison were very nearly the same age and had developed a close bond.
Mikayla loved how her family exemplified the “melting pot” of America and was curious to know more about each one of them. She had suggested on many occasions that they should all have their DNA analyzed and see what more they can learn about the family; however, for reasons she did not understand, her mother was adamantly opposed to the idea. She assumed it was just her age and general distrust of the science, and so she didn’t push it.
As she watched her family, she realized Sydney was in the kitchen motioning to her. She smiled again. Sydney and Mikayla always exchanged secret presents, something just between the two of them and kept private. When they were very young, Sydney would frequently make her something. She had at least a dozen bracelets that her sister had fashioned from rope or pieces of leather. Mikayla, a terrible artist, would be on the lookout all year long for something interesting. One year she found a piece of amber with a weird-looking insect embedded in it. She glued a magnet to it and presented it proudly to her sister, who found it fascinating. The amber magnet had found a home on Sydney’s refrigerator ever since. If someone asked her where she got it, she would just shrug and say she had picked it up “somewhere.” It was silly, really, keeping the gifts a secret. But she supposed that all twins had something that they liked to keep between themselves.
The Christmas before they started college, they had each bought the other a necklace with a charm that looked like a sideways 8, the mathematical symbol of infinity. Mikayla was accepted to the pre-med program at Vanderbilt, while Sydney stayed home, studying graphic design at the University of Denver. Sydney had also been accepted to Vandy, but with the unexpected passing of their father that year, she didn’t want to leave their mother. Mikayla was torn. She also wanted to support their mother, but Vanderbilt University, with its affiliated medical school, had long been her dream. Mikayla’s father had done his surgical residency there, and he was so proud that his girls had both been accepted. Despite his unexpected death, it was still feasible for Mikayla to go since she had been offered a generous scholarship. Her mother and Sydney insisted she go, and, in the end, she did. The sisters were both excited and apprehensive to be apart for the first time, and neither was surprised that at Christmas that year they had bought each other the same gift. They were, and always would be, connected.
By now, they were used to living separate lives, but each Christmas they would sneak off for a while and be the inseparable Thomas Twins again. Mikayla set down her coffee and joined her sister in the kitchen. Sydney was excited as she handed Mikayla a beautifully wrapped box. Mikayla quickly unwrapped the gift, finding two DNAStory kits—one for each of them. Sydney looked at Mikayla and pressed a finger to her lips, “It’s a secret.” Mikayla hugged her and responded, “As always.”