Three months after her birthday, Erin got her little red car. She could finally go where her sisters went without being carried. Her arms were too short to wheel herself around, but Jade liked to stand behind her and push.
In June 2005, soon after Jade started walking and Erin started pulling herself along with her arms, Melissa and Kevin found out Taylor had problems, too.
When she was born, they'd noticed that her right foot was smaller than her left and she had a slight dimple on her lower spine. But their pediatrician had told them lots of people had different-size feet.
As Taylor grew, her right leg from the knee down stayed smaller than the left. Her right toes started to point outward.
Kevin and Melissa made an appointment for x-rays, but a few days later they found out they were having conjoined twins. Soon Melissa was on bed rest. They didn't take Taylor to the doctor until after the girls were separated.
When she heard that Taylor had a spinal-cord lipoma--a benign tumor--Melissa thought doctors were looking at the wrong MRI. They couldn't be talking about her daughter.
"I'm a bad mother," she told Kevin. "I should have brought her in sooner."
"If there's one thing you're not," he said, "it's a bad mother."
Taylor would need an operation on her spinal cord. If she didn't have it, she'd likely become paralyzed from the waist down and lose bowel and bladder function, like Erin. A geneticist told Kevin and Melissa the girls' problems were unrelated.
Taylor was excited about surgery. "Am I gonna have a scar like Jadie and Erin?" she asked. She lay down and put Barbie dolls on her stomach.
"What are you doing?" Kevin asked.
"They're operating on me," she said. "They're separating my liver."
Melissa couldn't imagine handing another child over for surgery.
She wrote in her Web journal: I feel like a boxer who keeps getting knocked down, and every time I start to recover and get back up, I get hit again. We've decided we need to start playing the lottery, though, since our children have ended up with rare conditions. . . . It's been difficult not to ask, "Why us?" but Kevin just says, "Why not us?"
Melissa and Kevin clapped for Jade every time she closed the basement door. The door is near where the girls play, and they worried she'd get too close to the stairs. "Jadie, go close the door!" they'd say. She'd walk over and push it closed.
One morning last spring while the girls were playing on the floor, Erin started pulling herself along the carpet, her legs dragging behind her. Melissa thought she was going for a toy. Then she noticed she was headed for the basement door. Melissa started crying. She knew she shouldn't help her: Erin wanted to do what Jade did.
Erin pulled herself to the door, the farthest she'd ever crawled. She pushed the door a little, moved herself forward, and pushed it again until it closed.
She had a big smile and was breathing fast. Melissa hugged and kissed her.
"I'm so proud of you!" Melissa said. "You did such a good job."
Melissa called Kevin at work but could barely speak. "What's wrong?" he kept asking.
That evening, the couple left the basement door open. He had to see for himself.
"Erin, go close the door," they said.
She started her crawl. This was something she could do, too.
Physical therapist Heather Akgun arrives at the Buckles house with cupcakes on a September afternoon. She'll be having a baby, so it's her last day with Erin and Taylor. Akgun started in March and was supposed to stay for six weeks, but she got hooked.
Taylor goes first. She sits in her small plastic chair as Akgun stretches her right ankle to the side. Taylor's operation went well--doctors removed most of the tumor--but she'll need more surgery as she gets older.
During therapy, songs play to keep Erin calm. With Erin in his arms and Jade holding one of his hands, Kevin dances to "The Farmer in the Dell" while Akgun works with Taylor. Erin watches, then crawls toward Akgun.
Jade stands on a stool on the carpet so she can be in the middle of everything. Ever since the separation, she has liked attention. She'll yell, "Mom!" over and over. If Melissa is carrying Erin, Jade will run over and grab onto her mother's legs.
Erin wants to play with the toys she sees Taylor using. Jade picks them up and gives them to Erin. "Thank you," Jade says.
"Erin's supposed to thank you," Melissa laughs.
When it's Erin's turn, Akgun lifts her under her arms and carries her toward the steps, pushing one foot in front of the other. She puts Erin on her knees on the steps, holds her bottom, and pushes her. Erin reaches for the next step.
When Akgun asks if she wants to do her walking or her exercises, Erin says yes to both.
Erin puts her fists together and pulls her body from side to side. They're trying to get her to turn over onto her stomach.
"All the way, all the way--yeah!" Akgun says, helping her. Everyone claps.
"Probably the first muscles that are going to come back are the hip flexors," Heather says during therapy.
"Anybody catch that?" Kevin says." 'Those are gonna be the first muscles that come back.' That's why we love Heather--Heather thinks like we think."
Kevin always assumes he'll get more rest when he's out of town, but he hears babies crying in his sleep.
He takes two long trips a year with the Drum and Bugle Corps. Melissa's parents usually stay with her, but last fall Kevin's mother and his sister, Kimberly, and her family moved in temporarily. They'd been living in New Orleans, and Kimberly's home was damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
When he travels, Kevin brings lots of photos of the girls. Sometimes the surgery seems like years ago.
Melissa doesn't want Kevin to miss anything. Erin and Jade get on the phone and tell him about the snacks they're having. The day he left for Pensacola in October, Melissa called to tell him what happened when they were watching Barney. When the theme song came on--"I love you, you love me . . . "--Melissa ran to hug and kiss the girls, the way she always does.
"Hug Daddy," Erin said.
Sometimes Kevin gets upset when Melissa tries to do too much. One of the girls will cry late at night and she won't wake him because he has to get up at 4:30 AM to commute from Stafford to the Marine Barracks in Southeast DC. That doesn't matter, Kevin says--she wakes up early to pump milk and she's home with three toddlers all day.
He's given Melissa spa gift certificates, but she puts them in a file. When Kevin is home on weekends, his son, Kevin Jr., stays over. They play basketball and video games, then Kevin runs upstairs to play with the girls.
Money is tight, but Kevin worries more about helping Erin walk and getting Taylor's leg fixed. He likes how excited the girls get when he comes home from work. He cheers Erin and Jade on while they try to feed themselves with forks.
"Being tired, being frustrated," he says, "all those things go away."
He and Melissa have had a few nights out since Erin and Jade were born. Intensive care nurses offered to babysit so they could go to the Marine Corps Ball. Kevin's mother watched the girls while he took Melissa to dinner and a movie on her birthday.
They could have just sat outside somewhere, Melissa says--it didn't matter. They didn't worry about the girls that night.